December 03, 2012

Talk about getting Thomas Jefferson wrong

Corey Robin, even if he has written in The Nation, comes off as a conservative apologist for Thomas Jefferson, in an article that almost sounds as if George Will had written it.

Ignoring the reality of ongoing cruelty in both word and deed by Jefferson, documented in this NYT op-ed by Paul Finkleman, rightly titled "The Monster of Monticello," Robin basically tries to make Thomas Jefferson into Abraham Lincoln, first, and second, believe Jefferson's thought was frozen in amber after he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

His main claim is that Jefferson was worried about what would happen upon the event of black emanicipation and freedom.

Yes? Well, so was Lincoln. Per Finkelman and his NYT op-ed, the fact that Jefferson was focused on black freedom, not black slavery, doesn't lessen his cruelness as a slaveowner. A piece like Robin's would be better read for those who criticize Lincoln the man, or worry that Lincoln the movie is too hagiographic.

The critics, of the movie, the president himself, or both, also ignore Lincoln's genuine evolution on the issue. Jefferson, meanwhile, can only be described as devolving, not evolving.

As for Robin's appeal to Jefferson's words of the Declaration of Independence?

Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence 50 years before he died. Appealing to it wipe out a clear legacy of both later writings, and actions, which point in a clearly contrary direction?

Meanwhile, the Volokh Conspiracy tries to claim that because Lincoln, in 1858 comments about Jefferson, appealed to his sentiments? Lincoln's comments, too, were about the Jefferson who authored the Declaration, not the Jefferson who threatened to sell slaves "down the river," so to speak, etc.

And, don't forget he wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, which even more than Madison with the similar ones for Virginia, were the first articulated argument for nullification.

I do mean it about Lincoln, though. He was sincerely wrestling with a post-slavery world back in the 1850s, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. No, he wasn't the most "advanced" person on racial thought then, but he was legitimately struggling with this issue more than Jefferson, because he was looking forward to slavery's eventual end, while Jefferson was engaging in hand-waving bullshit, to be blunt.

Between Jefferson being a hypocrite about miscegenation worries after having fathered multiple children via Sally Hemings (will Robin deny that next?), his nullification ideas (and his decades-long cowardice on not owning authorship) and more, he is arguably one of our five or so most hypocritical presidents ever, and that's saying a lot. 

Update: Robin thinks I've seriously misread him. Given that he has multiple posts on interpretation of Jefferson, explicitly attacks Finkelman, and has raised the eyebrows of other commenters than me, I think not. Also interesting that he references Notes on the State of Virginia without finding anything untoward about Jefferson there.  

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