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George Washington, as you should know, was a man whose library contained more works on hunting and farming than philosophy; he was not as intellectually inclined as, say, Thomas Jefferson.  Yet I have read an account saying that even Washington FIRST ATTEMPTED TO FREE HIS SLAVES IN 1770--fully 6 years before the Declaration of Independence!  (Again, I do not have an exact source for this.  I read it several years ago in "Cricket," the children's magazine.)

I dearly wish that  Jefferson had been a fiery, crusading abolitionist, taking a public stand at every opportunity to denounce slavery, in spite of the harm such an unpopular stand would have done him  politically and economically.  He was not.  But neither was he the hypocrite that some moral pygmies in academia and the media have slandered him as.  WHO, in the 1700s, did MORE than he to lay the foundation for the eventual abolition of slavery?

Let me first say that I am an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. I even wrote an essay entitled "Thomas Jefferson, Abolitionist" that treads the same ground as your post.

In the years since I wrote that essay, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with Jefferson's compartmentalization of slavery. I am intimately familiar with his story, his writings, and his beliefs and all of things you attributed to him are correct. He was a profound thinker and a hero to be esteemed, but he was also a racist and a slaveholder. Those two characteristics undercut his message from posterity's perspective and make his profundity ring hollow.

You have to remember the context he was living in. Sure, Virginia was a slaveholding state and nearly everyone he would have encountered there would have had slaves. He grew up around slaves and his wife brought even more slaves into his estate when they married. If he had lived out his life at Monticello and perhaps only founded the University of Virginia, we would have been at most a footnote to history.

But he wasn't just some tidewater plantation owner. He was Thomas Jefferson. He said all those things you mentioned. He knew that slavery corrupted everyone it touched. He knew that liberty was inherent in all men. He *wrote* the Declaration of Independence and the clauses that were removed from the first draft. He couldn't have known all of that, written what he did, and not known that it all applied equally to the slaves (and perhaps even more so).

Throughout his life, he wrestled with the issue. As a young adult, he wanted to get rid of slavery as an institution. Later in life, he sunk into a fatalistic perspective that there was nothing he could do about it. I believe that the change in tenor arose from his increasing reliance on the fruits of slavery to sustain his lifestyle. By the time he became a "Founding Father," his economic circumstances were tied inextricably with that of his slaves. He couldn't subsist without them and towards the end, he couldn't subsist even with them. Witness his need to sell his treasured library to Congress as the start of the grand Library.

It wasn't solely his financial woes that informed his inner conflict: his Notes on Virginia has numerous passages on the evils of miscegenation. As you already mentioned, he considered blacks inferior though he also tempered that with the notion that their depressed state was largely the slave owner's doing. Were he living in today's times, he would have been reviled as a racist.

So what's my judgement on the man that I used to admire so fervently? I do not label him a hypocrite: he never pretended to be an abolitionist. For his time, he was more outspoken than most of his Southern peers. The political philosophy he elaborated is the one that made the United States the bastion of freedom in the world. His declaration gave voice to the later abolitionists. He was a great man in many areas of his life. Like many great men, his personal life was frequently disconnected from his work life. This compartmentalization is all too common, but not necessarily immoral or blameworthy.

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Great post BBrown.

I'd guess that is it not uncommon in history that someone who starts thinking along a new line also retains many incorrect ideas of his generation.

When we finally bring the new line to full intellectual maturity, it is rude (if nothing else) to curse the person who pioneered the new branch for not taking a wider step to the side.

Rather we should be thankful, regardless of the size of the step, for it is little forks in the road that lead on to vastly different futures.

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Mark,

I'm not so sure I agree with this move since the question asked was clearly of an ethical nature.
<FC: This thread isn't about slavery per se, in an abstract and absolute sens, but about Thomas Jefferson and the conditions that existed at a specific point in history when he lived (and also the history that led up to the existence of the society he lived in). Basically, yes it is an ethical question, but an applied ethical question, in this case applied to a specific point in history. In this discussion, knowing about history of Jefferson's times is as important as knowing about the nature of slavery. If you want to start a thread on slavery as such in the Ethics forum, you're more than welcome to. I may even reproduce there some of my posts here.>

bbrown,

Neither being a racist, in context, nor being a slaveowner, in context, is necessarily a vice. For example, yes, Jefferson may have expressed belief that the people of African race were somehow innately inferior. But in the context of his time, can you blame him? Let's be brutally honest here and leave political correctness at the door. Only after establishment of America and other free European societies did the African people bloom intellectually into their own; when they were found by the early merchants, they were some of the most primitive people anywhere on Earth, with no book, song, building, government, anything at all to their credit. As these merchants found little to appreciate in the life of the coastal tribes, they continued exploring the continent, and kept looking for exceptions to this rule, but never found it. Every new tribe they encountered, every new sub-nationality, kept reinforcing their preliminary opinion. And, given the fact that European science at that point wasn't advanced enough to dispel misconceptions about race and ethnicity, this dismal state of mind that the Europeans encountered in Africa was limited to people all of whom shared a very similar skin tone and facial features, why were the Europeans wrong in concluding that these were some kind of less developed humans?

Now, obviously Jefferson was wrong in his understanding, and there's nothing biologically inferior in any race of human beings, African or otherwise, but if we try to condemn him out of context, and accuse him of prejudice and of ignoring scientific knowledge he couldn't have possessed, we convict ourselves, not him. The truth of the matter is that he was right within the context of his knowledge and the state of science at the time; if there are African Americans who read this and get offended, as I assume they will be, I hope they realize that if they were back in that time period, and in Jefferson's shoes, they would have been right to think what he did about the races, and wrong to think otherwise. In the context of that time, a claim that all races are biologically equivalent would have been arbitrary, at best.

---

Now, concerning the issue of being a slaveowner. Holding a deed to another person granted by the government, having a paper that says you may hit another man at your convenience, and force him to do your bidding, is not in itself anything bad. Following up on that paper is what is bad and wrong, and that is the only thing to condemn, in the private sphere (as opposed to condemning the government for existence of such papers in the public sphere).

There seems to be a misconception going around that somehow owning these slave deeds makes someone an evil and criminal man. Papers are meaningless in issues of morality, the only thing that counts is whether a man wants to initiate force against someone else, or doesn't. And there have been plenty of men, even today, who initiate force at will - how are they different from slaveowners who beat their slaves? They aren't! A presence or absense of some little paper makes no difference at all about whether one is moral or not.

Putting aside the evaluation of the government which allowed these offenses (old South) or criminalizes them (US government today), the only thing important in evaluating a person is not what legal papers he owns, but what he does or does not do. Condemning Jefferson for merely being a slaveowner is trying to be politically correct and giving his attackers a very powerful moral weapon against the man. In actuality, the only thing you need, to evaluate Jefferson's morality, is to find out how he treated his slaves and that will tell you the whole story. To me, the fact that he made love to a Black woman shows that he was far from this evil slave overlord who hated and put down the African people, as his enemies portray him today (and whom you inadvertedly are helping).

Now once you see what I mean here, you can go very far in your evaluations in conclusions. The Ancient Greeks owned slaves, just a the old South did, so are the two equally bad? Absolutely not. The old South, as a general rule, had a vehement contempt for their slaves, and subjected them to terrible labor, and generally treated them inhumanely. The Ancient Greeks were far less mean to their slaves, as a rule treating them kindly and looking out for them.

An contemporary conservative, criticizing the Athenian society, noted with contempt that he could not tell just by looking, whether people on the streets were free men or slaves because they all were dressed comparably, and everyone was polite to everyone else and stepped aside to let others walk by. True, inhuman labor existed then just as it does today, in such places as mines for example, but Athenians condemned free men who were criminals to such places just as much as slaves. Romans took this even further, and had things like a special holiday (Saturnalia) when the roles of slaves and masters were reversed, when slaves ate first, and masters had to wait up for them and do their bidding everywhere. Slavery was not viewed with as much contempt as we may think, and road to freedom from slavery was in Rome a routine matter of course, a diametric opposite of everywhere else in the world. Many important people started their careers, intellectually or otherwise, as slaves (Polybius, Epictetus the Stoic, etc), and grew to positions of great renown. As someone noted once, it was better to be a slave in Rome than to be a free man anywhere else. You cannot say anything like that for the old South, where slaves were in abject and miserable plight, and there was no hope or end in sight.

So my main point about slavery, and being a slaveowner, is that you should try to stay away from blanket condemnations (because they're too easy to make, and are usually either merely incorrect, or utterly unfair as it happens to be in this case). We should condemn the old South, but praise ancient Athens and Rome. We should condemn the majority of Southern slaveowners, but praise Thomas Jefferson.

---

Could Jefferson have done more for the cause of political equality? Hardly, if you know anything about his intellectual contributions. Ought he have freed his slaves and gone to prison according to Southern law? That's up to him, morality is not in question here. Was he immoral for keeping the slaves? Not from that fact alone, no.

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Mark,

<FC: Moved from Ethics to History forum.>

This thread isn't about slavery per se, in an abstract and absolute sens, but about Thomas Jefferson and the conditions that existed at a specific point in history when he lived (and also the history that led up to the existence of the society he lived in).

---------------------------

I need to ask a technical question which is totally off topic but perfectly illustrated here.

Does anyone else see a problem at the top of the previous post by Free Capitalist?

On my computer words have been cut-off within Free Capitalist's quote and also at the beginning of his reply. This happens quite often.

Free Capitalist's post should start off looking like the beginning of this post (everything above the dashed line).

But on my computer the words "I'm not so sure I agree with this move since" are cut-off within the quote, as are the words "This thread isn't about slavery" at the beginning of his reply.

Does anyone else see this, or is it just me? It doesn't seem to happen when I quote. What is the problem? Could it be solved by using the PREVIEW POST button before posting?

This is quite annoying as I often miss the first sentence of someone's reply.

:)

Marc

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I've never seen that problem. It seems like the problem is on your end.

What browser are you using? If it is not a recent browser, it might have trouble with some of the styles applied to the quote boxes. As for why it doesn't happen with your posts, you might also be adding extra space after your quotes, which would mask the problem.

This quote is followed immediately by the text after it:

Insert erudition here
It might be cut off.

This quote has a newline before and after it:

Muddy the waters to appear deep

It should show extra space and not be cut off.

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to people all of whom shared a very similar skin tone and facial features, why were the Europeans wrong in concluding that these were some kind of less developed humans?

I would agree with you if he didn't also uphold the idea of the noble savage. The blacks were no less primitive than the Indians. A person of the intellectual caliber of Jefferson would have been aware that the blacks he saw were not in their preferred state of existence; I doubt that he would have known particularly much (and probably nothing firsthand) about how they lived in Africa.

Further, Jefferson would have still regarded the slaves as humans. There's not a concrete-bound mentality around that couldn't look at a black person and see that he's of the same stock as a white person or an Asian. They're self-evidently units. Whether you choose to accept it or you rationalize it away as they're less human, that's irrelevant.

I tend to think that Jefferson was aware of this contradiction in his thinking, but I believe that he was able to erect mental barriers around it so that

Now, obviously Jefferson was wrong in his understanding, and there's nothing biologically inferior in any race of human beings, African or otherwise, but if we try to condemn him out of context, and accuse him of prejudice and of ignoring scientific knowledge he couldn't have possessed, we convict ourselves, not him. The truth of the matter is that he was right within the context of his knowledge and the state of science at the time; if there are African Americans who read this and get offended, as I assume they will be, I hope they realize that if they were back in that time period, and in Jefferson's shoes, they would have been right to think what he did about the races, and wrong to think otherwise. In the context of that time, a claim that all races are biologically equivalent would have been arbitrary, at best.

I think you're not aware of the incipient abolitionist movement that existed at the time of Jefferson or the intolerance of slavery in the North. As I said, I think it doesn't take a modern context to be aware of their basic humanity. Most people hid behind the slaves status as property and the complacency inherent in living in a society where such behavior is common and upheld. For two analogies, the different races of man are visually and self-evidently akin to the different breeds of dog and the racism of segregation made people who would, in another context, deplore racism accept it and even perhaps engage in its more innocent guises.

Now, concerning the issue of being a slaveowner. Holding a deed to another person granted by the government, having a paper that says you may hit another man at your convenience, and force him to do your bidding, is not in itself anything bad. Following up on that paper is what is bad and wrong, and that is the only thing to condemn, in the private sphere (as opposed to condemning the government for existence of such papers in the public sphere).

Wow, that's some mighty big context you're dropping. "It's just a piece of paper" is wrongheaded and exactly the sort of hairsplitting that contemporary Southerners reveled in.

Putting aside the evaluation of the government which allowed these offenses (old South) or criminalizes them (US government today), the only thing important in evaluating a person is not what legal papers he owns, but what he does or does not do. Condemning Jefferson for merely being a slaveowner is trying to be politically correct and giving his attackers a very powerful moral weapon against the man. In actuality, the only thing you need, to evaluate Jefferson's morality, is to find out how he treated his slaves and that will tell you the whole story. To me, the fact that he made love to a Black woman shows that he was far from this evil slave overlord who hated and put down the African people, as his enemies portray him today (and whom you inadvertedly are helping).

I think I painted a very nuanced picture of my problems with Jefferson. Never did I assert that he was evil because he was a slaveowner. I argued that of all the people in Virginia at the time, Jefferson was singular in that he should have known better. Moreover, he did know better and he wrestled with the issue throughout his entire life. I argued that he was a great man who didn't fully integrate the different areas of his life. Does he now have feet of clay? Should we turn a blind eye to the facts of a man's life so as to not interrupt the panegyric? I think such an objective evaluation is precisely the sort of thing a good biographer should address. Jefferson was not without his faults and he wasn't perfect. Recognizing that goes a long way towards establishing one's credibility as an objective historian. Emphasizing it is where the anti-hero historians go wrong. His compartmentalization was not the central fact of his life; it was an interesting misstep.

One note: there is only proof that a male member of the Jefferson family fathered the children of Sally Hemings. Peter Randolph and several other of TJ's nephews had the opportunity and the inclination to employ the master's prerogative. I frankly bristle at the thought of Thomas Jefferson having coerced intercourse with one of his slaves: it would be the closest I would come to branding him as a hypocrite. You cannot be so fervent an opponent of miscegenation while you're getting some back home without being a hypocrite. I think it's safe to say that there is a plausible likelihood that one of his male relatives had sex with Hemings.

Now once you see what I mean here, you can go very far in your evaluations in conclusions. The Ancient Greeks owned slaves, just a the old South did, so are the two equally bad? Absolutely not. The old South, as a general rule, had a vehement contempt for their slaves, and subjected them to terrible labor, and generally treated them inhumanely. The Ancient Greeks were far less mean to their slaves, as a rule treating them kindly and looking out for them.

I think that the treatment of the slaves is completely irrelevant to any discussion of slaves. The very fact that the slaves are deprived of their liberty is prima facie indication that they were treated bad. For a man like Jefferson who knew the value of liberty, what mental contortions would you have to engage in to avoid evaluations while strolling around Monticello? Oh, probably the same ones you did: "But I'm not like those whip-wielding good ol' boys. I treat my slaves with dignity."

So my main point about slavery, and being a slaveowner, is that you should try to stay away from blanket condemnations (because they're too easy to make, and are usually either merely incorrect, or utterly unfair as it happens to be in this case). We should condemn the old South, but praise ancient Athens and Rome. We should condemn the majority of Southern slaveowners, but praise Thomas Jefferson.

I don't think you could read anything I have said as a "blanket condemnation." I think, too, that "blanket approbations" are just as problematic and perilous. They make one appear unsophisticated and ignorant and they are even easier to make. I am all in favor of keeping context when evaluating historical actors, but you must keep all the context. If we were having this discussion about the Lees, then we could attribute their racism and slaveholding to being guided by the cultural momentum of their time. Jefferson's a lot different and we have to recognize that he had some contradictions that he never fully resolved.

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While I will let the rest of my previous argument stand against bbrown's, I'd like to address one specific issue:

I think you're not aware of the incipient abolitionist movement that existed at the time of Jefferson or the intolerance of slavery in the North. As I said, I think it doesn't take a modern context to be aware of their basic humanity.

[...]Further, Jefferson would have still regarded the slaves as humans. There's not a concrete-bound mentality around that couldn't look at a black person and see that he's of the same stock as a white person or an Asian. They're self-evidently units. Whether you choose to accept it or you rationalize it away as they're less human, that's irrelevant.

You are missing the point here. It is perfectly possible to be an abolitionist and a racist at the same time, and in fact many if not most Northern abolitionists did believe that there were biological differences between races, making some better than others. That didn't stop them believing that all human beings, regardless of their race, have some basic rights. Same with Jefferson, calling him a racist within a context of that time is to condemn ourselves of ignorance, not him. The reason is, as I said, that regardless of what he felt about the rights of man, the fact that he possibly believed in biological differences between races and resulting superiority/inferiority, is not immoral of him, but proper - given the context of science at the time. Only in the past century, if not less, have we been able to sufficiently verify lack of any substantial differences between the various ethnicities in the world, and we should not condemn Jefferson for not being omniscient enough to look into the future and extract the future findings of science.

---

As one additional point, when I talked about Jefferson's enemies and the names by which they call him today, I did not mean to include you in their group. I merely wanted to indicate that you are inadverdtedly helping them by conceding to them a very powerful moral weapon against the man, namely that you accuse him of being a hypocrite, i.e. a racist and a slaveowner. My main contention with your posts is that Jefferson was not a racist in the bad sense, nor a slaveholder in the bad sense. A slave deed is not a prima facie evidence of initiation of force, it is only a permission from the government to initiate force. A slaveowner has to follow up on that deed, as I said, in order to deserve the charge of immorality.

Now the fact that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, where in his unedited draft he came out against slavery, means that he did far more for the abolition movement than any Northern abolitionist. As you know, the very first bill he put forth, upon being elected to his very first public office, addressed the problem of slavery. Nothing, other than Christianity, was more odious to Jefferson than governments allowing some men to initiate force against others. Merely focusing on the narrow issue of whether he kept his slaves or not, and ignoring the wider context of what the legal situation in the South was at the time, both for him and his slaves, not choosing to investigate how he treated his slaves, and not caring to find out whether he initiated force at will or was a man of civilization, means you drop the context of history and unwittingly help those today who would tear down all heroes.

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You are missing the point here. It is perfectly possible to be an abolitionist and a racist at the same time, and in fact many if not most Northern abolitionists did believe that there were biological differences between races, making some better than others. That didn't stop them believing that all human beings, regardless of their race, have some basic rights. Same with Jefferson, calling him a racist within a context of that time is to condemn ourselves of ignorance, not him. The reason is, as I said, that regardless of what he felt about the rights of man, the fact that he possibly believed in biological differences between races and resulting superiority/inferiority, is not immoral of him, but proper - given the context of science at the time. Only in the past century, if not less, have we been able to sufficiently verify lack of any substantial differences between the various ethnicities in the world, and we should not condemn Jefferson for not being omniscient enough to look into the future and extract the future findings of science.

I apologize for not qualifying my earlier statement about his racist views. They are racist from our perspective, not his. I agree that we cannot judge the past with our present context except where the our context is wide enough that there is overlap. If your contetion is that Jefferson's (and his time's) biological knowledge was insufficient to understand that race is not a biological distinction, then I'll gladly concede. If your contention is that Jefferson's (and his time's) biological knowledge was insufficient to understand that humans of different races are still humans, then I will never concede that.

As one additional point, when I talked about Jefferson's enemies and the names by which they call him today, I did not mean to include you in their group. I merely wanted to indicate that you are inadverdtedly helping them by conceding to them a very powerful moral weapon against the man, namely that you accuse him of being a hypocrite, i.e. a racist and a slaveowner. My main contention with your posts is that Jefferson was not a racist in the bad sense, nor a slaveholder in the bad sense. A slave deed is not a prima facie evidence of initiation of force, it is only a permission from the government to initiate force. A slaveowner has to follow up on that deed, as I said, in order to deserve the charge of immorality.

I took great pains to avoid branding him a hypocrite and to avoid judging him from our historical context. Can you at least respect that and stop saying that I did so? It's very grating. Maybe you can't do that because then you would have to concede that my objective take on the man isn't really helping his detractors. If, after expounding on the complexity of the man, I were to come out and judge him a hypocrite, then I would be aiding them.

Frankly, I think your position of wearing blinders to any negative elements of Jefferson's character is far more damaging. His attackers can point to your arguments and dismiss you out of hand. I certainly would if you were not an Objectivist and thus deserving of some attention.

To wit, you argue that a slave deed is not an initiation of force because it requires a follow up action on the part of the slave deedholder. What, in your mind, would constitute "follow up" action? Would having the individuals whose liberty you hold in the form of this deed work your fields without pay suffice? Would requiring them to be escorted or ask permission when leaving your plantation be action enough? Or is the standard that the slave deedholder must whip his charges? What if he just hired someone to do the whipping? Is the action thus resident within the foreman? Do you see how convoluted this is? The slaveholder's treatment of his slaves is completely irrelevant; by the very nature of holding them against their will, he has completed the transaction.

To fully restate my position, I don't condemn Jefferson for being a slaveholder. Lots of otherwise good people were at the time and in Virginia the gentry were expected to own slaves. He was probably quite respected among his peers for his good treatment of his chattel. I merely note that Jefferson must have been aware of the contradiction inherent in his public versus private (within his own consciousness) positions. Compartmentalization must have ensued. Occasionally, it broke through the mental barriers and gave him pangs of guilt and resolution&mdash;this we can discern from letters, public documents, and his Notes on Virginia.

Jefferson was a conflicted man on this issue. The compartmentalization allowed him to be the incredible advocate of liberty that he was. Contradictions cannot exist, but they can be ignored temporarily.

Noting such conflicts doesn't tear him down as a great man just like noting Ayn Rand's problems doesn't make her less important. I'm sorry that you think that you can't respect and admire someone without whitewashing their lives free of any blemishes. People have blemishes and people who have significant accomplishments have blemishes. Pretending they don't exist doesn't help anyone and neither does elevating their importance. The best way is to note them and place them in the larger context of a person's life and achievements. Such an approach does not assist those who would tear great men down: it heads them off at the pass.

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  • 2 years later...

*** Mod's note: Moved/merged, from another topic ***

Michael Medved posted a column a few days ago on this topic. He lays out the opposing view here: http://michaelmedved.townhall.com/columnis...ecular,_society

How seriously should we take the Founders who compromised (nay, Sold Out) on the matter of slavery? There is a Dark Side to the Founders or at least some of them. The same religion that the Founders tolerated or favored was used to justify chattel slavery. Go figure.

Bob Kolker

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How seriously should we take the Founders who compromised (nay, Sold Out) on the matter of slavery? There is a Dark Side to the Founders or at least some of them. The same religion that the Founders tolerated or favored was used to justify chattel slavery. Go figure.

Bob Kolker

Bob,

You arent seriously laying slavery at the feet of Christianity are you? I believe that slavery predates the birth of Christ by a millenium or two. As for the founders, they may not have ended slavery, but they laid down the principles that Lincoln would later use to argue for its abolition. The contradiction between the idea 'that all men are created equal' and idea that one man could own another could not last forever.

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Bob,

You arent seriously laying slavery at the feet of Christianity are you? I believe that slavery predates the birth of Christ by a millenium or two. As for the founders, they may not have ended slavery, but they laid down the principles that Lincoln would later use to argue for its abolition. The contradiction between the idea 'that all men are created equal' and idea that one man could own another could not last forever.

No. I am not. But Christianity was used to -justify- chattel slavery. Slavery is as old as civilization, itself.

I am more concerned that the Founders sold out on the issue. Thomas Jefferson, who righteously proclaimed that all men are endowed with certain inalienable right somehow manages to hold onto his slaves during his lifetime. John Adams who detested slavery, went along with it for the sake of getting a constitution. Do you see a problem here? I do.

Bob Kolker

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No. I am not. But Christianity was used to -justify- chattel slavery. Slavery is as old as civilization, itself.

He is correct. The Old Testament laid down plenty of laws concerning slaver and the New clearly treated it as a normal state of affairs.

There is frankly nothing in the Bible that could be used as an argument against slavery.

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  • 2 weeks later...
He is correct. The Old Testament laid down plenty of laws concerning slaver and the New clearly treated it as a normal state of affairs.

There is frankly nothing in the Bible that could be used as an argument against slavery.

I don't know of any arguments in the bible against slavery either, but I do think it should be noted that a large majority of the people in the abolitionist movement were Christians. Perhaps it is something something unrelated to their religion, but it does cause one to think that maybe something about Christian ethics lead them to believe the suffering of slaves to be wrong.

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I don't know of any arguments in the bible against slavery either, but I do think it should be noted that a large majority of the people in the abolitionist movement were Christians. Perhaps it is something something unrelated to their religion, but it does cause one to think that maybe something about Christian ethics lead them to believe the suffering of slaves to be wrong.

A large majority of the population of both the United States and Great Britain were Christians during each country's respective abolition movements, including those who were for maintaining chattel slavery.

The Bible does have some explicit references on how to properly maintain one's slaves. According to The Brick Testament, these passages are included in this: 1 Corinthians 7:21, 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9-10, 1 Peter 2:18.

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At the time that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the colonies were still under the rule of a "king". Throughout the history of mankind, rule by kings implied by it's nature that those that lived under a king had rights that were only granted to them by the king they lived under, and the concept of individual inherent rights of man that are naturally endowed in the absence of a ruler or king had not been practically developed or evolved to a point where a man living under a king was actually free.

So the argument could be made at the time........what was worse....a king ruling over tens of thousands of people that were essentially slaves since they lacked any fundamental real rights or liberties outside of what the king allowed them to have, or an individual owning a few slaves and having power over them. The dominance and rule of kings over large groups of men had to end prior to the concept of individual men owning slaves could even begin to be addressed, and individual liberty as a concept and the natural evolution man being free could occur.

As far as being able to free slaves, there was no way at the time that they could have been practically integrated into society, due to racism. But the same could be said if a few hundred white colonists were brought to somewhere in Africa at the time. They hardly would have been able to integrate into any society that existed in the central regions of that continent for the same reasons.

The founding fathers mistake, given all relevant facts of reality at the time, was in not freeing them and allowing them to return to their land of origin. The colonies (America) even at the time were a rich geographical region and could have easily financed the returning of free slaves to Africa and solved the entire problem. As human beings, once free they were hardly in a position to just stay within a nation or region where they were once enslaved and so much racism existed. It would have also been possible to set up a territory farther west for them to go and inhabit, but native Indians that existed farther west would have resisted the influx of African people the same way they resisted the westward movement of white Europeans.

jws1776

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A large majority of the population ... were Christians during each country's respective abolition movements, including those who were for maintaining chattel slavery.
Yes, since both sides were Christian, its reasonable to assume that Christianity had nothing to do with abolition. A Quaker and a slave-owner might read the very same bible and come to different conclusions about slavery; both might then try to justify their views based on selections from the bible. However, the fact is that the bible had been around for ages, while the real change was in the view of man.

jws1776 notes the relationship between wanting to be free from a king and thinking that slaves should be free from masters. I don't think it's necessary for one of those ideas to have come to practical fruition before the other. On the other hand, they're basically "sub-ideas" under the same more abstract idea of man's rights. In 1780, when Pennsylvania adopted a law to slowly phase out slavery, they explicitly mentioned the relationship between their demand to be free from a king and the idea that slaves should be freed.

The credit for the end of slavery should go to the intellectuals who championed the individual, perhaps with John Locke as the most proximate one to whom credit should be given.

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  • 10 months later...

Today, I was surprised to read that when Indiana Territory was established, slavery was allowed. One aspect was to allow existing slaves to continue to be owned; but, there was also a push to allow importation of new slaves. The northern part -- now Illinois -- faced the same issue, with pro-slavery people battling against abolitionists. One of the Illionois abolitionists was a man named James Lemen, who created a schism in his Baptist church over this issue, and formed his own church.

Why is this relevant to Jefferson? Because, Lemen was a friend and agent of Jefferson's and years before, Jefferson had asked him to move to Indiana territory, and -- when he did -- supported Lemen's efforts in fighting to make Illinois a free state. One historian recounts the story in "The Jefferson-Lemen compact", arguing that Jeffersen asked Lemen to move to Indiana specifically to have him in place in the fight that would (predictably) ensue over whether it should be a slave state of a free one.

Edited by softwareNerd
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One thing that I don’t think anyone has mentioned here is that Jefferson could not free his slaves. Jefferson lived most of his life in debt due to his time found the country as well as the University of Virginia then his Presidency. I believe it was against the law in those days for someone in debt to give away property (for obvious reasons).

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