Liberty, Democracy

Monstrous but not alien

Paul Finkelman’s NYT op-ed on Thomas Jefferson, “The Monster of Monticello,” has attracted much commentary: David Post, Tyler Cowen, Corey Robin, Scott Lemieux, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and again.

Fundamentally Post is wrong and everyone else linked to above is right: Jefferson was worse on slavery and worse on race that his contemporaries (in both the United States and France, a rare case in which he accorded no apparent weight to the views of his friends in the salons). Moreover, I think it is clear that he knew slavery to be wrong, at least early in his life; there’s no anachronism in our judging him on the basis of moral knowledge that was available to him. It’s surely absurd to say, as Post does, that Jefferson made crucial contributions to the end of slavery, no matter how much use abolitionists and Lincoln were able to make of the words of the Declaration.

I agree in particular with Cowen that Jefferson was not the wisest of political thinkers among the founders. He had a broad but shallow brilliance, and in his disagreements with either Madison or Adams he always comes across as more clever than insightful. He comes out somewhat better in the great debate with Hamilton, but not sufficiently so. Like Franklin, he left an institutional legacy outside the main institutions of constitutional government, but made no great innovations or discoveries within those institutions.

But I don’t much like the framing of Jefferson as a “monster.” It’s too distancing. Jefferson’s contradictions are central to American political life; white Americans in particular should view his contradictions as our own. It’s true that he enunciated principles of liberty that had enduring moral power; it’s also true that he committed great evil as a slaveowner. In his attempts to rationalize the contradiction he lent his legitimacy to, indeed helped to formulate, a new, ugly brand of “scientific” racism that was to badly infect the American psyche. Aristocratic monarchies, societies based on class distinctions, had no need for racist ideologies to justify their hierarchies; a society ostensibly founded on a doctrine of equality did. Montesquieu and Smith both understood the dynamic, and maintained that slavery would be particularly hard to eradicate in democratic republics; and so it was. Herrenvolk democracy is both egalitarian within the master race and viciously inegalitarian as between races, and one doesn’t understand the phenomenon if one insists that one side of that coin is more real than the other. White America was freer and more equal than contemporaneous European societies; America was a slave state to a far great degree, and for much longer, than they were. Keeping Jefferson fully in view helps remind us of this; holding him at arm’s length makes it too easy to believe the myth of universal principles naturally and gradually unfolding and expanding to include everyone. (Much the same could be said about the genocidal Andrew Jackson, the great champion of stealing land from the Indians to make it available to lower-class white homesteading farmers, though I find much more to admire in Jefferson than in Jackson.)

Moreover, Jefferson was an opportunistic federalist and strict constructionist, one whose own theories of constitutional interpretation most plausibly prohibited the Louisiana Purchase– and he knew it– yet for the sake of American power and expansion he went ahead with it. Again, that kind of contradiction is characteristically, almost constitutively, American. He was in principle in favor of laissez-faire economics, but harbored an agrarian distrust of cities, manufacturing, finance, and banks (very typically American) and pushed through a self-destructive embargo that required greatly expanded federal power to shut international commerce down. Likewise, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions vs. his later actions against the press as President. In both cases, the combination of (broadly) libertarian principle with opportunistic violations whenever “emergencies” arise (and they always do) seems to capture something important in American political life. And Jefferson often managed to moralize his own departures from principle into being new dictates of principle, such that he could still imagine his opponents as being venal and self-interested; what’s more typically American than that?

It seems to me that many of those who take Jefferson’s faults seriously then wrongly marginalize him. I’d prefer to take those faults seriously and still leave Jefferson in his central place in American historical narratives; those faults typically ended up deeply embedded American politics and thought. On slavery and race, the fact that he was worse than many of his contemporaries does not mean that he was worse than the subsequent American republic.

  • Marc

    Why exactly should white Americans view his contradictions as our own?

    • David R. Henderson

      I wondered the same thing as Marc. Shouldn’t a web site with “libertarian” in its name abjure collective guilt?

      • I didn’t say that his guilt is our own.

        • If we’re not talking about guilt, why single out white Americans? I happen to be a white American son of immigrants who arrived well after slavery ended. How are these contradictions mine?

    • jeffj900

      If we can claim as our inheritance the high principles he articulated in the Declaration or Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, we must also claim the more problematic aspects of US History that resulted from his direct influence or from his failure to live up to the principles he believed. We stand on tall shoulders, and some of our good fortune and benefit of being born in the US, as opposed to say Ethiopia or Somalia, has derived from centuries of slavery and dispossessing of the Native Americans of their land. Of course hard work and ingenuity is also a big part of the equation, but we should own the good with the bad in order to be honest. There are many Americans who were born today into families that, because of the failings in our history, have suffered over generations a cumulative deficit of education, wealth, and opportunity. This history still echoes today in the differences in opportunity and the lingering racial attitudes that mar our society. To the extent that we tolerate or deny these factors to absolve ourselves personally as individuals we are repeating in a small way Jefferson’s weakness and failure to sacrifice in a bold way by relinquishing the wealth he invested in his slaves in order to do the right thing and free them.

    • Yes, this is the one part I disagree with.

  • adrianratnapala

    …holding him
    at arm’s length makes it too easy to believe the myth of universal
    principles naturally and gradually unfolding and expanding to include

    It’s not obvious that this is a myth, in fact US history so far looks suspiciously like just such a gradual unfolding. And it looks like that regardless of your view of Jefferson.

  • RickDiMare

    “It’s surely absurd to say, as Post does, that Jefferson made crucial contributions to the end of slavery, no matter how much use abolitionists and Lincoln were able to make of the words of the Declaration.”

    Why is it absurd to say that Jefferson (and his sidekick Madison) made crucial contributions to the end of slavery? My experience is that people who say this kind of thing don’t understand how legal systems work, or how lawyers think. The creation of two classes of taxation in the Constitution most certainly *did* lead to the abolishment of slavery (though I doubt that Jefferson and Madison believed a civil war would be necessary to end the practice).

    Also, maybe the real effect of Jefferson/Madison’s efforts have not yet fully materialized. For example, many women’s rights issues are still evolving, and still riding on the coattails of Civil War gains.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Worse than his contemporaries? Like the delegates from the Southern states, at whose insistence the D of I’s language critical of slavery was deleted?

    • Worse than many of his contemporaries– and worse than all of those who stand anywhere near him in historical stature as thinkers. Much worse than Adams, Franklin, or Paine, worse than Washington who freed his slaves posthumously– and I would say worse than Madison, primarily by virtue of the scientific racism of the Notes but also by virtue of his practices as a slaveholder described in the op-ed. Madison was, as it were, merely hypocritical; Jefferson’s determination to moralize his own hypocrisy unfolded on the pages of the Notes into a important and influential racist tract than anything ever written by South Carolinians who blocked his draft of the Declaration.

      • Sean II

        It fills me with discomfort to write this, but I’m sure no one else will, so here goes:

        About Jefferson’s CONDUCT with respect to slavery, you find no argument from me. Here I think you’re right, and his defenders are wrong. But…if you charge the “scientific racism of the Notes” to Jefferson’s account as evidence that he is worse than Madison (and others), then you are making one of two claims:

        1) You think it so obvious that there are no differences between the races that Jefferson has committed an unpardonable INTELLECTUAL SIN when he speaks of “the real distinctions which nature has made”.

        2) You believe, even if there are differences between the races, that it is MORALLY WRONG to think or speak or write about them.

        For a thousand reasons, you can’t seriously intend the first meaning. Whatever ultimately explains them, there are simply too many observed differences between racial groups for it to be intellectually outrageous or absurd for someone to notice them or form questions about them. And even if it was somehow absurd today, you could hardly insist that it was equally so in Jefferson’s time. So option 1) is out.

        That leaves us with the second: you must believe that it is inherently wrong to think or speak or write about racial differences, EVEN IF SUCH DIFFERENCES DO IN FACT EXIST.

        Is that your position? Is it your belief that philosophers, scientists, etc. should simply decline to discuss these matters? Among all the many topics that are open to speculation, research, investigation, are you insisting that this one should remain forever closed?

        • What is it about “more in sadness than in bigotry, I’m just saying we should be brave enough to ask the brave politically incorrect brave questions” writing that BRINGS OUT THE CAPS LOCK IN PEOPLE?

          • Sean II

            Well if I knew how to use italics on this thing, I wouldn’t do that. Sorry.

            Meanwhile, you seem not to have answered my question. So with all possible respect I’ll ask it again:

            Jefferson’s conduct is sufficiently awful that the case against him can easily be rested on that alone. You, however, choose to include his thoughts and opinions in the indictment, when you accused him of scientific racism. Why?

            Either you think he’s so obviously wrong, in point of science, as to be guilty of profound intellectual malpractice, or you think he is guilty of mentioning things which should be unmentionable as a matter of principle or taste.

            For various reasons, the former position would be impossible to defend (people believed many odd things in 1800, and most of their science was merely attempted science).

            So do you believe the whole subject is simply taboo, or is there some third possibility that I have overlooked?

            My question is not malicious, it’s not frivolous, and it’s hardly unfair, in light of what you wrote. It would take only a moment to answer.

          • jodpur

            Sean II, if I recall, is the same guy who said racist things about Arabs a few posts back. It makes me think we need to recondiser the post of that rather impolite post that pointed out the uncomfortable attraction that libertarianism seems to hold for brave free thinkers (by which I mean racists).

          • jodpur

            Sorry ‘reconsider that rather impolite post’

          • Sean II

            You have more than that to reconsider, my friend. Racism is a serious accusation, and you throw it at me with no evidence.

            Compared to you, Holbo behaved like a perfect gentleman.

          • Jodhpurs

            Dude, your post is the equivalent of everyone’s drunk uncle at thanksgiving who comes out with ‘I’m not racist, but…’. Your basic point is that one should not be condemned for justifying the most monstrous oppression because after all it might have appeared reasonable to someone to draw general conclusions from superficial differences. You realize that your argument could be employed to whitewash any xenophobe.
            And your comments on Palestinians were outright racist–and much like Jefferson’s demonization of black people, your comments were designed to convince people that and oppressed group deserves its oppression. So I rather think that evidence is on my side.
            More charitably, I don’t really think you are in the klan, but that’s just the point – this blithe ‘hey, Jefferson was just asking questions’ bit is highly dubious.

          • Sean II

            First you call me racist, now you call me blithe. This is really getting serious.

            Have you read the kind of crap people wrote 200 years ago, when they were having a go at social science? Practically all of it seems laughable now, especially anything written on the subject of black & white, male & female, young & old, to say nothing of the truly cringe-inducing things written about parenting, human sexuality, crime, and mental illness.

            Forget Jefferson for a minute: If Tocqueville came back to life and applied for a faculty position on the basis of his published work, he wouldn’t get past the initial screening process. He wrote plenty of things that would be considered outrageously racist on a modern college campus, and his presence there would not be tolerated.

            Jefferson was a would-be polymath who dabbled in many different topics, sometimes with what we now see to be embarrassing results. It seems very clear to me that the attempt at racial “science” in the Notes was part of that enterprise, in which case Jefferson is clearly guilty of 1) being a famous person, 2) who wrote things down, 3) having been born in the 18th century, and thus 4) having had the bad taste to live through the awkward adolescence of social science.

            p.s. – Your “drunk uncle” smear is just totally unfair and ridiculous. The usual custom, in an argument like this, would be for you to go and retrieve some smoking gun quote that proves I’m a racist. You haven’t done that, and the smear makes a very poor substitute.

            In passing, let me say that it’s interesting you went so quickly from “Sean says race differences should be open to academic inquiry, which necessarily includes academic folly, error, and overreach”, all the way to “Sean is the internet’s own racist uncle.”

            Can I take from this that you believe race differences should be closed to academic study?

          • Under conditions of slavery there is absolutely no ability to inquire into natural inequalities. One wouldn’t begin to be able to distinguish natural inequality from environmental effects. Jefferson’s attempts to dodge this are embarrassingly bad– so bad as to constitute “intellectual malpractice,” as indeed others told him at the time. And that’s to say nothing of such proofs of black inferiority as “they smell bad,” “the monotone of their color is objectively ugly,” and “they have sex with orangutangs.”

          • Sean II

            Well, we can’t always distinguish between nature and nurture now. There are vast areas of science where the relative weight of the two are still hotly debated. No study of human beings is ever really controlled, so your objection to Jefferson’s writing on race would hold equally good for lots of other topics. For that reason, I don’t buy it.

            But let’s try a different case. Let’s say Steve Pinker comes to your school and gives a talk about the data on Ashkenazi intelligence, arguing that the well-documented 15 point IQ score advantage held by one sub-group within the Jewish ethnicity is almost certainly genetic and not cultural.

            Would he be guilty of intellectual malpractice? Would he be guilty of racism? His data is not properly controlled. He cannot hold all other things equal before drawing his conclusions? And without a doubt, his conclusion does entail telling most of the world’s people that they suffer from a chronic case of genetic intellectual inferiority when compared to Ashkenazi Jews.

            I put it to you this way: the only things to distinguish Jefferson from Pinker are 1) the former was guilty of owning slaves, and acting to further the oppression of a whole group, and 2) the latter is a much better scientist, working in an age with better tools, better information, and better background conditions for doing good scientific work.

            The second comparison is unfair, because we can’t blame Jefferson for being born when he was.

            The first one takes us back to my point: why not just confine your indictment to Jefferson’s actual conduct, which is surely bad enough? Why charge him with slavery, of which he is clearly guilty, and thoughtcrime, which ought not to be a crime?

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I agree that we are reaching the point in this society where certain points of view are subject to such reflexive, vitriolic criticism that not only is the search for truth being hindered, but (worse) our human dignity is being eroded. Because we are moral agents, we are each capable of saying noble and uplifting things, as well as the stupid and hateful. What we elect to say is a manifestation of our character. When we as a society attempt to limit what can be said, as we do by means of college speech codes (and most of the rest of the world does via criminal law), an essential part of our humanity is suppressed. Then, a person can only say what other people are willing to hear–he/she is forced not to “act out,” like naughty children

            Now, when colleges and universities enact speech codes, they are using coercion, while often a person expressing controversial thoughts is merely ridiculed and condemned by the politically correct masses. This is what happened to Larry Summers when he dared to suggest in 2005 that the distribution of math talent might be different in men and women. In other words, not that the average or mean ability in math is different between the genders, but that possibly the few outliers that constitute math genius are disproportionately male.

            Of course, this claim is highly controversial, and an appropriate response would be citations to the data about the distribution of math talent or reasonable alternative explanations of the apparent fact that most math geniuses are male. When people instead simply respond by calling names, it reveals serious flaws in either their intellect or character.

            Final question, for anyone bold enough to answer it. What is the intrinsic value of truth? In other words, if revealing a particular truth did not advance aggregate welfare, preference satisfaction, pleasure…whatever, but instead caused far more discomfort and pain, should this truth be suppressed (assuming we had the power)? Why not? I believe the truth has some objective value, but am not sure how to argue this.

          • Sean II

            Here’s my case in favor of grappling with the truth:

            Let’s say for sake of argument we find out, with near scientific certainty, that what Summers suspected was true, and there is a significant difference between men and women in the distribution of math talent, which has some firm neurochemical basis.

            Knowing this truth, let’s also say we decide on utilitarian grounds that it must be suppressed, on behalf of an ideal of gender equality that is far more important any developments in mere mathematics.

            The first question is how?

            Well, we could create a cohort of fake female math geniuses, and give them sinecure positions at MIT and other top schools. But this would require an enormous amount of coordination-in-deceit, since there would have to be a world-wide conspiracy to publish sub-par books and papers, look the other way at nonsense theorems, play along through painfully awkward talks and journal club presentations that waste everyone’s time, etc. No way we could ever pull that off without people gritting their teeth unconvincingly in public, and then whispering the ugly truth behind closed doors.

            What’s next? Simply avoiding the issue won’t do. It is too easy (and requires no math talent at all) to count down the number of men and women at the top of the profession. As long as people can do that, the disparity will be obvious, and they will continue to ask why it exists.

            If the question comes up and cannot be answered correctly, then it must be answered incorrectly, by means of red herrings or scapegoats. In other words, we’re going to have to start blaming someone – sexists parents, sexists primary school teachers, sexist faculties, sexist peer reviewers, etc. To keep this little secret, we’re going to have to sacrifice some victims. And while I don’t feel any great sympathy for Larry Summers…my conscience tells me that an injustice is still an injustice.

            So the argument is twofold:

            1) The truth is hard to hide, precisely because it is the truth, and the truth nearly always leaves traces in evidence of itself

            2) To hide the truth, we must therefore be prepared to hurt people who either:

            a) aren’t in on the deception, and must be punished for accidently saying things that might compromise the secret, or…
            b) must be opportunistically sacrificed to keep the deception going

            Note that in the Summers case, he wasn’t fired for saying something wrong or something ridiculous. Had he said “Maybe those Russians just don’t have what it takes to succeed at chess”, no one would have got upset. They would have simply have answered him: “Botvinick, Karpov, Kasparov, Spassky, Tal, Petrosian, etc.”

            The tragic thing about the Summers episode was how screamingly obvious it was that people were upset precisely because they feared his statement might be true, and might thus come to be believed…precisely because everyone knows that we have tried to promote gender equality, and in some respects have failed…and precisely because we don’t know how to explain that failure, we only know how we will not tolerate it being explained.

            In individual cases of defamation, the truth is always considered a valid defense. In collective cases of defamation, the possibility that your statement might be true is considered to be among the worst possible aggravating factors.

          • “there would have to be a world-wide conspiracy to publish sub-par books and papers, look the other way at nonsense theorems, play along through painfully awkward talks and journal club presentations that waste everyone’s time, etc.”

            Doesn’t that sound like the contemporary state of the academy? I don’t think it is a conspiracy. We have got there by other means.

          • Sean II


            I should have added: The Larry Summers/”Math-is-Hard” incident makes a good example because it concerns a field where it would be uncommonly difficult to fudge the evaluation of merit without an actual, self-conscious conspiracy. A fake math genius would always be one bad talk away from a devastating smackdown at the hands of an authentic math genius who wasn’t in on the joke.

            Of course, in other fields the result can be gained by means of subtle pressure. If a massively under-qualified black female lesbian political scientist applies for a faculty position at Grand Lakes University, no one has to tell anyone to give her the benefit of a few doubts. The seven white guys who teach in that department probably don’t respect each other’s work anyway, so hey…what’s a few more sheets on a giant pile of non-falsifiable word-game papers they weren’t really going to read anyway.

            Besides, those white guys are pretty well attached to their own privileges, and even if they are a bunch of heterosexist racist assholes, they may well value a bit of perceived legitimacy more than they value living in accordance with their own prejudices.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Ah ha, a spontaneous order of crap!!

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I agree with you that as a practical matter the truth is hard to hide and the effort to do so might hurt the innocent. So I do not disagree with you as a matter of general policy. But the theoretical issue is a little harder.

            Let’s say you are a wealthy, eccentric geneticist with you own lab. You discover absolute proof (or for Danny’s benefit the closest thing there is to it) that Summers’ thesis is correct, i.e. math genius is genetic and on the male chromosone. So, 99.9% of math geniuses are bound to be male, no matter what sort of special training or encouragement we give promising females.

            Now I am sure we will agree that this scientist has a right to publish his findings, but this will cause great emotional distress, discourage many excellent female mathematicians, cause thousands of politically correct academics to go insane with rage, etc. It seems to him that the utility calculation is negative. He doesn’t have to suppress anything, manufacture evidence, or anything else; all he has to do is withhold his proof. Thus, the question is should he publish because the truth has some intrinsic value that trumps questions of utility?

            Perhaps part of the answer is that utility calculations are inherently suspect, and thus not to be trusted, but I am not convinced this provides a firm foundation for the independent, intrinsic value of truth. I am sure more capable philosophers have written about this, but I’m not familiar with any easy answer.

          • Sean II

            Well, just playing strictly within the example, your geneticist did leave some things out of his calculus. He forgot to reckon with the harm of allowing the educational establishment to go on spending time and effort in the hopeless search for a female Ramanujan. Think of the brilliant and ambitious young girls recruited to fill targets at elite grad schools, who might choose very differently if they knew the top of the profession was genetically closed to them. Think also of the brilliant, ambitious young men whose spots would have to be sacrificed for the sake of that misspent effort.

            Then there are the incalculable calculations (this is why I’m not a utilitarian.) What if the genetic link he uncovered, which happens to prove this highly inconvenient fact, is also the key to a much bigger discovery about cognitive development.? If he keeps it a secret, that whole line of research is delayed or never pursued.

            And what if, after so many years of biological egalitarianism, so many years of hiding nature in a closet while we take nurture to the ball, what if his discovery could be the thing that cracks the brittle glass of those illusions, and starts a social revolution. What if giving up the Lake Wobegon dream of all children being magically above average hurts us emotionally for a few years, then gives way to a new and richer division of labor, where fewer lives are wasted, fewer talents misapplied?

            Indeed, when you think about it, Levy’s whole position in this thread was a manifestation of that thinking applied to race. His intellectual quarrel with Jefferson amounts to him saying: “In the event of any racial differences, there must be an overwhelming presumption in favor of explanations by nurture. Nature will only be allowed into the conversation when all possible nurture hypotheses have been exhausted. Since that will never happen, nature will not be allowed into the conversation at all.”

            Of course that’s madness, because in every other case the scientific thing to do would be: start with a neutral position, giving equal weight to nature and nurture, until the evidence starts to lead you this way or that. The whole purpose of the scare term “scientific racism” is to create a special exemption from that general principle of science, to say “No, no, no! In this area the burden of proof requirement applies only to nature. Nurture gets a strong head start and thereafter wins the benefit of every doubt.” Imagine what would happen if medical researchers arbitrarily decided to think that way about studies into cancer, Tay-Sachs, sickle cell anemia, etc!

            Interesting it is to speculate what’s going on inside the heads of my opponents. If they really believed in biologic equality, they would surely want to encourage science to go forth and find proof of it. Levy’s dispute with Jefferson’s and Tocqueville’s writings on race would be to say they were wrong, not that they were evil. But if they merely believe that biologic equality is a socially useful idea, they would behave roughly as they do…insisting biologic equality is a self-evident fact, and getting just a little bit nasty when anyone comes along to question it – or as I did here, insist that there should not be a flat-out, retroactively-applied taboo against questioning it.

            From that I think we can guess that many, many people don’t think the truth has any intrinsic value if it is deemed to have hurtful effects.

            I tried to come up with a pure example where telling the truth would be utility-neutral, but I couldn’t – in every case I imagined, the truth was either important and therefore had serious potential for positive consequences, or it was trivial, and therefore did no harm worth the trouble to prohibit. If you want to try another example, I’m game to discuss it.

            Having not thought through the matter too thoroughly, I would rough out my own position as this: On some level, the truth has to compete with other values. It can’t be considered priceless, because nothing is priceless. At the same time, given the role truth has as a capital good used to produce other values, it’s should never be played cheap, and I can’t ignore that – to put it in Misesian terms – I always feel some level of uneasiness in the presence of a lie or the absence of truth.

            p.s. – Speaking of uneasiness, I’m lousy at chess. I find it fascinating, it finds me dull. I’m clever enough in other areas, and it troubles me to no end that I can’t figure out why I should be so limited in this one. I agree with your assessment of what it takes to be great in chess

            Fun bit of trivia: You would expect spatial reasoning to be one of the key skills for a chess player, and yet a massively disproportionate number of grandmasters have been Ashkenazi Jews, who as a group have been observed to score significantly above average on verbal and mathematical intelligence, but below average on spatial intelligence. Lot’s of fascinating possibilities to explain that, but I wouldn’t want to speculate.

            After all, someone around here might accuse me of scientific racism.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I know next to nothing about genetics, so I honestly have no opinion about the issue you raise, but I do have a question. If you started out with two populations that were equal in a certain trait, and then in one population wiped out (through war, disease, etc.) the 20% of the group with the highest manifestqation of that trait, and then in the second population wiped out the bottom 20%, it would then appear that the distribution of the trait in the two groups was much different. So, how do you control historical factors from natural genetic distribution?

          • Sean II

            Sorry it took me so long to answer, but my wife was on surgery all day yesterday and I wanted to ask her about your question – she’s MD/PhD with the latter being in human genetics, which really comes in handy for situations like these.

            What she says is this: “Let’s say we’re talking about height. If you remove the tallest 20% of one group and the shortest 20% of another…as long as the groups remain endogamous (maybe pretend they settle on two different islands or something), what you end up with is just two new distributions, centered around two new means. Assuming the outliers did not have kids before the catastrophe or whatever, regression would be toward the new means, not the old ones. If both groups get the same nutrition on their new islands, the difference will pretty much hold forever, barring some new mutation to change it. But if the people from short island got perfect nutrition while the people from tall island were somewhat malnourished, the apparent difference could shrink by 20%, 30%, or somewhere in that range. Although there would still be a difference, even then – tall island would still be taller on average, and as soon as you restored good nutrition to the tall island, the original difference would reappear essentially within one generation.”

            I asked her if it would be possible to control for such events in a historical study and she said: “Er…only deductively. You could never look at just the samples from short island and say ‘Oh wow, it seems their ancestors used to be taller’. But if you had samples from both islands, you definitely could figure out they shared a common ancestry, and you could deduce that there must have been a founder effect somewhere in the past, to account for the present difference between them.”

            The funny thing is, after explaining all of this, she looks at me and says “I know! I bet you’re wondering about the IQ difference between Mizrahim, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim. Like, how do we know genetically those aren’t just three totally different groups?”

            I looked her dead in the eye and said: “I’m sorry, but that’s not even close to what I had in mind.”

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks. Of course, this explanation makes perfect sense. We have mentioned the over-representation of Ashkenazi Jews in various intellectual fields, and one possible explanation that I have heard is something along the lines of “given the terrible persecution throughout the ages, only the smart ones survived.” Given your wife’s explanation, I don’t know how we exclude this possibility, as oposed to the idea that there is some innate genetic difference going back to the dawn of time.

          • Sean II

            Oh, yes…the reigning theory is that’s a recent, and not an ancient development. There’s apparently strong evidence of common ancestry for just about everyone we think of as belonging to the Jewish ethnic group today. The Ashkenazi advantage in average IQ could have developed from population bottleneck/founder effect a few thousand years ago, or according to one theory, from social selection pressure applied only in the last 1000 years or so.

            Geneticists have an interesting idea of what “recent” means.

            The big flashy paper on the subject is called a “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” and there’s also a video out there somewhere where Steve Pinker sums up the science to date, framing the question as “Jewish genes or Jewish mothers”?

            One final thought that might interest you: I met my wife through a friend who went through the same PhD program a few years ahead of her. He and I were talking at lunch today about this thread, about Jefferson, Tocqueville, Darwin, Charles Murray, etc, and of course we talked more generally about what happens when politics takes an interest in science.

            He made the interesting point that, when it comes to human genetics, politics is almost never neutral.

            If you’re talking about, say, homosexuality there is overwhelming pressure in favor of finding a genetic determinant. Long before genetics had really said much on the subject, the gay rights movement knew that it would be advantageous to present itself as a biologically defined group and thus to seek legal protection on a basis akin to race, sex, national origin, etc.. There are serious and fairly obvious reasons to doubt the genetic basis of homosexuality in the absence of some really compelling evidence*. But for political reasons, even skeptics publicly play along with the very unscientific idea that genetic homosexuality should be granted a pristine default position until proof to the contrary crawls out from its hiding place and hits everyone square in the face – at which point science can pretend to be just as surprised as everyone else.

            One the other hand…if you’re talking about intelligence, there is an almost hysterical pressure against looking for or finding a genetic determinant of differences, both between individuals and especially between groups. All the same people who are militantly in favor of “born this way” where sexual orientation is concerned, will bite your face off and ruin your life if you happen to suggest the same thing of geniuses and fools.

            It continues from there. Left wingers prefer to believe that mental illness is genetic and not behavioral, because it helps them do away with traditional moral concepts, like “evil” and “punishment”. But at least lately, they’ve been refusing to believe that obesity is mostly genetic, because it gets in the way of blaming Monsanto for high fructose corn syrup.

            Right wingers, in turn, hate any study which suggests that behavior is inherited rather than chosen, pretty much for the same reason lefties love those studies – because they pose a prima facie challenge to traditional morality and free will. But when it comes to sex and gender differences, the right is suddenly and awkwardly in favor of standing clear to let genetic science have its say.

            It’s all pretty sickening, when you think about it. As I see it, so is what happened in much of this thread. Jefferson gets called a monster, not for what he did but what he wrote, while I get called a racist for pointing out some painfully obvious problems with that wildly ahistorical claim. The worst part isn’t being called a racist, it’s seeing those very good points go totally unanswered by the other side.
            *Just because homosexuality may not be not genetic, doesn’t mean it isn’t born. Indeed the congenital basis theory is gaining ground, thanks largely to the fact that science’s political watchdogs don’t understand what congenital means. If they did, they’d be screaming right now. One thing I always like to point out to non-libertarians is that none of this matters to us, because we will defend gay rights no matter whether being gay is a product of destiny, development, or choice.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Thanks for the additional information and paper reference. Of course you are right that genetics is intensely political. But then again, these days, what isn’t? Does anyone believe that the science of global warming, err, climate change is unaffected by the political views of those publishing this research; or economics, literary criticism, gender studies, etc? So, all over and everywhere, politics and ideology trumps the search for truth, and makes certain views subject to such nasty recrimination and ad hominem attack as to discourage many people from even voicing them.

            Ironically, here at least, the worst environment of all is academia, where professors and adminstrators pay lip service to the “marketplace of ideas” while doing their level best to monopolize this very market. We are so very screwed.

          • What we have to suppose is that it is a matter of objective fact that, if the scientist reveals the truth he has discovered, the consequences will be seriously bad. The question then is whether the consequences could ever be bad enough to outweigh whatever happens to be the intrinsic value of that truth (or that truth’s being known by others). To put it another way: could the consequences ever be so bad as to make it the case that the scientist ought not to reveal that truth? I don’t see why not.

            That is a theoretical answer to a theoretical question. In practice, we don’t know what the objective facts are, particularly with regard to global consequentialist calculations. So we would never be in a position to know the objective fact I posited in the example. But could we ever make a reasonable conjecture, on the balance of what we think we know, that it would be better not to reveal a newly discovered truth? I don’t see why not. But the issue here concerns what an individual should do on the basis of his fallible knowledge, without violating the rights of anyone.

            Incidentally, I can’t play chess at all. I never learned it. But I am good at draughts (checkers, to you).

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Obviously, if I had a pat answer, I wouldn’t have asked the question. I think we might be converging on roughly the same idea. Maybe the truth as such does not have intrinsic value, but our right to speak the truth as we see it, has supreme value. This is not to say that we don’t also have the right to speak nonsense.

          • I am not sure what you are saying here, so let me just make a point. Nothing I said contradicts the proposition that truth has intrinsic value. I was assuming that it did have intrinsic value, but that that value could be less than the instrumental value of falsity.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Fair enough, but I don’t see how your assumption constitutes an argument for truth having intrinsic value. If I missed it, maybe you could lay out the argument for me.

          • The assumption does not constitute an argument; it is just an assumption. The point I am making is that intrinsic values may be overridden. That a value is intrinsic does not mean that it is a trump. The only reason I state this is that when you said (in your previous message) that “Maybe the truth as such does not have intrinsic value,” it sounded as if you might be thinking that because the value of truth may be overridden, it cannot be intrinsic. That would be a mistake. I am not sure whether you were making it; which is why I made my point.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I agree: “intrinsic” does not equal “paramount.”

          • When we talk about the value of truth, I think we are (or should be) talking about the value of true theories (because truth is a property of theories or propositions). One value of a true theory is its reliability. We often act on our theories, that is, we act as if our theories are true. If they turn out to be false, we can get a nasty shock. But if they are true, we are insulated against that sort of nasty surprise. But that is an instrumental than an intrinsic value of true theories. The intrinsic value of a true theory (if there is one) will relate to being in touch with reality, intellectually speaking, i.e., actually knowing how things are.

            But I think your question is not really about the intrinsic value of truth. It seems to me to be rather about the intrinsic value of freedom of expression. An important instrumental value of freedom of expression is that it promotes the growth of knowledge. But its intrinsic value is connected with what it means to be a person, i.e., a thinking, talking, arguing and thus critically-reflective being.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Danny,
            As always, good to hear from you. I agree with everything you say here, but I am not sure it really gets to my question. I tried to lay out the issue with a little more clarity in my response to Sean. Let me know what you think.

          • Sean II

            Jacob…see, this is what I’m talking about: Because it sounded like bullshit and (and not like what I remember from American Political Theory 680) , I went back and checked out the Notes again to read that notorious orangutan comment.

            As I’m sure you know, Jefferson does not actually suggest than any black people had any sex with any orangutans. (Surely that must be the faintest praise I have ever given a writer).

            Which raises a question: considering that what Jefferson did say was ugly enough by modern standards, why did you feel a need to make it sound even worse it with such a misleading misquote?

            Forgive me for saying so, but that seems like the sort of thing one does to rescue a faltering argument.

            Your claim is that Jefferson should stand judgement for his conduct and his thoughts…but you are not willing to rest your case on his actual thoughts, without first spinning them to improve the shock effect.

            That leaves me even more suspicious than before, that what is really going on here is simply a taboo against an entire line of inquiry.

            You are a professional intellectual, so I shouldn’t have to tell you that a rule against saying silly things or asking stupid questions about a given subject is – in every way that counts – a rule against studying that subject.

            If we go back to 1776 or 1600 or 350 BC and say “after this date, everyone who talks about race better have started out with a default presumption of equality, or ended up with one, or else we’re calling the guy out as an evil racist”…if we do that, then we’ll be the ones guilty of intellectual malpractice.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            This is how: [insert text you want in italics] . Enjoy

          • Sean II

            And to think, all this time I just assumed everyone else had a better computer.

  • Aeon Skoble

    In general, I still think there’s something anachronistic here: he knew slavery to be wrong, yet held slaves. I agree that this entails some kind of hypocrisy/rationalization, but it’s also true that it was illegal to free your slaves, and VA law wouldn’t recogniz their freed status. So, let’s say he had woken up one day and said, ok, you’re all free. Wouldn’t all of his slaves been picked up by either the Virginia authorities or by any other slaveowner?

    • RickDiMare

      Exactly. Without setting up a political/legal system first would have been like setting a pet bird “free” in the dead of winter.

    • j r

      Is that really a huge hurdle for someone wanting to free his slaves? He could have easily transported them to the North and freed them there or even to Canada. Problem solved. It’s more likely that his economic, social and political livelihood was dependent on slave labor and he didn’t want to sacrifice that.

    • 1782-1806, manumission was legal in Virginia. After 1806 it was still legal but the slaves had to leave the state. Jefferson did free five slaves (Sally Hemmings’ family) on his death, which entails the possibility of manumission. But the other 200+ were auctioned off. Read the Finkelman op-ed for more.

      • RickDiMare

        Yeah, that definitely proves Jefferson was a monster or near-monster … and that he didn’t have much plans to abolish slavery on a much wider scale.

      • I think a lot of libertarians defend Jefferson reflexively, because a lot of his leftist detractors have statist motives. I used to repeat myths about Jefferson all the time. But in fact, he was not nearly so admirable as his hagiographers claim, especially on slavery.

        • Sean II

          You’ve hit it on the head there. Most people aren’t genuinely interested in history, so if they’re talking about Jefferson and slavery, it’s really just to score points against the ideology he is taken to represent.

          That’s where the unfortunate libertarian reflex kicks in: deep down we know that Jefferson isn’t really the issue, and yet still we get dragged into having a proxy fight over his corpse.

          They’re trying to defeat an idea by condemning a man, and we get sucked into defending the man instead of the idea.

    • glennd1

      He was born to it. I wonder, what would you or the smug Mr. Levy have done, born into similar circumstances? Are both of you so arrogant as to assume that you would just cast it all aside? Are the ideas of time and place so hard for you to grasp? Only 100 years ago blacks still lived under vast repression, and the U.S. was very slow to wheel towards its better moral position. In fact, such moral blindness is common in men, and it goes without saying that 300 years from now, some folks will sit around and dismiss us as immoral for something or the other – I guarantee it.

      • Given that my post is an argument that white Americans are heir to Jefferson’s badly mixed legacy here, I don’t think “tu quoque” stands as an objection. Nonetheless, my view and the argument of the Finkelman piece is, in part, that Jefferson was worse than his “time and place” demanded.

        • RickDiMare

          Your references to the Hemmings family and “white Americans” and “badly mixed” seem to be your trump cards, but to you and others who would smear or discount the Constitutional results of the Jefferson/Madison collaboration, I object.

          Jefferson inherited his slaves from an overbearing tyrannical father and did whatever he could to convert an intolerable (and objectionable to Jefferson himself) circumstance into a good one. The unprecedented prospects for human freedom that became evident (however briefly) after the Civil War are a testament to degree of personal pressure Jefferson was dealing with.

      • Discussing slavery, Jefferson said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” He knew it was fundamentally wrong. He enjoyed its benefits anyway.

  • glennd1

    I think Mr.Levy would do well to consider the times and the broader record on Jefferson that is readily available. My first contention is about judging Jefferson based on an absolutist mentality with respect to slavery. It’s very clear from Jefferson’s own writings that he was deeply conflicted. And his public actions were mixed as well. He argued for the abolition of slavery during the constitutional convention and had previously proposed it in the Virginia House of Burgesses. It was also Jefferson who had proposed the clause stopping the importing of slaves
    found in the Constitution.

    So, first things first, Mr. Levy should perhaps avail himself of the ample sources available that draw a complete picture. What’s true is that Jefferson was a man full of conflicts, but also was a man of his time. He was a reluctant politician but a powerful President. One source I read on Jefferson, Christopher Hitchens excellent book on him, left me with the impression that Jefferson was in constant financial turmoil and never found himself in a position to free his slaves without having to liquidate. It’s also true that of the 300 (not 200) slaves he owned, only 100 worked, the rest were children or elderly, so in fact, the whole situation is bit more complex that simplistic moralizing would reveal to you.

    None of this forgives Jefferson his sins. But it also doesn’t require us to ignore the ample public record of Jefferson’s life showing him as forceful advocate for liberty,and as Lincoln said about him. he also laid the predicate for the abolition of slavery by the U.S. I can think that Jefferson did great things but may not have been a “great man”. Me? I avoid thinking men “great” or “bad’ anymore, because the world and people seem to be a bit more complex than that, and I think such black/white thinking obscures more than it reveals.

    • Perhaps he wouldn’t have been in such financial troubles if he didn’t throw wild parties all the time, travel lavishly, and buy the finest wines by the crate constantly.

    • RickDiMare

      “It was also Jefferson who had proposed the clause stopping the importing of slaves found in the Constitution.”

      Yes, after 1808 the slavery phase-out period was supposed to begin and the $10 slave tax cap would expire (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1).

      The taxation of slaves was also authorized by the 1796 Hylton v. U.S. case, where it was ruled that, at least until the slavery issue was resolved, restrictions imposed on federal taxation by the Constitution’s two Direct Tax Clauses only pertained to real estate, not to slaves as part of the real estate’s value.

      Also, if all had gone according to Jefferson’s plans, there’d have been no need to renew the charter of the First Bank of the United States expired in 1811, and we’d not have a federally-run central bank today.

      In short, slaveholding states (state governments, that is) did not honor their Constitutional commitments, not only regarding the taxation of slaves, but also by not keeping their hands off the money-creation process, and ultimately the real monster, the guy who would make a civil war necessary, was Andrew Jackson.

  • j r

    Does anyone else find it interesting that we are right now at a moment in history where those on the right tend to defend Jefferson while dismissing Lincoln and those on the left tend to defend Lincoln while dismissing Jefferson, whereas twenty years ago it would have been the exact opposite?

    The Democratic Party calls its fundraising events Jefferson-Jackson dinners. And right-leaning lawyers named their organization The Federalist Society. What a difference twenty or so years can make.

    • FedSoc has been around a quarter of a century, and the Dems liked to play up their Jeffersonian roots as long as I remember.

      • j r

        Yes… that’s exactly what I wrote.

        • Oh sorry, I was confused. My bad. I’m so used to both sides disingenuously claiming the legacy of both, my head went spinning!

  • This is a strong, balanced piece on Jefferson. Thank you.

  • Kyle Nearhood

    I want to leave the slavery part out for a second and concentrate on the charge that Jefferson was not pious enough in his own intellectual thinking so that he went along with the Louisiana purchase. Too often it is in the realm of academics and thinkers that they are sticklers to theory over substance. But in the pragmatic world of politics theory and idealism often won’t get the job done. I certainly, would not want a leader who was not flexible enough to seize upon a once in a century opportunity. Nor is this some uniquely American way of thinking. So I defend Jefferson at least against this charge.

    • RickDiMare

      My understanding is that, through the Louisiana purchase, Jefferson wanted to expand the amount of territory that would be subject to a Lockean conception of property rights, thereby removing it from control of natives who claimed a property in the land simply because they seasonally hunted, fished or camped on it.

      I’m not sure what Jacob’s objection to the Louisiana purchase is, but the fact that land later became commodified, used for speculative purposes, or used to expand slavery, etc. is no fault of Jefferson’s.

      • The issue was that the enumeration of powers included no authority to purchase territory. (The original constitution envisioned accession by already-existing political societies, i.e. Canada, but not purchase.) By the constitutional theory laid out in his argument against the Bank, there was no authority to make the purchase. Jefferson genuinely worried about this and discussed the possibility of rushing through a constitutional amendment authorizing the purchase, but finally persuaded himself that he could get away with it.

        I’m also willing to say that “take a lot of land away from non-Lockean Indians” is a blameworthy project, but Jefferson *wasn’t* actually terrible on Indian questions by the standard of his day– not great, but not terrible. The transfer from France served power-politics purposes, independent of whether the Indians were dispossessed or not, and those purposes drove the decision. He did place a high priority on the expansion of southern farming westward (which absolutely included the expansion of slavery), but my objection here is to his violation of his own constitutional theory of enumerated powers.

        • RickDiMare

          Yes, Jefferson had doubts about the extent of federal power in 1803, but his views about the First Bank of the U.S. and state sovereignty in general were found to be too containing in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819), so whether he knew it or not, he likely did have Constitutional power to execute the Louisiana Purchase under the Necessary and Proper Clause (I:8:18), the Treaty Clause (II:2:2) and/or the section used to bring new states or territories into the union (IV:3).

          Regarding so-called Indian land, no doubt there was much abuse and injustice in applying a Lockean-based property rights system at the time, but the natives simply didn’t have the extensive rights to land use they were claiming.

          For example, a footnote on page 217 of A. John Simmons’ “Justification and Legitimacy” states: “The possibility of parallel, equally justified, but quite different property systems (even within the same territory) is discussed by James Tully in the context of his interesting examination of Aboriginal and colonial property in North America. See Tully, ‘Aboriginal Property and Western Theory: Recovering a Middle Ground,’ (which regrettably appears to be gated):

          I also found this interesting article online, which I’m still reading, “John Locke and Colonial Capitalism” by Onur Ince of Cornell University:

          On page 15, Ince quotes Tully and Armitage:

          “James Tully and David Armitage neatly encapsulate the point:

          The newly discovered lands could not be appropriated on the grounds that they were unoccupied, since they patently had a resident population; arguments for the next three hundred years therefore turned as much upon dispossessing the native peoples a they did upon asserting positive rights of ownership against other European states.41

          One of the leading problems of political theory from Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes to Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant was to justify the establishment of European systems of property in North America in the face of the presence of “American Nations.” Almost all the classic theorists advanced a solution to this problem justifying what was seen as on the of the most important and pivotal events of modern history … to justify European settlement on the one hand, and to justify the dispossession of the Aboriginal peoples of their property on the other.42”

    • Sean II

      Interesting that the phrase is “only Nixon could go to China” when it might just as easily have been rendered as “only Jefferson could buy Louisiana”.

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