Thomas Jefferson and the Profits of Slavery

Boing Boing has an excerpt from an about-to-be-published book about Jefferson, and his changing position on slavery. This book is going to raise a perfect storm, and rightfully so. Click on the link in the article, and you’ll find an extensive review of the book on smithsonian.com. It’s another correction of history that has been hidden from view up until recently, a portrait of Jefferson as profit-minded slave owner.

As fascinating as it is, and I do intend to buy the book eventually, its present importance for me is that it’s the inspiration for another story. The elements of such a story have been scattered through my files for some time, but reading the Smithsonian review triggered an entire plot. At least it won’t be a novel, thank goodness.

 

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17 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson and the Profits of Slavery

    • Why are so many historical facts kept hidden? To protect someone’s reputation, to maintain whatever illusion those in power want the masses to believe . . . We Americans have always been shown a shiny version of our history, all in the name of patriotism, of protecting the powerful and, where necessary, justifying violence, including war.

      • Yep, I’m naïve. I had a vague idea that most modern, rational historians were above that sort of overt deception. But what you say makes “sense,” so to speak. I see overt deception in the news every day. This deception will become part of history, it’s the human condition.

  1. Interesting article. The degree of surprise and dismay at this revelation is in itself revealing. Surely he must have been a kindly, paternalistic slave-owner, and did not brutally exploit children for economic profit! The idea of the ‘good’ slave-owner must have been one of the most insidious ideological props of slavery.

    • I have no doubt that there must have been some “good” slave owners, comparatively speaking, but they still would have been benefitting from a horrible system

      • Comparatively, yes, in terms of being less brutal or more generous than others, but the whole “my slaves are my happy little friends” attitude seems to me more hypocritical and more subtly supportive of slavery as an institution than blatantly saying “I’m going to make these people work as hard as I can for my own profit because I can”. which is more honest and perhaps is less likely to result in an enslaved person coming to internalise the idea that slavery is somehow, “for their own good” rather than being about exploiting their labour which is the aim of even the most benevolent slave-owner. Toxic, either way.

          • Don’t know how successful it was, obviously it wasn’t all the time, but religious instruction and general ideology was generally in place to convince slaves and probably enslavers that all was for the best. Kindness and a paternalistic attitude on the part of slave-owners would only help reinforce the idea that it was all part of God’s Plan.

            • Any method of brainwashing works some of the time. Probably best with those who’d grown up in the system and had never known anything else. One reason why, in some states, it was illegal for slaves to read or for anyone to teach them to read.

  2. On an entirely different topic, regarding an older post (that’s so old I can’t post a comment directly to it anymore):

    http://writingcycle.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/new-directions-new-uncertainties/

    “I think Hidden Boundaries is, in that context, a failure because people do respond to it almost purely for its emotional content rather than the issues it raises, mostly about slavery.”

    I’m not personally bothered if a reader only responds to my stories on an emotional level, but one really can’t be sure about all the levels at which readers are responding to a story. I’ve had stories where I received “Oh, aren’t they cute together” squees, but when I talked further with the reader, suddenly they were filling my ear with discussions of ethical topics. I find a special pleasure in knowing that I’ve managed to reach readers who were just looking for a PWP and ended up with more from me. As one reader put it at orig_slavefic, tongue in cheek: “We’re all here for lovely smut and boylove and you had to go and make me *think*. How dare you.”

    In the perennial divide between “art as entertainment” and “art as education,” I lean toward the entertainment side. I’d rather read a mindless but exciting piece of slavefic than a literary story about slavery that is uplifting but dull. But of course I’d rather have both the entertainment and the education, and if you’ve found a better way in which to achieve that balance for yourself, then I’m delighted.

    I agree with the folks who commented above, about how you should regard older work as a pathway rather than as a dead end. A friend of mine recently said he tore up his artwork because he couldn’t stand to see the flaws in his earlier works. I told him, “Do you know what I’d have to tear up first if I followed your rule? Blood Vow.” (He’s a big fan of Blood Vow.)

    You may have decided you’re not as keen on your old work as in the past, but you’ve already seen that your readers can hold different views of your work than you do. Authors are notoriously bad at being able to judge the quality of their own writings, and even if they could, that doesn’t mean those writings wouldn’t have fans. One man’s poison, etc.

    • “I’d rather read a mindless but exciting piece of slavefic than a literary story about slavery that is uplifting but dull.” Absolutely. I haven’t found the balance yet, but I’m working at it. And if people want something that gets them teary-eyed and one of my books works that way for them, I can live with it. Besides, we cry for different reasons.

      Every time I’m tempted to revise one of the hand slaves books, I think about it as part of my history. I’m a fan of Blood Vow also, so that’s an excellent reminder that we judge our work on a different basis than the readers do. Another writer, who has given up writing altogether (though I hope it’s just a bad time for her right now and she’ll return) thinks that one of her books that I admire very much is her worst.

      • I’m actually fond of Blood Vow too, but it’s only the second novel I ever wrote, and it’s based on a story I wrote when I was sixteen. So it’s getting a bit creaky in the joints by this time in my career. I think of it as a kindly old gentleman, sitting in a corner and sipping ginger tea in order to ease his arthritis.

  3. Regarding Jefferson, there’s an exhibit about him and slavery at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum right now:

    http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/Slavery-at-Jefferson%27s-Monticello-Paradox-of-Liberty-4757

    “It’s hard for me to imagine that any slaves could really internalize the idea that it was for their own good.”

    I’ve actually been in the position of coming across good evidence in favor of a position that was *way* out of the mainstream, and my god, I can’t tell you how hard it is to hold onto that belief, when 99% of society is saying that you’re not only dead wrong, but you’re dangerously dead wrong. Once one has gone through that experience, it becomes much easier to write characters who hold views that are mainstream in our society but were considered wrong in theirs. Without that experience, one tends to underestimate the tremendous moral pressure that such a character will undergo – the constant feeling that if he’s wrong (like all of his family, friends, and moral leaders are saying), he could bring terrible damage to his society.

    • I was actually dubious about making that statement, because I know that people do succumb to belief systems that they have every reason to hate. It was an emotional reaction, not a logical one. Maybe it was that discussion that got me to working on a post that I hope to finish today, on writing as a devil’s advocate. I seem to be emotionally stuck in the world of slavery and imprisonment these days, and I can see that some of the stories I’m planning may be a way of finding some good, not just in horrible situations, but in the systems themselves. And just maybe, Life Prison is an influence there.

      I was quite envious of your trip to the Smithsonian. You have such wonderful resources where you live. Thanks for the link to the exhibit.

      • “I seem to be emotionally stuck in the world of slavery and imprisonment these days, and I can see that some of the stories I’m planning may be a way of finding some good, not just in horrible situations, but in the systems themselves. And just maybe, Life Prison is an influence there.”

        The toughest story of that sort which I’ve had to write is Pleasure, because I was working in someone else’s universe. Remy had already created the plot element – which I couldn’t change – that the two characters I wanted to write about, in a sympathetic fashion, had ordered and participated in the rape of a new slave.

        Talk about a writing challenge. I’m still not sure whether I met the challenge in an ethically acceptable fashion, but it did stretch me to my limits as a writer.

        (Mind you, I had to do the same sort of trick in Law of Vengeance, but for some reason, that was an easier novel to write, possibly because it focussed on the topic of self-deception.)

        “I was quite envious of your trip to the Smithsonian.”

        Alas, I skipped seeing that particular exhibit; I was too eager to get to the Air & Space Museum. I did notice – after I posted – that there’s a link at the bottom of the page to the online version of the exhibit.

        • I didn’t know until you mentioned it recently, where Pleasure came from, but the source was a hard read, even though so well-written, so creating something new and more positive from it is a decent accomplishment. I’m beginning to accept that not everything I write will be my best work or fulfill the hope I had for it when I got the idea.

          Blood Vow may be a creaky old gentleman for you, but it still comes across as quite lively.

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