“Thomas Jefferson is next target of students who question honors for figures who were racists” | Inside Higher Ed

“At University of Missouri and William & Mary, some place notes on statues honoring the author of Declaration of Independence, calling him a rapist and a racist.”

This is unfortunate. There is no comparison between Jefferson and the leaders of the Confederacy, who fought to preserve the institution of slavery.

To some, the fact that Jefferson was a slave holder is enough to condemn him. But we must look at the broader context of the world in which Jefferson lived. Yes, Jefferson was born into a world of privilege, largely built on the backs of slaves. But in this he had no choice. The institution of slavery was rarely questioned at this time. Jefferson will be part of a generation that will begin to challenge the assumptions and traditions of his native Virginia.

As a product of the Enlightenment, Jefferson embraced values that were antithetical to slavery (equality and freedom). It is clear from his writings that he was aware of the contradictions between his values and his ownership of slaves. It is a blot on his character, but we must remember that Jefferson’s social standing and income rested on this wretched institution. While not completely exculpatory, we must give Jefferson credit for being one of the first among his peers to question the practice. In his day, Jefferson was a radical, even if he was not as radical as we would have liked him to be. In the 18th century it was radical to question the institution of slavery.

In Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he included a clause that accused King George III of “wag[ing] a cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation thither….he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce…”  [full draft] Obviously, this did not sit well with his fellow Southerners (as well as some Northerners) and it was therefore deleted from the final draft.

Jefferson also wrote against the institution of slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1782): “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”

Was Jefferson a racist? Yes, guilty as charged, but so was everyone else at the time. And even here, Jefferson was ahead of his time. While he saw them as inferior, he wondered if this was due to “the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move.” (Notes on the State of Virginia) This is in sharp contrast to many of his fellow Americans who saw their inferiority as an intrinsic feature of their race.

There is another important difference between Jefferson and the Confederates. Jefferson articulated the very values that ultimately undermined the slavery. The language of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”) provided the language and values to with which to attack slavery, and later all other forms of injustice.

The pursuit of liberty and equality was Jefferson’s raison d’ etre, even if he was unable to fully live up to those values. We should honor Jefferson for his noble contributions, as embodied most poignantly in the Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. It is these values that we should think of when we see a statue of Jefferson.

“I trust that the whole course of my life has proved me a sincere friend to religious as well as civil liberty” (Jefferson, Letter to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1809)

Source: Thomas Jefferson is next target of students who question honors for figures who were racists | Inside Higher Ed

An Act of Iconoclasm? “Where Adam Smith and Occupy Agree: Inequality” – Bloomberg View

Inequality: “The godfather of free markets feared it would undermine the system he loved.”

Adam Smith has become such an icon that few venture to shatter the simplistic version of his ideas (outside of academia) known to most Americans. Few who hold this vision dear have actually read Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and if they have they read it from a modern perspective outside of the context in which Smith wrote it. And as a result, they misunderstand Smith’s ideas and his goals.

When it is read in context and with his other great work The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a different narrative emerges. David Lay Williams, in his article at Bloomberg View, explains some of the challenges to the dominate theory of Smith’s capitalism (self-interest, lassie-fare, the invisible hand, etc.)  when the complexities of Smith’s worldview are factored in. In this article, Williams focuses mainly on Smith’s concerns about inequality.

What does Williams hope to accomplish by looking back on Adam Smith’s philosophy?

“First, it challenges arguments made by those who insist that inequality wouldn’t have been problematic for the intellectual founder of free-market capitalism. Second, Smith offers insights into the nature of economic disparity that should guide a more enriched contemporary discussion of the issue. Many of today’s critiques of inequality center on how it can stifle economic growth. This may be true. But as a professor of moral philosopher, this wasn’t the focus of Smith’s commentary. Third, Smith’s attention to inequality as opposed to poverty is a rejoinder to those who suggest inequality isn’t problematic in itself. Finally, Smith’s inability to offer a solution, one may argue, is manifested in our own failure to address inequality and its accompanying troubles. We have inherited a system that has made no provisions for a dilemma apparent at its very foundations.”

Please read the entire article here: Where Adam Smith and Occupy Agree: Inequality – Bloomberg View

adam smith

The Book that Helped Bring Tolerance to Europe: “Ceremonies and Religious Customs of Various Nations” (1723)

In preparing for a lecture on the Enlightenment, I was reminded of a little known work that “Changed Europe.” (from the title of the book: The Book that Changed Europe) What makes Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations (1723) so special is its attempt to present all the world’s religions in an objective and fair way in a world that still largely believed that tolerance was a sin.

It was also a major intellectual achievement. It was written by the Huguenot (French Protestant) refugee in the relatively tolerant Dutch Republic. The project comprised seven volumes with more than 200 illustrations. The images rival the text as an intellectual achievement in its own right. (see two of the images below) Another Huguenot, Bernard Picart, designed all of the book’s illustrations.

It was a major victory for tolerance!

"Hindu deities, one holding recognisable European musical instruments."

“Hindu deities, one holding recognisable European musical instruments.”

“Marriage and divorce ceremonies of the natives of Canada. Picart used the European style rug and classical poses to make this religion seem less foreign to European readers.”