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Agents in Posterity

January 7, 2013

January 20, 1820 – September 12, 1821

To pick up a bit of slack, I’m reviewing 10 letters today not 5, and, yes, that covers about 2 years of correspondence.

Having recently watched Lincoln, starring the unmatchable Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s on my mind. (President Lincoln, that is, not Day-Lewis, or wait, vice versa, I’m confused, does it matter?) But let’s back up a moment. There is a reasonable argument that when the Founding Fathers more or less tabled the slavery issue when they crafted the U.S. Constitution, many of them believed that slavery was on its way out and would eventually die a slow, natural death. It made sense, or at least assuaged guilt, for northern delegates to compromise on that issue in the interest of uniting the states under a strong federal government.

On the other hand, from what I’m reading, both Adams and Jefferson pretty much know a civil war over slavery is coming ‘round the mountain. Of course, at this point in time, it’s been over 30 years since the Constitutional Convention, the cotton gin has revolutionized the cotton industry and has been expanding the slave economy since the 1790s, and the Missouri Compromise just welcomed the 13th slave state into the union. If the Founding Fathers did think slavery was on its way out in 1787, the handful still living in 1821 could see that they got it wrong. Here’s Jefferson wringing his hands over slavery:

“The real question, as seen in the states afficted with this unfortunate population, is Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger? For if Congress has a power to regulate the conditions of the inhabitants of the states, within the states, it will be but another exercise of that power to declare that all shall be free. Are we then to see again Athenian and Lacedemonian confederacies? To wage another Peloponnesian war to settle the ascendancy between them? Or is this the tocsin of merely a servile war? That remains to be seen: but not I hope by you or me. Surely they will parley awhile, and give us time to get out of the way.”

As an aside, I didn’t really understand this passage after several readings, but it is amazing how the physical act of writing it down helps my brain work it out; a quick review of Ancient Greece helps too. It seems that for Jefferson, the eventual abolition of slavery is a foregone conclusion (if Congress can decree who’s a slave state and who isn’t, then it has the power to end slavery), so the question is whether that process will be a peaceful one, or if it will result in a war between the states, or, if not a civil war, a sort of revenge war carried out by freed slaves against former masters.

Jefferson then digresses about various South American colonial conflicts (and offering opinions), and closes his letter to John Adams with this: “We must leave both, I believe, to heaven, and wrap ourselves up in the mantle of resignation.”

Here’s JA’s response: “Slavery in this country I have seen hanging over it like a black cloud for half a Century. If I were as drunk with enthusiasm as Swedenborg or Westley, I might probably say I had seen Armies of Negroes marching and countermarching in the air, shining in Armour. I have been so terrified with this Phenomenon that I constantly said in former times to the Southern Gentlemen, I cannot comprehend this object; I must leave it to you. I will vote for forceing no measure against your judgements. What we are to see, God knows, and I leave it to him, and his agents in posterity.”

Just before that, JA described Swedenborg and Westley as lunatics (what has he got against John Wesley? Geez.), so I know he’s being sarcastic about the marching negroes. Or is he just using sarcasm to soften his shared fears with Southern Gentlemen? Probably. The fear of black uprising/revenge was a big part of denying/resisting/delaying emancipation. But I’m obviously zeroing in on JA’s and TJ’s comments that the slavery problem was coming to a head for “agents in posterity.” That JA and TJ (ages 85 and 77) were ready (and relieved) to leave that battle to future generations is reasonable but also frightening considering the immensity of the task and its demands on a leader who would be born to that time.

The principal agent ended up being Abraham Lincoln, and I think Spielberg’s film drives that point home. Two scenes from Lincoln especially stuck with me. In the first, Lincoln is seated in his office with his cabinet members who have for the most part given up on finding enough House votes to pass the 13th amendment and are openly criticizing Lincoln’s political tactics. Lincoln loses his temper and in so many words tells his cabinet that he’s the President of the United States, “clothed in immense power,” so get those votes and get the hell out of his office (the “Now! Now! Now!” scene featured in some trailers).

Lincoln

In the second scene, Lincoln meets privately (in the White House scullery?) with Thaddeus Stevens, the radical anti-slavery Republican who Lincoln needs to reign in his inflammatory talk of social equality in order to not scare off a few Democrats from voting for the Amendment. It’s a great dialogue, with Stevens lecturing Lincoln about having a moral compass and Lincoln pointing out that you usually don’t get anything done in Congress by sticking to your principles. To me, both scenes showed Lincoln as the agent of abolition, the one who took up the burden that Adams and Jefferson knew someone would have to bear.

Lincoln-Stevens

I’ll conclude with an appropriate line by John Adams: “But I think a free Government is necessarily a complicated Piece of Machinery, the nice and exact Adjustment of whose Springs and Weights are not yet well comprehended by the Artists of the Age and still less by the People.”

Reminds me of Thaddeus Stevens (played with command in the film by Tommy Lee Jones), who sputters at Lincoln, “Shit on people and what they want and what they’re ready for.” I bet Adams and Stevens would have been friends.

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Oh, Right, Slavery DOES Exist

December 10, 2012

November 7, 1819 – December 21, 1819

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “Congress are about to assemble and the Clouds look Black and thick, Assembling from all points, threatening thunder and Lightning. The Spanish Treaty, the Missouri Slavery, the encouragement of Manufactures Act, the plague of Banks, perhaps even the Monument for Washington, and above all the bustle of Caucuses for the approaching Election for President and Vice President…”

Cue talking head: “This is the most important election of our time…”

I’ve been keeping track and here, in letter #336, is the first appearance of the word “slavery” (or any derivation). “Missouri Slavery” refers to the debate over Missouri’s application for statehood and whether it should be admitted as a slave state. Here’s a brief summary of the Missouri Compromise, courtesy of the Library of Congress:

“The Senate debated the admission of Maine and Missouri from February 8 through February 17, 1820. On February 16, the Senate agreed to unite the Maine and Missouri bills into one bill. The following day the Senate agreed to an amendment that prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line, except for Missouri, and then agreed to the final version of the bill by a vote of 24 to 20. After rejecting the Senate’s version of the bill, the House of Representatives passed a bill on March 1, that admitted Missouri without slavery. On March 2, after a House-Senate conference agreed to the Senate’s version, the House voted 90 to 87 to allow slavery in Missouri and then voted 134 to 42 to prohibit slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.”

In other words, Missouri was admitted as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and slavery was prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Territory.

Here’s the Louisiana Territory (purchased by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803):

louisiana-purchase-1803

Here’s the Missouri Compromise, 1820:

Missouri Compromise

Some connection points: Missouri Compromise repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, allowing states to choose slavery or no slavery>>>>Missouri Compromise declared unconstitutional in the Dred Scott decision, 1857, also denying black citizenship and allowing slavery in all territories>>>>Civil War begins, 1861.

But I digress.

Here’s TJ’s response to JA: “The banks, bankrupt law, manufactures, Spanish treaty are nothing. These are occurences which like waves in a storm will pass under the ship. But the Missouri question is a breaker on which we lose the Missouri country by revolt, and what more, God knows. From the battle of Bunker’s hill to the treaty of Paris we never had so ominous a question. It even damps the joy with which I hear of your high health, and welcomes to me the consequences of my want of it. I thank god that I shall not live to witness it’s issue.”

After this reflection, TJ drops the subject and shifts to an extended philosophizing about the virtue (or lack of virtue) of ancient Roman leaders. What should I make of this?

A) Jefferson is more interested in ancient Roman history than the current American slavery question.
B) Jefferson would rather enjoy his retirement than get into it with John Adams about the American slavery question.
C) Don’t make anything of anything until you read additional sources, not just a collection of personal letters between two friends.

Let’s consult Joseph E. Ellis once again (because American Creation is the only relevant book sitting on my shelf at the moment and I’ve underlined important passages so that I don’t have to rely on Internet searches that will inevitably end three hours later with the answers to why I should become a vegan, how I’m poisoning my children with artificial dye additives, and how many hours William and Kate have been pregnant):

What came to be called the Missouri Question was triggered by an amendment to the bill admitting Missouri into the union that made the prohibition of slavery a condition of statehood. . . Jefferson’s position was that the issue ought to remain in the shadows or, shifting his metaphors, should be allowed to pass “like waves in a storm pass under a ship.” But as the debate in Congress heated up, and it became clear that this particular wave possessed the potential to capsize the entire ship of state, Jefferson unburdened himself. An old colleague from presidential days who visited him at Monticello described Jefferson as obsessed with the Missouri Question, gesturing dramatically as he walked his fields, warning that this was the one issue that could lead to civil war, the end of the republican experiment with self-government, eventually to “a war of extermination toward the African in our land.”

The layers of Jefferson’s thoughts on the Missouri Question are onion-like (or parfait-like). Every president up to Lincoln had to deal with the slavery problem in some way, and the solution was always to put it off, avoid conflict, preserve the union for the time being. Ellis presents the fascinating argument that Jefferson’s 1803 purchase of the Louisiana Territory “provided the last realistic opportunity for the United States to implement a policy of gradual emancipation,” which would avoid a seemingly inevitable civil war. If Jefferson had made the prohibition of slavery a component of the purchase, the subsequent revenue earned by the federal government from the sale of land to western settlers could have compensated “slave-owners south of the Potomac and east of the Mississippi, who would free their slaves on an agreed-upon schedule.”

This didn’t happen. And it was probably on Jefferson’s mind as the latest slavery dilemma came to a head with Missouri.

I’m trying to keep in mind that these are personal letters between Jefferson and Adams, obviously not a complete or even accurate historical record. But I am surprised that slavery appears to be a taboo issue. I suppose today’s parallel could be abortion. Such a contentious and morally heavy issue isn’t something you’re going to “get into” with just anyone, even a good friend, particularly if you aren’t on the same page (TJ and JA were both publicly opposed to slavery, but TJ owned slaves, Adams didn’t). Like slavery in 19th-century America, abortion today is an intractable issue, raising questions about human equality (or definition) and moral responsibility that divide the country. It’s an issue that is front and center in the courts, Congress, and daily life, yet at the same time is an elephant in the room, an inappropriate conversation topic at the water cooler, around the dinner table, or in a presidential debate (at least an honest conversation). Without drawing inappropriate parallels to the Civil War, I  wonder how or if this issue will ever be resolved.

Maybe the silence between TJ and JA on slavery shouldn’t be surprising after all. After reading 336 of their letters, and considering their up-and-down relationship, I wouldn’t characterize them as close friends. They share common and momentous experiences, bonding as two soldiers might during war time. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to share everything. There are different kinds of friendship. This ain’t one of those.

Spot the Real Letter!

October 30, 2012

May 26, 1817 – May 17, 1818

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1818:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of S. America. They will succeed against Spain. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 2012:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of Syria. They will succeed against Bashar al-Assad. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1860:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the notion of emancipation. The slaves will succeed against their masters. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies with stagnation and vengeance. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with us. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to French dude, May 17, 1776:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of the American colonies. We will succeed against Britain. But the dangerous enemy is within our own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain our minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for us to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify us to take charge of ourselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep us at peace with one another. Surely it is your duty to wish us independence and self-government, because we wish it ourselves, and we have the right, and you none, to chuse for ourselves: and I wish moreover that your ideas may be erroneous, and ours prove well founded.”

Is this at all helpful? Jefferson’s real words made me think how this refrain seems to echo throughout the history of revolutions and freedom fights. I think our current president made a similar point in a recent debate—not the same point, but similar. Something about how his administration’s pace of movement in supporting the rebellion in Syria depends on whether a legitimate replacement of President Assad can be identified (rather than replacing him with another terrorist regime). The argument was there for Egypt’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, too.

It may or may not make sense for Syria and Egypt; it’s an open question. In the case of American slavery and the American Revolution, it sounds like hogwash, right? Freedom now! Except that it was as open a question during their time as it is today.

So we’re back to the old “hindsight is 20/20” conundrum. Again, is it helpful? Should we be learning anything from this? Should we be yelling “Freedom!” and dropping a SEAL team on Assad’s house about now? Or is our moral clarity over American colonial rebellion and immediate emancipation for slaves just part of the myth-making that occurs over time? During the American Revolution, plenty of fence-sitters were all for freedom but weren’t interested in paying the price of war. Leading up to the American Civil War, plenty of anti-slavery people feared that immediate emancipation would leave slaves—without education, legal protection, job skills—at the mercy of former masters who would simply employ them in equally dismal serf-like conditions.

Maybe “morality” isn’t the issue. Abraham Lincoln was morally against slavery, but he signed the Emancipation Proclamation to win the war, not to end slavery (and the Proclamation didn’t free all slaves, just those in the “rebellious states”).

On the other hand, when you compare the North American colonies with the South American colonies, Jefferson (Mr. Declaration of Independence) sounds like an ass. We get our freedom, but they’re too ignorant to handle it? Was Jefferson being a hypocrite or is my moral clarity getting in the way?

How’s that for a mash-up of current Middle Eastern events, global colonial history, and the American Civil War?

May 11, 1794 – May 27, 1795

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson: “I am glad to find you so well pleased with your Retirement. I felt the same delightful Satisfaction after my Return from Europe, and I feel still every Summer upon my little farm all the Ardour, and more than all the Ardour of youth: to such a Degree that I cannot bear the thought of writing or reading, unless it be some trifle to fill up a vacant half hour.”

JA to TJ: “I have spent my Summer so deliciously in farming that I return to the old Story of Politicks with great Reluctance. The Earth is grateful. You find it so, I dare say. I wish We could both say the Same of its Inhabitants.”

TJ to JA: “We have had a hard winter and backward spring. This injured our wheat so much that it cannot be made a good crop by all the showers of heaven which are now falling down on us exactly as we want them. Our first cutting of clover is not yet begun. Strawberries not ripe till within this fortnight, and every thing backward in proportion. What with my farming and my nail manufactory I have my hands full. I am on horseback half the day, and counting and measuring nails the other half. I am trying potatoes on a large scale as a substitute for Indian corn for feeding animals.”

JA to TJ: “If I had Your Plantation and your Labourers* I should be tempted to follow your example and get out of the Fumum et Opes Strepitumque Romae [“the smoke, the wealth, the din of Rome”] which I abominate.”

Joseph J. Ellis in American Creation: “Incantations of virtuous retirement to rural solitude were a familiar and even formulaic refrain, especially within the planter aristocracy of Virginia. The classical models of Cicero and Cincinnatus provided the script, which Jefferson’s principled withdrawal from the hurly-burly of politics to the pastoral serenity of Monticello fit perfectly.”

Noble farmers willing to give it up for absolute power.
"Cincinnatus leaves the plow for the Roman dictatorship" by Juan Antonio Ribera, 1806.

Whose brilliant idea was it to read American Creation as commentary alongside the A-J Letters? You’re welcome. The benefit is the added ability to include some meaningful context to the correspondence. The problem, besides TMI, is what I might call the rabbit hole of historical revelation. This reveals this, which reveals that, which clarifies that, which debunks this, which proves this, which misconstrues that. Where does it end? How many times do I need to acknowledge a caveat of historical ignorance? Maybe every post….

Anyway, where I’m heading is that during TJ’s secretary of state term, his subsequent “retirement,” and the sparse A-J correspondence during the 1790s, Jefferson is doing a lot more than just negotiating Native American sovereignty, as mentioned in the previous post. Essentially he is trying to undermine President Washington’s (and Adams’s) administration and establish the first official opposition party to the Federalists. Ellis lays this story out in his book and Jefferson comes out looking pretty bad. I won’t get into it much deeper than that except for two long but impressive quotes from Ellis.

First, a little more background: Jefferson and James Madison allied to establish the Democratic-Republican party, who feared a too-strong federal government, manifested most clearly in the proposed First Bank of the United States championed by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The national bank was established by Congress in 1791; TJ & Co. declared it unconstitutional.** Now here’s Ellis:

“It was not just the bank itself, then, that terrified Madison and his fellow Virginians, though that source of dread was real enough. It was the open-ended definition of federal power on which the bank was authorized, which in effect gave the federal government a roving mandate to extend its authority wherever it wished, to include the thoroughly vulnerable issue of slavery. In the [Democratic-]Republican vision of the current political situation, most especially its distinctive Virginia vision, corrupt “money-men” were making fortunes by shuffling pieces of paper while whispering insulting jokes about the unknowing yeoman farmers they were fleecing. But neither Jefferson nor Madison was really a farmer. (Neither man ever did a full day’s work in the fields.) They and the Virginia constituency they represented were planters, and the labor source on which the plantation economy rested, ever so precariously it turned out, was slavery.”

So, Jefferson was full of it, and as a Virginia plantation owner, he was unavoidably corrupted by the need to protect the South’s slave economy from federal meddling. He undermined the GW administration – while a member of that administration. (He even hired a “translator” in the State Department whose real job was to write crap about GW in the papers.) Here’s what Ellis says about the Federalists’ opinion of Jefferson:

“Hamilton’s exposure of Jefferson’s covert role in the Republican plotting prompted a series of Federalist assaults on his character that drew selectively on his previous career to document his shallowness and lack of integrity: as governor of Virginia he had fled ignominiously before invading British troops; as minister to France he had failed to comprehend the bloody consequences of the French Revolution, insisting that all would turn out well because he clung tenaciously to ‘theoretical principles fit only for Utopia’; as the author of Notes on the State of Virginia he had declared ‘the inherent inferiority of Blacks to Whites, because they are more unsavory and secrete more by the kidneys’; as a mathematician he kept shifting his theorems as he twirled away in his specially designed pivot chair, which became a favorite symbol of Jefferson’s endemic rotations and vacillations. He was, in the Federalist demonology, a misguided, duplicitous, dangerous dreamer whose sublimated ambition would never be satisfied until he became president of the United States.”

Ouch. And Ellis really doesn’t refute most of that, particularly the “duplicitous” characterization.

Is there a lesson here? Skepticism is healthy when it comes to reading primary sources? Every big problem in American history seems to connect to slavery? If you can write the Declaration of Independence, you’ll probably do all right in most history books? Truth is more complicated than myth? Jefferson was a S.O.B.? What do you think?

* I have yet to find the words “slave” or “slavery” in this correspondence. So far only John Adams has mentioned Jefferson’s “labourers.” And only Abigail Adams mentioned Jefferson’s “maid servant,” Sally Hemings. TJ is silent.

**A fun fact to consider the next time you’re in an argument about what the Founding Fathers intended in the Constitution. Even they didn’t agree.

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