Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Jefferson and Historical Context:

The little conversion I've been having with Sudha Shenoy reminds of this past post of mine on historical context and the founding.

Our founders and the philosophers they followed invented rights based liberal democracy, where government's focus would be on "the rights of man." And all of man's unenumerable specific rights were derived from the two broad general rights of liberty and equality. This is, by far, the greatest political accomplishment in history and one in which we should all zealously defend.

But that said, depending on the context of how one looks at the founding, the founders may not seem so Enlightened after all. I mean, could you imagine any individual today openly owning slaves? Or even Jefferson, one of my intellectual idols, made observations about blacks which today would make him seem downright racist. From Notes on the State of Virginia (brief except):

Add to these flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, and their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by the preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? . . .

They secrete less by the kidneys and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor. They seem to require less sleep. . . . Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to whites; in reason, much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous. . . . The Indians will astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, and their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration. . . .


This is why I don't take seriously social conservatives' claiming Jefferson for themselves when they note that he supported sodomy laws prescribing castration as a penalty. Keep in mind, Jefferson revised and lowered the penalty for preexisting sodomy laws, from death to castration. If you want the "socially conservative" Jefferson who supported castration for sodomy then you also have to take the socially conservative Jefferson who thought blacks smelled and compared their lust for white women to an Orangutan's lust for a black woman.

Note, Jefferson's thoughts on blacks and sodomy referenced above constitute Jefferson arguing against equality and liberty. Me on the other hand, I'll take the Jefferson who argued on behalf of liberty and equality. I'll take the Jefferson who said, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Jefferson's illiberal beliefs, for the time however, were not at all taboo; they were entirely normal and in accord with the "traditional values" of the day. But the revolutionary ideals which Jefferson articulated so eloquently, I think, are directly responsible for both the racial equality ideal of today and decisions like Lawrence which push the edge on specific liberty rights.

As I wrote in my conversation with Dr. Shenoy: "[C]onstitutional natural rights ideals need to be liberated 18th Century prejudices, if that can be done. Otherwise we truly were founded on slavery, racism, sexism, conquest of Indians, anti-Catholicism, and other sorts of bigotry. And who the f*ck wants to be part of that system?"

Jefferson, apparently, shared a sentiment similar to mine. From his letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1810:

[L]aws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

3 comments:

Bill Ware said...

I continue to be delighted by the fact based insights you have about the founders of our country as evidenced by the letters, etc. that they wrote. Of course their ideals and the reality of the situation back then were different. That in no way excuses us from pursuing the goal of liberty and equality for all.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Bill!

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