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Jefferson’s Race Obsession

Thanks to some provocative comments from my friend Nikhil Singh, and a spirited critique of my post from someone at Crooked Timber, it occurred to me that we may really be missing the significance of Jefferson if we think of him solely in the context of slavery (and I may have contributed to that). As both scholars and defenders of Jefferson have pointed out, Jefferson was not a fan of slavery. He had grave moral doubts about the institution, which he expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia and elsewhere, even if he almost never acted on them. Especially in his earlier years, he thought emancipation was inevitable (though that belief got somewhat more strained as time went on).

But if we shift our lens of analysis from slavery to post-slavery, Jefferson’s writings on race, which I explored at length yesterday, assume a far more illuminating — and ominous — cast. For what Jefferson is clearly trying to grapple with, in a way that few other theorists of his time are, is: what in the world are we (whites) going to do with these people (blacks) once they are free? How can we share this land with creatures that are so obviously inferior and subordinate and other? And the solutions he comes up—not just colonization but actual deportation (or extermination through race war) — reflect his orientation to the future, not to an institution that he doesn’t believe will exist much longer, but to a post-emancipation situation.

Jefferson’s haunting obsession, in other words, is black freedom, not black slavery — and indeed he spent quite a bit of time drawing up legislative codes in Virginia that would have imposed major liabilities and restrictions upon the movement and freedom of free blacks.

And it is in that light that we start to see the European parallels. For what was the Jewish Question of the nineteenth century if not an extended meditation on what we Germans or Europeans were going to do with this ancient inscrutable people who, thanks to Napoleon, had suddenly been thrown among us. Among us, but not of us. Simply read Richard Wagner’s Judaism in Music (1850) to get a taste of an equally cultivated European grappling with a similar problematic as Jefferson.

And the answers, of course, that Jefferson mooted — deportation, elimination — point us, as I said, forward. It’s not to say he was a fascist; too many other elements would have to cohere for that to occur. But he was laboring in nearby vineyards. Again, because unlike many of brethren, North and South, he truly grappled with the problem of how a dominant majority must deal with a despised minority when it has been forced upon the national scene.