Politics & Policy

“Never Forget: They Kept Lots of Slaves”

The latest maneuver in the culture wars, and how it is distorting our thinking about the Founding Fathers.

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Each new book on the founding of our republic might as well contain the scholarly equivalent of the surgeon general’s warning affixed to our beer bottles. “Warning: Studying the Men Who Founded the United States May Be Dangerous to Your Moral Health.”

#ad#Nothing short of the most drastic measures could put a stop to what (in the view of some of our media and scholarly big shots) is a highly unfortunate development. What has so exasperated the intellectual classes? This–the fact that during the last decade or so the Founding Fathers have begun to be treated by a number of historians in an uncharacteristic way: with respect. Even veneration, of the kind traditionally accorded to lawgivers who found great cities or republics.

For a certain kind of academic historian or debunking journalist nothing could be more insupportable than this notion of the Great Man, the Heroic Founder. What, the outraged professor or muckraking editorial writer wonders, has gone wrong? How, in so up-to-date an age as our own, could some very dead white males manage to be so…popular?

Our friends have nevertheless found a way to stamp out this resurgence of barbarism. As a strategy in the culture wars, their maneuver is a brilliant one.

The cover of the December 14, 2003, issue of The New York Times Book Review sums up the matter with a certain blunt beauty: “Never Forget: They Kept Lots of Slaves.” “They,” of course, refers to the slave-owning Founders; but the crucial word is “never.” Slavery, we are given to understand, is now the sine qua non of scholarly discourse about the Founding Fathers; and we are instructed to apply to the slave-owning Founders the same motto many people (quite rightly and prudently) have heretofore used in connection with the Nazis: “Never forget.”

Is this not brilliant? For you see if slavery becomes the principal moral yardstick by which we measure the Founding Fathers, a number of them must automatically be reduced to the status of scoundrels. Weighed in the balance of slavery alone, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison must all be accounted morally worthless, for whatever their differences, each of them owned and exploited slaves.

Yet it is not only the Big Three southerners who must forfeit their claims to veneration; so, too, must those non-slaveholders who drafted, defended, or ratified the Constitution. For they played a part in the creation of a document that condoned slavery, one that took slaves into account in determining state representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College.

According to the Times, “new books on the founding fathers put slavery at the center of the story of early America.” In fact, of the five books on various Founders reviewed in the December 14 issue of the Book Review, only two, Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God and Garry Wills’s “Negro President, can be said to put slavery at the “center” of the early American story. But the lesson to be drawn is clear: Henceforth slavery will be at the center of the story, like it or not. Books that explore other aspects of the Founding will be marginalized, criticized for failing to address the “central” question of the republic’s early years. A new litmus test has been established, one that is likely to have a profound effect on our view of the nation’s Founding.

In fairness it must be said that the Times is merely reporting a trend in historical writing about the Founders. The trend has been especially evident in scholarly work on Thomas Jefferson. In contemporary Jeffersonian studies the unproven assertion that Jefferson sired some or all of Sally Hemings’s children has come to overshadow all other aspects of the man’s life and work.

But there are indications that the same distorting lens through which Jefferson has been viewed will now be used to examine other Founders. Even non-academic historians are beginning to get the message: Put slavery at the “center” of the story or else. Put slavery at the center of the story or face the wrath of the Times’s point-man on the editorial page, Brent Staples. Reasonable people–and reasonable historians–disagree about just how much recent DNA studies really tell us about a possible sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. But Mr. Staples, in a Times editorial in July 2002, dismissed those historians who question whether Jefferson and Hemings engaged in a sexual relationship as “[d]ie-hard critics….embarked on a kind of holy crusade.” Mr. Staples, for his part, has no patience with the skeptics. In the “new DNA-driven rethinking of history,” he wrote, “Hemings can no longer be reduced to a mere courtesan.”

Well, actually, the new “DNA-driven rethinking” doesn’t even establish that Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s courtesan, though some historians have drawn that conclusion. Mr. Staples nevertheless praised those historians who “have shifted their attentions to a woman who was once considered a cipher but has now moved to center stage in America’s longest running domestic drama.” Put slavery at the center of the stage, or don’t bother putting on a performance at all.

Do not misunderstand me. The question of slavery in the early republic should be studied. But make no mistake about the motives of those who are instituting the new gag-rule designed to marginalize books that deal with other aspects of the foundation of the republic. These self-appointed censors are less interested in encouraging the pursuit of historical truth than they are in finding new ways to undermine the moral legitimacy of a country many of whose qualities they abhor.

In their new book In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr describe the activities of a corps of zealots in the academy who continue to extenuate the sins of Soviet Communists and their followers in the United States. If these scholars are determined to make light of Communism’s sins, a number of their brother scholars are doing their best to tarnish America’s virtues. There is no better way to do this than through a strategy which, if unchallenged, will slowly but inevitably turn the Founding Fathers into the Founding Jerks.

* * * *

Am I exaggerating the threat to the study of the Founders? Possibly; but take a look at the way scholars treated the founding of the republic during much of the last century, and you may begin to agree with me that wariness is justified.

At the beginning of the 20th-century Progressive historians (such as Charles A. Beard) argued that George Washington and his friends were mountebanks, tightfisted swindlers eager to make a buck speculating in land and securities. In the middle of the last century Marxist and quasi-Marxist historians (such as Richard Hofstadter) clothed the Progressive thesis in a more becoming Marxian dress. In his book The American Political Tradition Hofstadter criticized the Founders for failing to develop “a means by which [our] society may transcend eternal conflict and rigid adherence to property rights as its integrating principles.” Madison, poor man, didn’t see a way to the dialectical synthesis Hofstadter envisioned, a new science that would abolish private property and usher in the post-capitalist state. Lenin, one is left to suppose, was the more insightful statesman.

Then came the 1960s. A new generation of historians came of professional age. They praised the Founding Fathers for dallying with Greco-Roman notions of public virtue, the severe and stoical virtus suitable to a free republic. These historians cared little enough for the rigorous virtue of the Catos, those stuffy old Romans; but the idea that an earlier generation of Americans had united in the pursuit of a common good was for the rising professors a useful one, for it allowed them to damn the selfish and acquisitive habits of modern Americans, those boring Organization Men who labored in the vineyards of General Motors and AT&T.

According to the historical fable that gained credence in the late Sixties and early Seventies, once upon a time Americans came together to create a Republic of Virtue. Here every man, eschewing the pursuit of private interest, would devote himself to the common weal. But then the haughty Federalist princes marched in and spoiled the fun. Sensing a threat both to their property and their prerogative, the high-born gentlemen put an end to the little experiment in selfless utopianism. The Federalists who gathered at Philadelphia in 1787 to draft a new charter for the United States not only managed to scrap the good old Articles of Confederation (which, we are assured, really weren’t so bad), they imposed on the nation a draconian Constitution that forever enshrined the pursuit of private interest (in part by artfully balancing one interest against another, the thesis advanced by Madison in his tenth Federalist paper). The Federalists, in other words, sold the Republic of Virtue short. What was worse, they had the temerity to invoke “We the People” in justifying their coup d’etat.

History, however, was working against the academic historians’ ideal of a virtuous commonwealth. The Berlin Wall fell; Marx was relegated to history’s ash heap; and all at once the Founders’ “rigid adherence to property rights” no longer appeared as sad and bizarre as it had to Dick Hofstadter. When fresh evidence of Communist atrocities was discovered in the Soviet archives in the 1990s, the Founders’ Bill of Rights started to look positively wonderful. The ingenious blend of liberty and order that went into the making of the American republic appeared rather as a cause for celebration than grumbling. How, one wondered, had the Founders done it?

A number of historians, many of them unaffiliated with the academy, began to reexamine the Founders’ achievement. In their different ways Richard Brookhiser, David McCullough, and Walter Isaacson have described the strengths of character that underlay the achievements of Washington, Hamilton, Adams, and Franklin. Abjuring academic jargon, they set forth their heroes’ virtues in plain English. (And yet to be perfectly fair to Dick Hofstadter, he had a fine and rather elegant English prose-style.)

What was the (more or less) anti-American (or mildly socialist) academic historian to do, now that the Founders were again respectable, even admirable, figures? A number of them tried to revive the moribund Marx. In her Anson G. Phelps Lectures, published as Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s, Joyce Appleby noted that Jefferson and his followers were essentially capitalists, committed to liberty of trade. The typical Jeffersonian, she observed, believed that the free market was a good thing. “Capitalism,” she said, “thus disclosed itself in a benign and visionary way to Republicans who drew from its dynamic operation the promise of a new age for ordinary men.”

One might conclude from this (Appleby’s writing is a shade more opaque than Hofstadter’s) that the professor was sympathetic to the Jeffersonian faith in free markets. Not a bit of it. The Jeffersonian “vision of a free society of independent men prospering through an expansive commerce” was, she argued, “short-lived.” It was also, in her estimation, short-sighted. As the nation prospered, “the growth of industry strengthened the tendency of capitalism to divide workers and employers.” Despite the “persistent appeal of Jeffersonian idealism in the United States,” its free-market economics were a mistake. “In so thoroughly embracing the liberal position on private property and economic freedom,” Appleby wrote, “the Jeffersonians seemed unable to envision a day when the free exercise of men’s wealth-creating talents would produce its own class-divided society. Marx’s statement that men and women can only solve the problems history sets before them comes to mind.”

No use, then, looking to the Jeffersonian ideal of a free society for inspiration today–or so Appleby informs us: “To study the exact nature of the capitalist underpinnings of our nation’s first popular political movement at the turn of the nineteenth century…teaches us that we at the turn of the twenty-first century must look elsewhere for our principle of hope.”

Professor Appleby, for her part, might look elsewhere for a “principle of hope” in the struggle to overthrow the cruelties of capitalism; but how were other Americans, innocent of the Leftish aspirations of the academy, to be persuaded to follow her example and turn away from the example of the Founders? We now have the answer. In the past the Founders’ acquisitiveness appeared to many historians to be their chief weakness, but today’s scholars have come to see that slavery is their most obvious soft spot. And many of these scholars are determined to exploit the vulnerability.

* * * *

The incessant repetition of the mantra, “Never Forget: They Kept Lots of Slaves,” will almost certainly have what lawyers call a “chilling effect” on historical inquiry in the years to come. Students in college and graduate school will quickly see, when they come to choose topics for honors theses and dissertations, where the road to honor and profit lies. Professors will tailor their lectures–and conform their monographs–to the newest canon in the P.C. code. Want to trace the evolution of Whig ideals of liberty into a modern philosophy of free-market liberalism? Interested in studying the Founders’ views about natural law? The relation between church and state? Freedom of contract? Or are you simply curious to know more about how the Founders formed themselves into men capable of creating the freest and most durable republic the world has yet seen? Go ahead and follow your interests, but don’t expect to get funding, a teaching position, or a fair hearing for your work.

The cumulative effect of the new mandate to put slavery “at the center of the story of early America” is likely to be devastating. Imagine if, in the centuries after the fall of Athens, the West had concentrated single-mindedly on the fact–quite undeniable–that the Greeks kept slaves. Imagine if every book that appeared on Plato, Aristotle, and Sophocles put at “the center of the story” the sin of Greek slavery. If the mantra “Never Forget: They Kept Lots of Slaves” had been applied to the Greeks as rigorously as it is now to be applied to the American Founders, Saint Augustine would never have happened. Neither would Aquinas have emerged, in any form remotely resembling the one we know. The same goes for Dante, Petrarch, the Renaissance, vast chunks of our inheritance.

Slavery is a great evil; and Lincoln was right to say that if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. But the new litmus test being foisted upon us does little to help us understand the nature and extent of slavery’s evil–or any other evil. The new standard is in its own way a narrow and bigoted one, unequal to the complexity of the human psyche, its apparently unlimited capacity for good and for evil. The souls of Founders are as complicated as those of other people; and they deserve to be the subject of a higher conversation than that which is now coming to prevail.

Michael Knox Beran is the author of Jefferson’s Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind and The Last Patrician: Bobby Kennedy and the End of American Aristocracy.

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