Liberty Matters

Final Response

It is rare to find outright contradictions in thought occupying the same moment in the same text of any author who is even remotely concerned with making a reasoned appeal to others. Conflictual statements do occur, but more commonly over time and when the author is made aware of such, there is usually an effort at explanation, even if only by way of confession that one has had a change of mind.
Jefferson's intellectual consistency is thus well contended for by Lucas Morell. And so, I emphasized that historians should be acutely aware of tensions and aporias through time and especially tensions between thoughts and actions. It is here that creative engagement takes place among persons and groups, and where authentic and enduring change occurs- at the historical margins of individual choices.
Jefferson was acutely aware of these margins in his own personal engagements. He was not allowed to forget them. I mentioned one-Benjamin Banneker. Another even closer to home, came from his neighbor and fellow Virginian, Edward Coles. I won't go into the details of Cole's life and his exchange with Jefferson. Kevin Gutzman goes into some of this in his book Jefferson, Revolutionary (2017) if one is interested to discover more.
But with regard to the so-called New Histories, the lack of concern for the important nuances of context is a real point of difference that goes to matters of historical accuracy. And here Hannah Spahn has correctly noted the nature of the problem. There are better and worse forms of dialectical reasoning at play in the minds of the new historians. The very worst sort is that which insists upon a binary imposition of categories. Here is where the critical details of context rightly perceived are simply lost and understanding is sacrificed in the rush to judgement.
The usual way in which such details become washed out or distorted is in the assertion that all relations are power relations and that no variation in thought matters except those that illustrate the machinations of structure and system, and hence the interest in judging moments of only macro-systemic revolutionary change.
But change can come peacefully, and I would assert, more often, at the margins of choices made by individuals. I take what Peter Onuf says to heart, that in the near term anyway, "the unhappy result" of independence was to give masters a more powerful hold over their slaves, but this was predominantly in one region.
We should not underestimate, however, the power of the ideals of the Declaration, at those critical individual margins of decision, in the early years of the republic in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution. A major illustration of this is precisely the great wave of emancipations and ultimate abolition that was washing down from New England, over the mid-Atlantic states and up onto the shores, even if ultimately unsuccessful, of Maryland and Virginia.
It was largely because of this northern and mid-Atlantic abolition that so many of the founding period and early republic could honestly believe that the days of slavery were soon to end. That history is well told in a classic book on that subject that perhaps ought to be reprinted: Arthur Zilversmit's The First Emancipation: The abolition of slavery in the North (1967).
Finally, Susan Love Brown's comments raise a fundamentally important point about Jefferson's specific views of race. As she notes, these prejudices were not simply his, but were shared and extended well beyond his immediate circle. Indeed, such views came to infuse large segments of American society right up to our own time. I am certainly not denying this. My only concern is that the use of the term "systemic" invites an analogy of process in historical and social causation that is all too deterministic and begs the question of where change actually originates.
In its origins, the word "systemic" goes to biological and medical uses that imply a "system-wide" permeation. I understand that certain institutional structures, most especially of course the visible structures of direct governmental intervention, have played their tragic part in the history of race and racism. But the way systemic is used today, it has generally meant something far more amorphous and with such broad over-arching application, that invites altogether too much subjectivity and therefore misunderstanding.
The historian has to remain sensitive to all those instances where individuals rose above prejudices and threats and these stories are to be found from the earliest moments of the republic (see for example Joyce Lee Malcom's "Slavery in Massachusetts and the American Revolution," Journal of the Historical Society [December 2010], 414-436) right through the bitterest days of segregation and Jim Crow. Here the uses of state power to counter individual choices was real, and institutional differences mattered with respect to the decisions individuals made as Jennifer Morse's classic essay showed (See Jenifer Morse, "The Political Economy of Segregation: The Case of Segregated Streetcars," The Journal of Economic History [December 1986], 893-917). But in this instance, it was not the function of an all-pervasive system, per se, but rather the imposition of very specific political structures.
Perhaps the best set of essays on historical analysis and causation relevant to this debate, remains the two-part treatment by Thomas L. Haskell, "Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility," Parts 1 and 2 in The American Historical Review, (April and June 1985), 339-361, 547-566. Where Haskell spoke in his day about the limitations of reductionist arguments concerning exploitation, I believe the current assertions of system and systemic now apply and are very closely if not exactly analogous. The details of these differences cannot be fully developed here but have to be left to the reader's own efforts at further exploration.
Before I forget, I must thank my colleague and friend Steve Ealy for his close reading and reduction of the initial essay which had exceeded too many bounds of both word count and themes, and I thank all of my respondents once more for their rich and insightful comments.