Judging the Past

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States – Painting by Howard Chandler Christy (1940)

Judging the Past:
Essays on Historical Context and Anachronism


In the early 1980s at the height of the bloody Communist oppression in Southeast Asia and the “boat people,” a sailor on board the aircraft USS Midway in the South China Sea spotted a small leaky boat on the horizon full of people. The Midway sent a launch to rescue the people on board the ship. As the launch neared, one of the refugees spied a sailor on the deck. Emotional, the man rose to his feet and enthusiastically shouted “Hello American sailor! Hello freedom man!”(1) His sentiments encapsulate those of the “huddled masses” of which the great Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus wrote; millions of people who, often at great peril to life and limb, leave everything behind to seek a new life in the United States of America. They arrive with nothing but the hope of a new life and a yearning for the opportunity to determine their own destiny; the freedom to succeed or fail based on their own merits. Not for the guarantee of success rather for the opportunity to succeed or fail. One could also say that they risked their lives for the opportunity to fail. We must ask ourselves why – why would someone risk their life for the opportunity to fail? The answer is encapsulated in one word – freedom. Sadly, for most people who have lived on Earth, the concept of individual liberty and self determination have been the stuff of dreams. To most of the downtrodden peoples of history these would have been alien concepts. In fact, until John Locke put pen to paper in 1689 and wrote that all mankind are born with the natural God-given right to life, liberty, and property, never before had such an idea been verbalized. Only in America did these natural, inalienable rights become a readily accessible reality to everyone. No nation, empire, or society in the annals of human history has accomplished for its people and the world what America has in her short 244 years of existence. America has provided her people an unrivaled standard of living. Americans have been willing to sacrifice blood and treasure to liberate and feed oppressed and starving people in foreign lands that they have never seen and will never meet. The rule of law and the ideals enshrined in our founding documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, have served as the inspiration for representative government in all quarters of the planet. America is a mediator of international conflict and shines today as a beacon of hope to persecuted peoples all over the world.

America is by no means perfect, however for these reasons and many more she truly is exceptional – the Shining City on a Hill envisioned by our fortieth president.(2) In his farewell address President Reagan asked “…are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?”(3) Unfortunately a great number of young people today are unable to place America properly within the greater context of world history; they do not understand her great traditions and history. Instead, many focus exclusively on America’s shortcomings and failures. Often they learn from the work of revisionist historians, some of whom are openly anti-American. It would seem that the purpose of some historians is to convince as many young people that America is inherently bad. In the process of producing their works these historians often omit facts and details that run counter to their personal worldview and sometimes present hearsay and conjecture as fact. Instead of acting objectively and presenting an accurate narrative that includes all perspectives, they seek out and put on display only the most ugly and negative aspects of American history and minimize or ignore that which is positive and good. Ultimately they fail to present the “big picture” and give America her rightful place within the timeline of world events. It is irresponsible and dangerous to put a contemporary spin on history, such that it conforms with any personal or political ideology. Proponents of totalitarian regimes understand this; as Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels put it in their Communist Manifesto, “…in Communist society, the present dominates the past.”(4) In China the Communist Party has purged all undesirable or “counter-revolutionary” elements from their nation’s rich history. Similarly, in 1930s Germany the Nazi regime attempted to erase or distort the memory of any person or event that did not conform with its twisted dogma.

This focus on the negative aspects of America’s failures has caused many young people to believe the only way forward is to destroy America’s remarkable past and restart with a new set of ideals. In some ways this represents the failure of America’s schools and universities to properly teach students American history. Additionally, all too often it seems as though students are no longer taught how to think, rather what to think. To the horror of many older Americans of all races, creeds, and political stripes this is now manifested in the attacks on monuments to great American leaders, the desecration of cherished national symbols, and the vilification of America’s Founders. Some have gone so far as to marginalize the ideas and influence of Martin Luther King Jr. Others have called for the destruction of Mount Rushmore, getting rid of the U.S. flag, renaming the United States, and the elimination of the U.S. Constitution. Most of the young people today who subscribe to such beliefs do so in ignorance. However, if they are given the opportunity to objectively examine all of the information and think for themselves, most will moderate their hostile attitude toward historical figures and American history. They will achieve a broader understanding of their country’s unique history and be better equipped to confront the challenges that lie ahead. The purpose of these essays is to help to do that by providing a foundation or framework for understanding persons or events that occurred in the past.

Thomas Jefferson, official portrait (1800) by Rembrandt Peale

Historical Context

Context: noun The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.(5)
Historical Context: The complex web of political, economic, social, societal, and environmental conditions that influenced events that occurred in the past.

A frequent indictment of America often cited by critics of the United States is that it is a corrupt state all the way back to its roots. Prime examples proferred as evidence are: slavery, sexism, and racial prejudice, which were all commonplace in Colonial American society and at other times during American history. The barbarism of slavery, the slaughter that took place during the Indian Wars, and laws restricting the rights of women (and others) at various times in our history are offered as proof that America is inherently bad. On the surface these arguments are extremely persuasive because they provoke powerful emotional human responses. Upon closer scrutiny they are, however, flawed because they fail to place such events into their proper historical context. In order to illustrate how historical context can help use better understand past events, we will examine the terrible evil that is slavery.

From time immemorial human existence has pitted the strong against the weak; an existence characterized by man’s inhumanity to man. The earliest clues of human history indicate that when conflict between peoples occurred it was common for the victor to kill the vanquished. Given the context of the time, it made sense to do so. Especially if the society in which one lived could not produce enough food to feed a large number of captives or if they posed a risk to tribal security. As humans shifted from hunting and gathering to an agrarian existence it became advantageous to enslave conquered people. Historian Milton Meltzer made what many have recognized as the most detailed study of the history of slavery. In his 1993 work, Slavery: A World History, he explained:

Slaves could be used to care for the flocks or to labor in the fields. They added to the captor’s wealth and comfort. They provided food for him and they spared him from doing the hard and unpleasant tasks himself. Eventually, agriculture advanced to the point that it was profitable to use slaves in great numbers in the fields. …enslaving an enemy rather than killing him became a means to harvest a man’s labor and the result was a new dimension added to society.(6)

In fact, many historians believe slavery to be a step forward in human history.(7) As barbaric as this may seem by contemporary standards, when the only other alternative was murder it is clear why slavery could be considered a step forward for humanity. Meltzer further points out that slavery was not unique to any human culture or society – it was not the exception, rather it was the rule. In the Roman Empire at any given moment thirty to forty percent of its inhabitants were slaves. Slavery was practiced in various forms on all continents from the start of recorded history up and into the twenty-first century. The earliest Western scholars from the ancient greek historian Herodotus to Josephus of the Roman period wrote about slavery, however none of them interpreted it as a societal problem or flaw of humanity.(8) Thus the existence of human chattel was, for millennia, simply part of normal life. In the West it remained so until Christianity spread across Europe and in most places it became illegal for Christians to enslave one another. However, slavery in many ways was substituted by the feudal system under which peasants were bound to the land and to the aristocracy through debt peonage – a different form of bondage, but bondage nevertheless. The practice of debt peonage persisted well into the Colonial period in North America in the form of indentured servitude in exchange for paid passage across the Atlantic.

The evils of slavery in its various forms have never been totally erradicated and have persisted into modern times. During World War II the German National Socialists enslaved millions of Slavs, Jews, and others. In the Soviet Union Lenin and Stalin enslaved millions of politically undesirable people in gulags, as well as entire ethnic groups such as the Ukrainian Kulaks, Poles, Jews, and the Volga Germans. Throughout various Islamic societies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia thousands of non-Muslims are today still kept as slaves. The nation of India is, today, home to the largest enslaved population with between fourteen and eighteen million people held in bondage – a population roughly the size of Pennsylvania. The civilized world was outraged at the horrific slave auctions held in the areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State as recently as only a few years ago. Wealthy Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait practice a more “refined” form of slavery today; a form of debt peonage that exploits disadvantaged people from various parts of Asia, and which has enslaved millions of people who have few legal rights and who often endure forced servitude long after their contracts expire. Many developing nations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas tolerate the presence of wide scale human trafficking. In these regions elected officials and legal authorities are complicit in the modern black market slave trade and profit from it. Today in China millions of people are enslaved by the ruling Communist Party. In similar fashion to their Soviet begetters, the majority Han Chinese Communists have incarcerated in prison factories millions of ethnic minorities such as Uigur Muslims and Tibetan Budists, as well as Christians and countless others who are guilty of “incorrect” political thought. Many of the cheaply made products found on the shelves of discount stores in the West are produced by slave labor in China.

Upon closely examining human history it is difficult, if not impossible, to find any society that did not practice some form of human subjugation. When I pose the question to students to name a culture or society that has not practiced slavery in some form, the most common response I receive is Native Americans. Most are under the impression that prior to the arrival of Europeans native inhabitants of America lived in an idyllic utopia, free of the conflict and strife characteristic of humanity. Such an assumption could not be further from the truth. In reality, similar to the rest of the human race, Native American tribes lived in an almost constant state of war and visited the most barbaric atrocities upon each other. The rivalries of various indigenous nations and tribes are well documented. The most notable in early North American history being that of the Iroquois and Wabanaki Confederacies. Such was the rivalry between the Iriquoian speaking and Algonquin speaking groups that they allied themselves with the French and British during the various conflicts between the two nations prior to the American Revolution and took every advantage to wipe the other out of existence.

Slavery was also alive and well on the American continents long before the arrival of European colonists. When the Spanish stepped ashore in the New World they were not surprised to discover that the natives fought for control of territory, resources, and traded in human chattel. A reading of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s memoir La Verdadera Historia de la Conquista de Nueva España (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain) is eye opening.(9) Diaz, one of Hernan Cortez’s lieutenants, chronicled in great detail the events of the conquest as he experienced them. His colorful narrative is full of references to slaves and the barbaric deeds committed by the natives as well as those of the Spanish. Of these, the only acts that Diaz found surprising or especially repugnant are those of human sacrifice and cannibalism. Key to his success, Hernan Cortez’s mistress, advisor, and translator, Marina, was a young Aztec woman sold into slavery by her own family and later gifted to Cortez by a Mayan chief in the Yucatan. Similarly, a young Shoshone woman, Sacagawea, was key to the success of the 1804-1805 Lewis and Clark expedition.(10) Born in present-day Idaho, as a girl Sacagawea was captured along with several other people by Hidatsa Sioux warriors. At age thirteen she was sold, along with another Native American slave woman, to the French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau who forced them both into a non-consensual marriage with him (also not an uncommon practice among some American Indian tribes).

The 19th century historian William Prescott, who had unprecedented access to Spanish and New World archive materials, wrote the first, and what some consider the most detailed, chronicle of the Spanish conquests in North and South America. His work exposes the intrigues, internal strife, and politics of the Aztec and Incan empires at the time of the conquest; the fact that the Aztecs demanded enormous tributes from conquered peoples that included large numbers of slaves and Incan rulers who subjugated entire regions, forcefully removing masses of people from their ancestral homes and into agricultural bondage in other parts of their empire.(11) These practices led to nations, such as the Tlaxcalans in central Mexico, forming alliances with Europeans as a means of liberation and taking revenge on their former conquerors. Such was the hatred of the Tlaxcalans and other groups for the Aztecs that they were willing, almost immediately, to commit cultural suicide by abandoning their pagan religion and converting to Christianity as part of their pact with the Spanish.

This information is not intended to dismiss or diminish the role of slavery in the United States, rather helps us understand the “big picture” of human interaction as it relates to the enslavement of human beings. Many American students today are altogether ignorant of these facts that are key to comprehending slavery in America within the context of greater humanity. As a consequence, some operate under the false assumption that the evils of slavery are unique to the American experience; that slavery began when the first Africans held in bondage arrived on the shores of the Colonies in the 1600s. Others point out that while slavery existed in Western societies and the Americas, the United States was a late comer in freeing slaves. To make such a comparison is akin to comparing apples to oranges. No European country had a large population of enslaved people of a different race living within its home borders. While some European nations prohibited slavery prior to the United States, they continued to tolerate and in some casese to promote it in their overseas colonies. For example, King George III and the British Parliament invoked the Declaratory Act of 1766 to prohibit American anti-slavery colonies from passing legistlation that would abolish the practice. The fact that some European powers, namely Great Britain and France, abolished slavery in the home country was a “feel good” move that quite often had little or no bearing on the actual plight of the enslaved or impoverished peoples in their overseas empires.

American slavery is often referred to as America’s “peculiar institution,” an accurate description given the unique set of values upon which the nation was established. However within the context of greater human history, the fact that slavery existed in America is neither peculiar nor uncommon. The question is then, how does slavery in the United States fit into the “big picture?” If slavery has always existed as a part of the human condition, what is exceptional about the United States in relation to slavery? The answer is found when one understands the issue as it fits into the historical context of 18th and 19th Century Western society, and the many efforts of Americans to abolish or limit the spread of slavery. These efforts went against the established norms of human interaction and the sentiments of the time. From the early days of Colonial America there were ardent abolitionists who sought to eradicate the evils of slavery. Slaveholding Founders Thomas Jefferson and George Washington abhorred the practice, as did many of their contemporaries.

Nowhere else in history can there be found two individuals (Washington and Jefferson) who had benefitted more from the institution of slavery, who stood so much to lose at its abolition – and who would have ended the practice during their lifetime had it been possible. At various times in their lives both men endeavored to end slavery. When they realized that it was not feasible to abolish the practice, they worked to stop the importation of slaves and limit its spread in the fledgling United States. The fact that the country was split over the issue of slavery from its founding with people willing to take a stand against the issue was both unique and exceptional for the time period. It is also exceptional when matched against the annals of human history; there is no other example of a nation state or society with a similar number of enslaved people living within its borders that was so divided over the issue and took such extreme measures to end the practice as the United States.

Ultimately, those who opposed slavery in the United States were willing to wage the bloodiest civil war of the 19th century to end the practice once and for all, rather than concede the issue. The nation was willing to allow itself to be torn apart, spend millions of its treasure, to destroy a good part of its economy, and to sacrifice three quarters of a million lives on the battlefield to end slavery – roughtly five percent of the nation’s male population at the time. Not to mention the millions who were orphaned, widowed, maimed, or made destitute and homeless. No other Western nation of the period was willing to make such sacrifices to end the practice of slavery in its territories or colonies, except perhaps for Tzar Alexander II who, at great danger to his own political power, freed the Russian serfs by royal decree in 1861.

George Washington, official portrait (1796) by Gilbert Stuart

Historical Anachronism

Anachronism: noun 1. An error in chronology, especially a chronological misplacing of persons, events, objects, or customs in regard to each other. 2. A person or a thing that is chronologically out of place, especially one from a former age that is incongruous in the present. 3. The state or condition of being chronologically out of place.(12)

It is not uncommon today to hear or read about people who pass judgment on historical figures or events of the past. Indeed, many young people now support the movement to rid the United States of statues of historical figures because they held, by contemporary standards, unacceptable views or committed acts that today would be considered terrible. Students are often erroneously taught that our founding documents are somehow invalid because they were produced by men whose views today would be considered racist or sexist, and who never intended for the rights expressed in them to be extended to certain groups of people. This attempt to purge such persons from collective American memory has also been extended to street names, place names, and institutions named after individuals deemed objectionable. Those who would support such a movement lack the understanding of historical context and engage in a form of historical anachronism. Understanding historical context and anachronism help to counter the narrative that historical personalities such as Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington should be wiped from our history and relegated to the status of criminals in our collective memory. Together these two concepts can help us to understand why people held what we consider extremely offensive beliefs and why they sometimes did things that we would never tolerate today. Knowledge of historical context and how to avoid playing at historical anachronism can also help us understand why figures such as Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington were also exceptional individuals in the time periods in which they lived.

Anachronism takes place when an event, idea, person, object etc. is placed outside of its proper sequence. Historical anachronism occurs when events, ideas, persons, objects etc. are removed from their proper place in history and inserted into another location on the historical timeline. When explaining this concept to students I often use the animated Disney movie The Sword in the Stone as an example. The movie, which is about the magician Merlin and young King Arthur, is rife with historical anachronism. In the film there are numerous items that are historically out of place. The legend of King Arthur is set in the early sixth century, yet Merlin has a teapot and drinks tea. Drinking tea did not become a British custom until maritime trade routes between Asia and Europe were established several centuries later. The knights in the movie wear shining plate armor and participate in jousting tournaments. Such armor and events came into existence hundreds of years after the time period in question. Real life historical anachronism has also become a hobby for many people today who spend time learning everything they can about a particular period or event in history and then recreating it. These groups include military and other historical reenactors. Some of these groups are so meticulous in their efforts that they are able to almost completely imitate the dress, accent, speech, and accouterments of their target period. They bring to life events and activities that belong in the past, superimposing them into our time. 

Those who pass judgment on personalities and events of the past based on contemporary morals and values also commit historical anachronism in two ways. Firstly, they remove historical figures and events from the past and figuratively transport them into the courtroom of modern public opinion in which the accused have no opportunity to defend their record. Their eighteenth or nineteenth century deeds and words are unfairly picked apart and scrutinized under the lense of twenty-first century values. A record that, given historical context, is extremely out of place today. Consequently, Founding Fathers such as Washington and Jefferson are, without an impartial trial, condemned; they are excoriated and labeled as hypocrites, at best, because they were slaveholders and racists who at the same time upheld that “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Two separate sets of values that are impossible to reconcile within the context of contemporary morals, ethics, and jurisprudence.

Secondly, those who would condemn past figures in a modern court engage in historical anachronism by inserting contemporary values into past eras. Rather than trying to understand past events based on historical context, they transport back in time a set of ethical and moral standards that are out of place. In the case of the Founders, twenty-first century values and behavioral norms somehow magically appear in eighteenth century America. This is both foolish and arrogant. Those who practice this type of historical anachronism act surprised or outraged that a person who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago behaved in a way that by contemporary standards is unacceptable. A few questions for those who would make such a leap are: Why should we expect any historical figure to act outside of the established norms of the time; those that influenced their upbringing and understanding of the world? Why should we expect them to act differently than the rest of greater society? And finally – Would it be fair for someone to pass judgment on you centuries from now based on an unknown set of ethics that, even if explained to you, would be completely alien? The answers are obvious to any fair-minded person.

An objective examiner of the past understands the importance of historical context and avoids practicing historical anachronism. They seek to understand events and personalities of the past within their proper historical context. They seek to understand why people acted the way that they did and the many external influences and conditions of the time that shaped them. In this way, one is able to truly understand why events played out the way that they did and which personalities should be praised or condemned. Essentially, a fair judgment within the historical context of the time period in question. This process can also help us determine which historical figures truly were exceptional; people who acted outside of the established societal norms of the time to do extraordinary things. We will attempt to apply these principles and make a brief examination, using George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and their ties with slavery as our subject.

With any important historical personality one must first establish the conditions in which the subject was born and raised. This is important because it establishes the context in which we will understand our subjects’ words and deeds. Every person is the product of his or her upbringing. External influences of parents, extended family members, religion, economics, politics, and greater society in general, determine how a person’s worldview, character, and attitudes are shaped. An individual is the product of all of these influences. Both Washington and Jefferson were products of the 18th century world, specifically that of Colonial Virginia. Slavery was a well established institution and it was a patriarchal society with a well defined social order. Both men were born into privileged households of considerable means. The patrimony of both families included a large number of individuals held in bondage in addition to thousands of acres of land. Both the Washington and Jefferson families became wealthy through land speculation and plantation farming. Both men began inheriting slaves at a young age – Washington at age eleven and Jefferson at age fourteen.(13)

Most people living in Virginia at the time were devout protestant Christians with the majority belonging to the Anglican denomination. The commonly held belief regarding enslaved African Americans at the time was that it was “providential” or “God’s will” that some people should live in servitude, it was simply their destiny and lot in life. Many religious leaders in the South cited scripture to support this belief as well as biblical instructions regarding the relationship between slave and master. Most slaveholders viewed slavery through a paternalistic lense. It was also the widely accepted belief at the time, even among many abolitionists and anti-slavery whites, that African Americans were racially inferior – especially when it came to the ability to reason. Jefferson himself occasionally expressed this belief. An example can be found in his Notes on the State of Virginia when he expressed the following about blacks:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior.(14)

Unlike most whites of the time, however, Jefferson reserved final judgment and was open to the idea that it was conceivable that he was incorrect in his assumptions. He further recognized that his perception was the product of his own life experiences. He expressed as much in later correspondence with the French abolitionist Henri Gregoire:

Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them [African-American slaves] by nature and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief [liberation].(15)

Given the context of the era in which Jefferson lived, it is exceptional that he would express such sentiments that ran counter to the well established belief system of the time. Like most young men of their class, both Washington and Jefferson were educated. They both took an interest in the ideas expressed by enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Montesquieu. Of the two, Jefferson dedicated more time to reading and studying these works, while Washington was more interested in the martial art and exploration of backwoods country. Jefferson’s education and ability with words were later recognized by his fellow delegates to the Continental Congress who selected him to write the Declaration of Independence. Washington’s military experience and leadership were also recognized in his appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army.

It was their education and experiences in founding a country predicated on the principles of liberty and natural rights for all men that led both to question the commonly held views on slavery and African Americans. For Jefferson it began earlier in life. As a young attorney on at least two different occasions Jefferson represented slaves in an attempt to secure their freedom. When he was elected to the Virginia state legislature in 1769 Jefferson attempted to introduce a measure that would have abolished slavery in the state – an proposal that did not go over well.(16) He was basically ordered to never bring up the subject again. Later, when he was elected to the Continental Congress he proposed a measure that would have ended slavery in all thirteen colonies. It failed by one vote. When he penned the Declaration of Independence Jefferson included in his first draft a strong condemnation of slavery, which he later had to remove at the behest of southern delegates. Jefferson did manage to insert his feelings about slavery in one of the most important lines ever written when he changed John Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Many people miss the profound meaning of this act. Slaves were considered property. What Jefferson meant to imply was that people are not property and should be able to pursue their own destiny and reap the benefits of their productive efforts. It constituted a veiled jab at the institution of slavery. 

Throughout his life Jefferson strove to convince his fellow southerners to abandon the practice, however in the end he realized that all he could do was sow the seeds for a future emancipation. Less than a week before his death, of slavery he wrote:

At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, no even in the great one which is the subject of your letter and which has been through life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable with the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. And I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will and such minds engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil [slavery] is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object.(17)

In the end Jefferson was not able to end slavery or to liberate his slaves, not even at his death. Washington “beat him to the punch” when he passed away twenty-seven years earlier and provided for the liberation of all people held in bondage in his name. Provoked by Washington’s act of liberation, during the ensuing years the state of Virginia enacted several laws that made it very difficult for a man like Jefferson to emulate his example. A fact that he lamented. 

Jefferson is one of the most interesting figures in American history. It bears mentioning that many historians believe that after his wife’s death Jefferson had a common law relationship with Sally Hemmings, an attractive young slave woman who was his late wife’s half sister. Hemmings was a mulatto woman of lighter complexion, yet born a slave. Many people born into slavery in the American south had both European and African ancestry. A fact that Mark Twain made the central element of his short story Puddin’ Head Wilson in which he lampooned slavery, a book that is worth the time to read. It is believed that Jefferson fathered at least one child with Hemmings. She also traveled with him to France and lived with him there during his time as ambassador of the United States to that nation. It is notable that once she set foot in France, Hemmings was free, yet she chose to return with Jefferson to America as a slave. As did other African American members of Jefferson’s household who went with him. Prior to his death Jefferson was able to arrange for the liberation of a small number of his slaves. Among them were the children of Sally Hemming, most of whom lived out the rest of their lives in “white society.”

Washington’s abolitionist sentiment seems to have developed later in life. Like Jefferson, he expressed many times on many occasions his disdain for the practice of slavery and supported emancipation. After he was elected president he worked to try to have legislation passed that would end slavery, hoping that the same influence that had brought him to the office would bear sway with those who opposed the idea. Washington, who is known as the Father of our Nation for his role during the Revolution, as President of the Constitutional Convention, and first President of the United States should also be known as the Father of American Emancipation. One of the most powerful, moving, and overlooked documents in American historical archives is the portion of Washington’s last will and testament regarding the people that he held in bondage:

Upon the decease of my wife, it is my will and desire that all the slaves which I hold in my own right shall receive their freedom. -To emancipate them during her life would, though earnestly wished by me, be attended with such insuperable difficulties on account of their intermixture by marriages with the Dower Negroes [slaves who were owned by his wife] as to excite the most painful sensations, if not disagreeable consequences from the latter, while both descriptions are in the occupancy of the same proprietor; it not being in my power, under the tenure by which the Dower Negroes are held, to manumit [liberate] them. -And whereas among those who will receive freedom according to this devise, there may be some who from old age or bodily infirmities, and others who on account of their infancy, that will be unable to support themselves; it is my will and desire that all who come under the first and second description shall be comfortably clothed and fed by my heirs while they live; -and that such of the latter description as have no parents living, or if living are unable or unwilling to provide for them, shall be bound by the court [made an apprentice to learn a trade] until they shall arrive at the age of twenty five years; -and in cases where no record can be produced whereby their ages can be ascertained, the judgment of the court upon its own view of the subject, shall be adequate and final. -The Negroes thus bound are (by their masters or mistresses) to be taught to read and write and to be brought up to some useful occupation agreeably to the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia providing for the support of orphan and other poor children. -And I do hereby expressly forbid the sale or transportation out of the said Commonwealth of any slave I may die possessed of, under any pretense whatsoever. -And I do moreover most pointedly and most solemnly enjoin it upon my executors hereafter named, or the survivors of them, to see that this clause respecting slaves and every part thereof be religiously fulfilled at the epoch at which it is directed to take place without evasion, neglect or delay, after the crops which may then be on the ground are harvested, particularly as it respects the aged and infirm; -Seeing that a regular and permanent fund [pension fund] be established for their support so long as there are subjects requiring it, not trusting to the uncertain provision to be made by individuals. -And to my mulatto man, William (calling himself William Lee), I give immediate freedom; or if he should prefer it (on account of the accidents which have rendered him incapable of walking or of any active employment) to remain in the situation [job] he now is, it shall be optional to him to do so: In either case, however, I allow him an annuity [annual pension] of thirty dollars during his natural life, which shall be independent of [separate from] the victuals [food] and clothes he has been accustomed to receive, if he chooses the last alternative; but in full, with his freedom, if he prefers the first; -and this I give him as a testimony of my sense of his attachment to me, and for his faithful services during the Revolutionary War.(18)

In his will Washington freed all of his slaves and provided security and education for those either too old or too young to care for themselves. In the context of the period this was unheard of. To most of Washington’s slaveholding contemporaries this was an unbelievable measure. A modern comparison would be a small business owner just giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets. This both surprised and frightened many Virginians so badly that they passed legislation that made it very difficult to legally free a slave, even if the slave owner wanted to. 

An objective judgement of the lives of Washington and Jefferson, as it relates to slavery, within the context of the time period renders a verdict that is both exceptional and inspirational. In spite of the other frailties of human nature that they may have possessed, both men operated under a set of morals that were different from most others in their station. On the subject of race they were forward thinkers, men who truly believed that all people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Both worked to limit the evils of slavery, as far as it was feasible, and to ensure that the rights enshrined in our documents were extended as far as it was possible within the limitations of the period in which they lived. Both men believed that slavery was an attrocity that ran against the core values that they fought for during the Revolution. Both also firmly believed that the day of reckoning for America would eventually come when the nation would be ready to fully eradicate slavery once and for all. Abolitionist and civil rights leaders from Lincoln and Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. have looked to Washington and Jefferson as inspirational examples.

End Notes

(1) Reagan, Ronald. “Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union.” Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union | The American Presidency Project. UC Santa Barbara, January 25, 1988. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-before-joint-session-congress-the-state-the-union-0.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Reagan, “Farewell Address to the Nation.” The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute, 1989. https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/farewell-address-to-the-nation-3/. 4 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Seattle, WA: Amazon Books, 2020), 20.

(5) Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster, 2020).

(6) Milton Meltzer, Slavery: A World History (New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1993), 2.

(7) Ibid. 1. 

(8) Herodotus, The Histories: Herodotus, trans. Tom Holland (New York, NY: Penguin, 2015).

(9) Castillo Bernal Díaz del. Historia Verdadera De La Conquista De La Nueva España. Edited by Portilla Miguel León. Madrid: Historia 16, 1984.

(10) Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jef erson, and the Opening of the American West. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1996. 

(11) Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru. New York, NY: Random House, 1960.

(12) Merriam-Webster (Merriam-Webster, 2020).

(13) James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (New York, NY: Back Bay Books, 1994). Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jef erson: Writings, Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters (New York, NY: Library of America, 1984).

(14)Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jef erson: Writings, Autobiography, Notes on the State of Virginia, Public and Private Papers, Addresses, Letters (New York, NY: Library of America, 1984), 194.

(15) Ibid. 255.

(16) Ibid. 4.

(17) Ibid. 119-120.

(18) George Washington and John C Fitzpatrick, The Last Will and Testament of George Washington and Schedule of His Property to Which Is Appended the Last Will and Testament of Martha Washington (Mount Vernon, VA: The Mount Vernon ladies’ Association of the Union, 1960).