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Tuesday, 13 August 2013

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Couldn't be freed, eh? And yet he promised his slave mistress "Black Sal" that he'd free their slave children when they reached twenty-one. And, of course, it was open to him to pay off any mortgage on his slaves by economising on his luxuries, or selling some other asset, wasn't it?

Occam's Razor and all that; the simple, coherent explanation of much of Jefferson's career, his writing and his actions was that he was a lying politician of stunning hypocrisy. All these attempts to save his reputation seem to me hopelessly lame. The man was a turd. Contrast with Washington, who for all his faults was no turd.

I wish I could give you an argument, DM, but alas, my ignorance is virtually total. However, you have raised my interest in the man which means, of course, yet another book! Any recommendations - and one that is fairly dispassionate, please.

Very difficult, Duffers. As a Founding Father he has semi-divine status in the US and, since only Americans are much interested, almost everything written about him is likely to be hagiography. No doubt there will be the odd marxist account disparaging him, but since marxists write in bad faith that's not likely to be much use either. So you have to learn to read snippets, or read between the lines. Thus Christopher Hitchens explains that Washington as President attended church but not Communion. But "Jefferson was content to take part in public religious observances and to reserve his scorn and contempt for Christianity for his intimate correspondents, but our first president would not give an inch to hypocrisy." Or consider "celebrated for many paradoxes, Jefferson ..": I think that one's a hoot. He was all for rebellion, Hitchens remarks, but not for slave revolts.

I have an American acquaintance who is a historian - I'll try to remember to ask her when next I see her. But you know academics: "not my field, sorry" is a common reply.

Hmmmn! Same old problem I have trying to find a detached view of Lincoln.

Lincoln I know much less about but, having confessed lots of ignorance, I'll make one criticism that I think is a matter of the first rank. He wanted (eventually?) to abolish slavery: fair enough, it was a vile practice. At the same time he believed that negroes (as they were then called) lacked the capacity to compete with whites, would not flourish in their new freedom, and would make bad neighbours. His only solution to this dilemma was a vague, half-baked notion that they should all be shipped out to Africa or Central America. (So much for their liberty, eh?) But since there was no chance that such a scheme would be effected on the scale required, he essentially had nothing useful to say about what would become the post-slavery negro problem. That's one hell of a loose end to leave behind. So I can see why Confederate sympathisers reckon the man a great hypocrite. They also have, it seems to me, a fair case that the Union armies behaved bestially in The South.

On the other hand, slavery was horrible and the whole sorry business came to a head because the Southern States kept pushing for the extension of slavery to new territory. A key feature of the Civil War, in my view, is that you can reasonably blame it, in part, on the shortcomings of the Constitution: its structure ensured that something that ought to have been solved by ordinary politics led to war. Mind you, another possible conclusion is that the deep problem is that Americans have a disproportionate desire to kill each other. Look at the War of Independence - again, minor problems that should have been solved by patient politicking were prayed in aid to justify war.

For once on this blog, I have no comment - until at least I have managed to read Keegan's history of the civil war which is next on my list. However, I will add that Holmes's bio on Churchill with its scathing criticism mixed with genuine admiration stands in honourable comparison to American historiography which appears to be entirely one-eyed!

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