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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Racist, Sexist, Adulterous Bigot

As a major fan, I was excited to see that Real Time With Bill Maher had returned with a new episode. Sadly, it ended on an ignorant note that has happened several times before on his show. He discussed Edwards's extramarital affair and how it shouldn't disqualify him from office or even a place in politics. That, I am in full agreement with. He then proceeded to list a few well known Presidents who had had affairs -- and I knew where he would be heading.

"Jefferson" passes his lips, and I cringed.

There is no greater figure in American History, I think, around whom more ignorance is centered. This is particularly discomforting as Jefferson wrote voluminously and went to painstaking lengths to preserve his writings and correspondences. I, myself, have about half a dozen collections of his writings on various subjects.

Despite the excellent records we have, people, on a large scale, have many false beliefs concerning Jefferson: that he was a Christian, that he advocated slavery, that he committed adultery, that he only favored equal rights for whites, etc.

I remember one particular lecture in my senior English class wherein my instructor said something along the lines of: "When Jefferson wrote that 'all men are created equal' he of course meant only white, land-owning men." No, he of course meant all persons are created equal, regardless of gender, race, or status.

Maher has made several incorrect comments over the years concerning Jefferson, including concerning his views on slavery and his relationships with slaves.

A little known fact -- which is rather shocking to me -- is that this year, 2008, we are celebrating two hundred years of having the slave trade banned. Who was the President who banned this abominable trade January 1, 2008 -- the earliest date allowed by the Constitution? The same person who had wrote a scathing indictment against the English King for the practice in the Declaration of Independence:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
It was Jefferson, one of our earliest, greatest abolitionists. But people are largely ignorant of his long career fighting for the abolition of slavery, so it is no surprise that they are ignorant of this 200th year milestone.

Their education of Jefferson in school is comprised of three pieces of information: 1) He wrote the Declaration. 2) He was the third President. 3) He owned slaves. Why shouldn't we also, then, be surprised at their shocking ignorance of his relationships with slaves, then, too, when their education on that subject is acquired through idle, uninformed cultural references -- like the skit in one Family Guy episode where Jefferson beckons for all his slave children to join him in the family photo? They are like the blind man receiving the description of an awesome sight from the testimony of another blind man.

Even if Jefferson fathered one or more of Sally Hemings children, it was confined to this one particular slave -- it is commonly accepted that she was the half-sister of Martha Jefferson. And even if he had fathered one or more of Sally Hemings children, it occurred years after Martha's death, thereby making it by definition not an adulterous affair.

I find it ironic that this was discussed in reference to a politician being attacked by his political opposition on the exposure of this affair. The Sally Hemings controversy has its roots in Jefferson's first term when the scandalmongerer Callendar published relentless attacks on Jefferson, after Jefferson had refused him a Postmaster appointment he had requested.

Jefferson is just one subject that particularly gets under my skin as it is such a source of misunderstanding and misinformation. False claims about Jefferson are as frequently made as the widely-held false belief that America was founded on Christianity -- and usually Jefferson plays a component in this false belief when he is claimed as a Christian. There are literally hundreds, even thousands, of biographies on Jefferson. There's no reason for such astounding ignorance.

1 comment:

Joshua said...

"The Sally Hemings controversy has its roots in Jefferson's first term when the scandalmongerer Callendar published relentless attacks on Jefferson,"

Probably true, but it's hard to feel too much sympathy for Jefferson. It's not like Jefferson ever flinched from attacking his opponents by proxy.

Do you have a opinion on Dr. Eugene Foster's report of the DNA evidence?