Just because you can, it doesn’t follow you should

On a day off this week, the family and I took a drive south from Washington, D.C. to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s restored plantation. The Missus had been desperate to see his gardens and I figured I’d have a chance to do some antiquing in another state.

One of the three guided tours was a look at slavery on the plantation. I’m not opposed to tours of things that showcase some of the uglier moments in history. Mom was fortunate enough to be included in one of the first tours of the Holocaust Museum and she has also been to several of the Camps in Germany. Despite the horrific nature of these endeavors, she noted it was a moving and life-changing experience for her.

Thus, I expected at least something beyond the general acknowledgement that, yes, Jefferson owned slaves. I was expecting some of the details as to the general problems associated with this, the social ills and more.

Instead, I got kind of a “Y’know… slaves… gosh…” approach to the topic.

We got to see the land on which the slave quarters, blacksmith shop and other similar buildings had rested upon. Unlike the master’s house, restoration or rebuilding didn’t seem to be in the cards for these structures.

As our tour guide told us about life here for slaves, it practically made you want to sign up. I mean, Jefferson was a great guy! He didn’t split up married couples! His slaves lived longer than those deeper in the South! Of his 130 slaves, he released FIVE in his will!

When things weren’t perfect, as in when Jefferson was supposedly providing blankets for his slaves every three years, the blame often went elsewhere (sometimes the overseeing slaves didn’t pass them out). In terms of the institution itself, Jefferson wrote that slavery really was a horrible thing, but hey, it was here and now we CAN’T do with out it, our guide noted. So, Jefferson, yes, well, he had them but it was not all that bad of a gig if you were a slave.

I’m sitting there listening to this thinking, “Yeah… BUT YOU WERE STILL A FUCKING SLAVE!”

If you want to forgive Jefferson as being “good for his time,” fine. Here’s a second bit of “popular dumbassery of the time.”

Steven Krieser, a top Walker official in the state DOT compared illegal immigrants to “Satan,” during a Facebook rant in which he defended the sale of bumper stickers that called for “illegal immigrant hunting.”

Walker yanked the ejector seat handle on this guy, but Krieser lamely defended his actions before noting, he used a “poor choice of words.”

Right. Let’s spin this!

“In making a comparative, I inadvertently compared illegal immigrants to Satan, when I in fact meant to type Santa. They show up in our home without our permission, in the dead of night and we never see them coming or going. Still, they give us stuff we would ordinarily have to pay for!”

And then there was the traditional defense: “I certainly didn’t mean any offense.”

OK, exactly what did you mean?

“Hey Paco! DIE YOU ILLEGAL MOTHERFUCKER! YOU TACO-MUNCHING PUSSY! I’M COMING FOR YOUR ASS! But, please don’t take this the wrong way…”

Look, I get that some things look worse in retrospect than they do at the time they’re happening: Separate but Equal, housing projects, anything people wore in the 1970s… However, common sense would dictate that if you wouldn’t want something done to you, don’t do it to someone else.

I didn’t see Jefferson volunteering to be someone else’s slave. I didn’t see him thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t rebuild my house about 95 times over 40 years,” or “Do I really need all this acreage and buildings that require slave upkeep?” He didn’t even free Sally Hemings, who bore him six children.

Someone asked the tour guide why.

The guide explained that first, she was a woman, which would have been a complete waste. The second reason? She was almost 50, which in Jefferson’s mind was infirmed. This from a guy who lived to be 83…

As for Krieser, he can justify his rant all he wants about how things are different closer to the Mexican border where all these good honest Americans are being overrun by the cast of some Cormac McCarthy book. That said, if someone pasted his face on a bumper sticker and told others “Shoot this dick in the face,” he wouldn’t be all “folks is folks” about it.

During our stay out here in D.C., I managed to catch a speech by Mary Beth Tinker, my long-time hero and subject of the “Tinker vs. Des Moines” free speech case. She talked at length about law versus justice and I think that all of these kinds of things boil down to this one simple idea:

“Don’t do what’s popular,” she said. “Do what’s right, because what’s popular will eventually change.”

5 thoughts on “Just because you can, it doesn’t follow you should

  1. i only did the house & garden years ago during a centennial of the house i think. so they had brought in more of TJ’s stuff.

  2. RE: Monticello experience.
    Kind of seems awful close to a tract that was put out by a South Carolina BBQ magnate Bessinger (at least as recently as 10 years ago. Don’t know what has happened since). Well almost more a small book than a tract. One of the tract’s central arguments was that the slaves thanked their white masters for bringing them to America (I want to stretch this to bringing them to the promised land/ land of milk and honey/ land of liberty…), saving their souls by teaching them Christianity and hard work, etc.
    No mention that if their life-span in SC was very, very short. If malaria didn’t get them, snake-bite would…
    RE: the “no-offense” – local community had introduced a city anti-discrimination ordinance which was voted down. A revised ordinance has been introduced. It dares to mention discrimination based on sexual orientation. The comments on the news media’s page take me back to the 50s and early 60s as the comments of today are identical to comments from then if you just substitute “black” (or more hateful term) with “gay” (or more perjorative terms) and resurrect that it is against freedom to force a private businessman to hire / provide service to someone they don’t want to. And it isn’t discrimination but freedom of association.

  3. Forgot to include: Another is that “I’ve never seen any discrimination” against blacks in the 50s (or substitute homosexuals today).
    It would be funny if the town weren’t nationally noticed for a local fellow who runs a well known white supremist website.

  4. Thankfully the SC bbq guy is fading fast. Of course Dixie outfitters has taken up the slack. I don’t miss my days in SC.

  5. …”He didn’t even free Sally Hemings, who bore him six children.
    “Someone asked the tour guide why.
    “The guide explained that first, she was a woman, which would have been a complete waste. The second reason? She was almost 50, which in Jefferson’s mind was infirmed. This from a guy who lived to be 83…”
    Your comment is quite specious considering the seriousness of your topic. Jefferson’s reasons, odious as they are, seem rooted in a grim reality that is returning to haunt us again.
    During the early 1600s in England, life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because two-thirds of all children died before the age of four.[26] The average life expectancy in Colonial America was under 25 years in the Virginia colony,[27] and in New England about 40% of children failed to reach adulthood.[28] During the Industrial Revolution, the life expectancy of children increased dramatically.[29] The percentage of children born in London who died before the age of five decreased from 74.5% in 1730–1749 to 31.8% in 1810–1829.[30][31]
    Public health measures are credited with much of the recent increase in life expectancy. During the 20th century, the average lifespan in the United States increased by more than 30 years, of which 25 years can be attributed to advances in public health.[32]
    Childbirth in colonial America was a difficult and sometimes dangerous experience for women. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, between 1 percent and 1.5 percent of all births ended in the mother’s death as a result of exhaustion, dehydration, infection, hemorrhage, or convulsions. Since the typical mother gave birth to between five and eight children, her lifetime chances of dying in childbirth ran as high as 1 in 8. This meant that if a woman had eight female friends, it was likely that one might die in childbirth.
    The bit about it returning?:

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