Democrat hopeful Pete Buttigieg recently advocated removing Thomas Jefferson’s memory from the public square and ending the practice of naming public events in his honor. The legacy of Jefferson, he said, is “problematic.” “There’s a lot to admire in his thinking and his philosophy,” he said, “but then again if you plunge into his writings, especially his notes on the state of Virginia, you know that he knew slavery was wrong.”
It’s a stunning display of his ignorance, certainly. But interestingly, Buttigieg has unknowingly pinpointed precisely why Thomas Jefferson should be eternally revered by our society, which believes that enslaving other human beings is wrong.
That is, that Jefferson knew that it was wrong at the time.
Thomas Sowell explains, brilliantly as ever:
Of all the tragic facts about the history of slavery, the most astonishing to an American today is that, although slavery was a worldwide institution for thousands of years, nowhere in the world was slavery a controversial issue prior to the 18th century[.] …
Everyone hated the idea of being a slave but few had any qualms about enslaving others. Slavery was just not an issue, not even among intellectuals, much less among political leaders, until the 18th century — and only then in Western civilization.
Among those who turned against slavery in the 18th century were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and other American leaders. You could research all of 18th century Africa or Asia or the Middle East without finding any comparable rejection of slavery there.
In other words, these prominent men having turned against an institution that had been normal throughout human history was an expression of a revolutionary idea. To imagine that the idea that slavery is morally wrong would be embraced by everyone overnight, in such a world, is nothing short of childish fantasy.
The Founders knew that such change would require not only time, but a practical argument against the institution as well. Moreover, it would require proof that slavery is harmful.
Scotsman Adam Smith, another revolutionary thinker who deeply influenced our Founders, also rejected slavery. His was not solely a moral argument, but also an economic one. “I believe,” he wrote, “that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves. Whatever work [the slave] does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”
We could expound upon what was then just a theory with some evidence supporting it, but with the luxury of hindsight, we don’t have any need. Time fleshed it out, fully, to be a law of economics.
As the Industrial Revolution progressed, the industrial Northern states in America found this law immutable. Moreover, so did the planters in the agrarian Southern states, which relied much more heavily on slave labor and were more resistant to ending the practice.
As Alexis de Toqueville observes in Democracy in America (1836), even before America’s founding, “the planters were struck by the extraordinary fact that the provinces comparatively destitute of slaves increased in population, in wealth, and in prosperity more rapidly than those who contained many of them.”
The Founders, even those in the Southern colonies, had come to understand that slavery was both a moral and economic evil that was “cruel to the slave” but economically “prejudicial to the master,” according to de Tocqueville.
The question became how to eliminate it. As Thomas Sowell writes:
Deciding that slavery was wrong was much easier than deciding what to do with millions of people from another continent, of another race, and without any historical preparation for living as free citizens in a society like that of the United States, where they were 20% of the total population.
The Founders rejected slavery as a moral evil, certainly. They also recognized its economical inefficiency, and perhaps most importantly, they scribed the precepts that would end it into our Constitution.
The Constitution etched in stone a prohibition on the importation of slaves from the year 1808 onward. Why would the Founders commit to such a strict prohibition if they intended for America to be a slaveholding nation in perpetuity? The document implements few absolute prohibitions on all the new States, so that answer is simple. They wouldn’t.
It also scribed a lingering detriment to slaveholding states with the three-fifths clause, which determined that slaves would equal three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining representation in Congress. In short, if slaveholding states were to continue having meaningful representation in Congress, they would be required to gradually remove slavery as a primary means of economic production. All states assented to this provision through ratification, then considered a “compromise,” which eventually doomed the slaveholding states.
Irrespective of how you feel about the Constitution’s vision for the future of slavery, one cannot deny that the dominoes fell in such a way as to destroy the institution forever.
As the North industrialized and commerce flourished in freer markets, the need for free hands to perform labor for wages increased. The realization that free markets were economically preferable to slavery led to massive influxes of European immigrants to fill the need. So, as Northern states abolished slavery, former slaveowners in the North sold their slaves to the South, where there was still a value for the slave.
The South could not import slaves after 1808 due to a constitutional ban. So the same “laws that prevented slaves from the South coming North,” according to de Tocqueville, “[drove] those of the North to the South” as the South sought more slave labor.
All of this led to the death spiral of the Antebellum South. It was the above dynamics, and not the importation of slaves, that caused the population of slaves in the South to “explode” to roughly 33% of the population by 1860. Largely agrarian, with fewer urban centers of massive population of fully countable people in the Census, the Northern states owned overwhelming representation in Congress, the circumstances of which led the South to believe themselves underrepresented by the United States.
Sowell lays this out, too, in the only way a sensible historian can:
The question [of slavery] was finally answered by a war in which one life was lost for every six people freed. Maybe that was the only answer. But don’t pretend today that it was an easy answer — or that those who grappled with the dilemma in the 18th century were some special villains, when most leaders and most people in the world at that time saw nothing wrong with slavery.
Perhaps, rather than focusing on the fact that some Founders owned slaves, we would do better to remember their uniqueness in morally opposing slavery in their time and for having presented the economic formula through which it was expunged from American society forever.
Breathing life into such ideas in a world where trade was dominated by the existence of slavery faced public opposition, as all but the most dimwitted should understand. But it’s impossible not to observe the following conclusion, to which I’m often led.
Slavery ended because the visionaries who founded our nation had the moral courage to suggest that individual laborers have a right to property, which includes a right to the product of their labor — i.e., wages. That’s the moral argument.
But beyond that, it is economically more efficient for everyone to be paid wages for his labor and provide for himself, than to be reared in his youth, supported in his working years, and cared for in his later years by a master who determines what his labor is worth — all of which is done absent the consent of the individual.
That’s interesting to me — because the same argument our Founders made against slavery is the same argument that we conservatives now make against socialism.
That’s what really makes me wonder. Is the fact that the Founders owned slaves really the problem? Or is the Left frustrated by the fact that our Founders’ ideas, which unquestionably led to slavery’s end, would impede the Left’s vision of a government master that cares for us all from cradle to grave, and decides for us how much our labor is worth in the economy, as somehow considered less American than Thomas Jefferson?
To modestly amend Adam Smith’s observation, the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by workers in a socialist economy. Whatever work either a slave or a worker in a socialist economy does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.
Slavery and socialism, in other words, could be considered synonymous. Liberty is something else entirely. Our Founders should be continually celebrated for having recognized that there’s a difference between the two things and for advocating liberty over slavery.
William Sullivan blogs at Political Palaver and can be followed on Twitter.