Paul Finkelman hits the nail right on the head in this book review published in the New York Times: The Monster of Monticello. As Finkelman writes in critiquing two recent authors' approach to Jefferson:
We are endlessly fascinated with Jefferson, in part because we seem unable to reconcile the rhetoric of liberty in his writing with the reality of his slave owning and his lifetime support for slavery. Time and again, we play down the latter in favor of the former, or write off the paradox as somehow indicative of his complex depths.
Neither Mr. Meacham, who mostly ignores Jefferson’s slave ownership, nor Mr. Wiencek, who sees him as a sort of fallen angel who comes to slavery only after discovering how profitable it could be, seem willing to confront the ugly truth: the third president was a creepy, brutal hypocrite.Personally, I find Jefferson to be one of the least admirable men in American history, a consistently duplicitous and deceptive political operative who actively ignored his stated principles in order to pursue both his personal and political advantage.
- William A. Jacobson over at Legal Insurrection takes issue with Finkelman's review in this post: Jefferson is a proxy target in the modern political war. For an alternate view of Jefferson's moral character, give Jacobson's post a read. For myself, I'm not convinced that Jefferson's approach to slavery was as benign as Jacobson alleges.
- Libertarian law professor and Instapundit blogger extraordinare Glenn Reynolds has his own response to the Finkelman piece, as well as feedback from his readers, posted over at his blog. Well worth a read, both for the defenses of Jefferson found there and one very spot on critique of Jefferson's approach to politics and his legacy posted by reader John Vecchione:
I have always thought that he was the original “coach and four” (limosine) liberal. As a graduate of Hamilton College I’m acutely aware there is a long, distinguished, and constitutional anti-Jefferson cabal in this country. Compare him to Washington or Marshal the Federalist slave owners of Virginia. Or even a John Randolf or George Mason. Dr. Johnson’s barb at those “bleating loudest about liberty” but owning slaves was directed right at him. Race aside, his understanding of finance, national debt and the like was the ruin of the South for 200 years.
I will say it Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine are my least favorite founders. Any one siding with the French Revolution over the guy who actually helped us in in Independece is right out in my book. The current anti-constitutionalists are precisely those who posit we should have had a French Revolution and not an American one. Jacobins all–and Jefferson too!