Jefferson Not an Asshole

The review by Edward Rothstein of the show in Washington DC about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves completed a loop for me. Rothstein, a writer I would label a neo-conservative, wrote a courageous article whose conclusion I endorse. Living a wise and good life usually involves doing the best you can within an imperfect or even corrupt system. It does not usually involve being a revolutionary. Thomas Jefferson did the best he could within a corrupt system – slavery — and both he and his slaves arguably had better lives because of it. That’s the conclusion Edward Rothstein comes to in his review of the exhibit in Washington about Jefferson. Had Jefferson been a revolutionary or a true radical, he would left his plantation and become a hermit or something. (I know from reading that it probably wasn’t even legally possible for him to have freed his slaves, but he could have simply walked away from his nice life.) That probably would not have been a good thing, neither for him, nor his slaves, nor the rest of us. But he receives the condemnation of history for the devil’s bargains he made. Of course earlier in his life, in 1776, Jefferson did choose the radical path. He chose to take up arms against his government, and endorse the spillage of blood. Was that a hard decision? Was it even the right one? I sometimes wonder, given what I have read about the roots of the American revolution. Government under Great Britain was not a tyranny. For my own life, I’ll try to choose less the option of saying, “oh the system is corrupt.” Systems are always corrupt. The point is can you work within it, or work to change it. Occasionally the times may demand a complete rejection of something, but those times are rare. Alex