Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, and Sacrifice

I was watching a debate the other day and slavery came up. It was in the context of context - that the same person who could write "All men are created equal" could also own slaves. The point was that slavery didn't have the same place in the public consciousness it does today; that context matters.

As a student of history, my first reaction was that this analogy was unfair to Thomas Jefferson. He, like many others in Virginia (James Madison among them) were adamantly opposed to slavery on moral and philosophical grounds - even as they owned slaves.

We don't like to bring this up, because it speaks of hypocrisy. They were against the system, but used it so long as it was legal, because it benefited them. Sort of the way a lot of politicians talk about campaign finance laws. They don't like all the anonymous money involved, but they'll gladly take it if it helps them win.

Thomas Jefferson was heavily indebted. Economically, he could not free his slaves and also maintain his standard of living. In reality, even with his slaves, towards the end of his life, Monticello fell into disrepair.

I think we all know today that most of our clothes are made mostly of "asian suffering" as Louis CK would say. I continue to buy $6 t-shirts from Wal-mart because I can't really afford the $25 version that's guaranteed fair-trade. In many cases, even those "certified" products have murky backstories, which is why more and more people are making their own clothes (presumably from home-shorn wool or backyard cotton).

My point being, so many of us - me first in line - are unwilling to follow through on our moral compunctions because it requires a sacrifice we're unwilling to make. We're even more unwilling when such sacrifice would put as at odds with standard cultural assumptions. Everyone owns slaves - yeah, it's not the best situation, but treat them as well as you can and at least you're trying, unlike some people.

It's not just clothes, really - there are all manner of issues we don't actually have to act upon simply because we're so removed from the suffering.  I guess what I'm trying to get at is a few simple questions - What are we willing to sacrifice? What does it even mean to sacrifice in this day and age? and What values do you have that are worth the sacrifice?

I'd like to rag on TJ's hypocrisy as much as the next guy. I'd like to think I'd be on the cutting edge, like those ultra-hip Quakers, but, I imagine my life would probably be pretty similar to Jefferson's in the same situation. There's not much in my current life that would indicate otherwise.

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