Monday, July 12, 2004

Gouverneur Morris

Reason has a delightful article up on the life and times of Gouverneur Morris, who by the sound of it would have been just the sort of person I'd have gotten along with - a man of both thought and action with a keen appreciation of the pleasures of this world, and a disdain for mealy-mouthed sexual moralizing.

There's one particular bit in the article that especially caught my attention, and I'd like to reproduce the bit in question below:

In debates over the rules of representation, Morris set forth arguments against slavery of powerful verbal fluency, moral clarity, and withering wit: "Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens and let them vote. Are they property? Why then is no other property included? The houses in [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves that cover the rice swamps of South Carolina....The admission of slaves into the representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the coast of Africa and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with laudable horror so nefarious a practice."

Morris makes it impossible to lightly dismiss the grievous hypocrisy of the slaveholding Founders on grounds that "it was a different time." If they didn’t know exactly what they were doing, Morris made it abundantly plain.
As this passage makes more than clear, excusing the slaveholding of founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson as "just one of those things" that was peculiar to the times in which he lived is nonsense. Jefferson and others like him who spoke so fiercely about the importance of freedom even as they lived off the bondage of their fellow human beings were hypocrites, plain and simple, and the hypocrisy of their high-flown rhetoric in comparison with their own venality and cruelty was apparent even then to those of their fellow men with any moral sense. Indeed, as Samuel Johnson put it back in 1775, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negros?"

It's well past time we got over the impulse to treat the likes of Thomas Jefferson as if they were saints or gods on Earth, rather than as the deeply flawed and often selfish, craven and duplicitous human beings they actually were.