Divorcing Ourselves From Akhil Reed Amar (Part V)

The following is the final post in a five-part series on Yale’s Akhil Reed Amar’s criticism of Thomas Jefferson. Follow these links for Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

In this fifth and final post examining Akhil Amar’s NR essay arguing that Thomas Jefferson should be castigated rather than celebrated, I look at Amar’s parting shots and discuss what drove Amar to write his essay.

After challenging Jefferson’s constitutional thought, Amar could not resist denouncing Jefferson as an evil slaveholder. This is nothing but pure presentism and paints the American experience with slavery as unique when, in fact, slavery has been a universal human institution. (See my article The Bad Theology of America’s “Original Sin”). Amar also ignores that it was President Jefferson who urged Congress to act to end the transatlantic slave trade. In December 1806, in his sixth annual message to Congress, President Jefferson reminded the legislators of “the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights” bound up in the international slave trade. 

Although no law banning the trade could take effect until 1808, Jefferson averred that early action by Congress might prevent further expeditions that could not be completed before the new statute’s effective date. Congress acted on Jefferson’s suggestion, and on New Year’s Day, 1808, the importation of African slaves into the United States was banned. Thus, the United States was among the first Western countries to abolish the slave trade. Only Denmark (1792) and Great Britain (1807) took action before the United States.

Amar accuses Jefferson of lustfulness and states matter-of-factly: “He was also the father of several slave children with his slave mistress, Sally Hemings.” He then asks: “What are we to make of a man who enslaved his own children?” There is no conclusive DNA proof that Jefferson fathered a child by Hemings. Any of Jefferson’s male-line relatives are candidates. As Lance Banning has pointed out, Jefferson’s younger brother, Randolph Jefferson, “was known to dance and play his fiddle with the slaves” and is the likely candidate. I also recommend “Tom and Sally and Joe and Fawn,” in which Egon Richard Tausch points out how historians have mischaracterized the DNA evidence. In sum, it is reckless to state that Jefferson, as a conclusive factual matter, had relations with Hemings.

So why does Amar really desire to declare independence from Thomas Jefferson? He tells us in his final paragraph. We need to pay “tribute to more-admirable Founding Fathers” such as Washington and Hamilton as well as “America’s great Refounding fathers and mothers, such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—men and women who rejected Jefferson’s worst ideas, embraced his best ideas, and made them better still.”

In other words, Amar wants Americans to worship at the altar of Lincoln, the centralized state he engendered, and the modern federal government that is without limits. If Jefferson is allowed admiration, the people might become familiar with the early Republic’s scheme of limited government with carefully enumerated powers, the states serving as a check on the general government, and citizens living independent of the whims of Washington, D.C.’s managerial class. They might come to realize that most of what the federal government does is ultra vires. Armed with such knowledge, the people might start questioning the omnipotent state that Amar and his fellow liberal Democrats have invested in. Hence. we have a hatchet job aimed at preserving the current order.

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, Crossroads for Liberty, Reclaiming the American Revolution, and Patent Trolls.
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