|Articles, History, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2013-06-18 19:58Z by Steven|
Aaron Garrett, Associate Professor of Philosophy
Is interest in the racism of past and hallowed philosophers and statesmen the obsession of a politically correct society gone amok? Or is it an acknowledgement of the ways in which the racist ideas of our forebears still hold sway over our present social and political concerns? Does the racism of a thinker like Thomas Jefferson irremediably infect his writings and his legacy? Must it stalk him, creeping from century to century?
These sorts of questions rage around Jefferson. Clearly the third president means a great deal to many Americans. Since his death in 1826—and even before it—the “American Sphinx” has been invoked in countless contexts and to countless purposes. And Jefferson’s slaveholding and his attitudes towards race have been debated on-and-off for nearly two hundred years. But no aspect of Jefferson’s life has been more hotly contested than his relationship with Sally Hemings, his house slave and purported mistress as well as his wife’s illegitimate half sister. As historian Winthrop Jordan has put it, “What is historically important about the Hemings-Jefferson affair is that it has seemed to many Americans to have mattered.”
Yet it’s not at all clear what Thomas Jefferson’s political legacy, his racist writings, his slaveholding, his proclamations against slavery, his fear of miscegenation, and his (apparently) active miscegenation mean to us when taken together. Why do we care about this, particularly the purported relationship with Hemings, and what is it precisely we are caring about?…
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