Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Was Thomas Jefferson A Monstrous Rapist?

It is quite likely that I shall be on the receiving end of some strong opprobrium for this post, but, well, here it goes anyway.

So, Shaun King in the New York Daily News in an article being spread around the internet has accused Thomas Jefferson of being a "rapist" (in the article headline) and "monstrous" in the body of the article for his relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, who bore him six children, with her and them not ever being freed by the in-debt Jefferson.  Much of the article is accurate, including that last point, as well as that he owned more than 600 slaves (sorry, having trouble linking to article itself).  The main point is that because he legally owned her she had no ability to consent or not consent, so therefore any sex between them was rape, indeed, monstrous rape, with in fact it appearing that this all started when she was about 14, so adding in by current standards statutory rape, although that point was not made in the article. 

I would contend that the correct point in the article is that slavery was itself a monstrous system, and that anybody trying to defend it because some slavemasters were not as cruel as some others is unjustified.  It cannot be justified.  It was monstrous.  And, indeed, the nature of it profoundly morally polluted all interpersonal relations that occurred within it, including sexual ones.

Well, I would say that we do not know whether or not she consented or not. Those pointing out that she could not refuse are, of course, correct.  But that does not mean that she did not consent.  There is a parallel, although less so, with ongoing situations where male bosses impose themselves on female subordinates, where the surbordinate may really not be able to give up the job because of economic reasons, needing to support a family, no alternative jobs available. OK, this is not as bad as slavery, but it is also very similar.  Yes, that is now illegal, but we call in sexual harassment, not monstrous rape, with rape still involving a clear unwillingness of the person supposedly being raped.  In the case of Sally Hemings, we simply do not know,

Let me note a possible alternative view on what happened between them, although this may not be true, and Jefferson's failure to free her does not speak at all well of him.  None of this is mentioned in Shaun King's article.  So, when Jefferson (TJ) took Sally Hemings (SH) with him to Paris when she was 14 and he became ambassador, he was 44.  This is noted in the article, hence, of course the further statutory rape aspect.  But what King left out is that at the time TJ was a widower and alone.  Furthermore, the really important detail, SH was the half sister of his dead wife, with both of them sharing the same father.  Now today we consider all of this not only to be monstrous, but an abomination, really horrendous.  But at the time, it was not at all uncommon, quite widespread in fact.

So it is not at all impossible that TJ himself fell in love with this slave who so reminded him of his dead wife, and she may well have been sympathetic and understanding and not at all in a mood to resist or reject him, in fact, the feeling may have been mutual, although we shall probably never know.  Now at this point somebody might say, "well, why did he not do the right thing and free her and marry her?!"  There is a very simple and obvious reason.  It would have been against the law.  Miscegnation was outlawed in Virginia in the 1690s and that law would remain on the books until a half century ago when the SCOTUS famously overturned it in Loving versus Virginia, the ruling that basically ended all anti-miscegenation laws throughout the US.  Maybe he was just a monstrous rapist, but it is also quite possible that they were both oppressed by this law and system where they could not do what they really wanted. 

So, he had to cover it up, although one can certainly ding him on his hypocrisy in certain writings that are not favorable to African-Americans.  But then we know that for him, he was deeply hypocritical, the slaveowner who wrote all those stirring words in the Declaration of Independence that would later by used by civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. to advance their cause.

Barkley Rosser


Jerry Brown said...

Well you are either courageous or foolhardy to speculate on this particular situation. I would just stick to the point that slavery was morally abhorrent, which you did make, thankfully.

The relationship between a slave and owner is even more of a situation of power imbalance than that between worker and employer. And economics has not generally helped in accounting for that in its theories. If this is your goal I wish you all the luck in the world, because it is needed for economics to become more relevant.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


I agree that onwer-slave relation involves a much greater imbalance of power than employer-employee, and I think I said that.

On thinking about this more, I think monstrous applies unequivocally, and that is simply because the slavery system was monstrous, and the very widespread pattern of owners imgregnating slaves as a way to increase their financial assets was simply monstrous. I have always wondered what the masters' wives thought of this, as surely most of them knew what waw up. Surely as women and wives they did not like it, although most clearly tolerated it either because divorce was all but impossible, or because they approved of the family financial improviement involved. Of course in the case of Jefferson and Hemings, his wife, her half sister, was not alive when it all got going apparently.

I think where things are questionable involves the word rape, which I think really does involve the unwillingness of the woman (or man) who is having sex forced on them unwillingly. As noted, we simply do not know how willing or unwilling Hemings was, although she was clearly not in a position to say no, if she was unwilling. But the possible scenario I posed in the post, possibly foolishly, is not out of the question, even if it remains hopelessly monstrous.

Unknown said...

Did not Jefferson's peers consider this unlawful? I know that many abolitionists considered slavery to be a two-edged evil debasing the slave and corrupting the slaveholder.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

What was illegal in Virginia was a white person marrying a black person, with the latter being defined by the "drop of blood" criterion, any known African ancestry and you were legally black. I do not think there was any law against interracial sex or having interracial children, per se, which, as aleady noted, was quite common.

Abolitionism did not become a strong political movement until after Jefferson was dead, although there certainly were abolitionists around during his lifetime, including among the Founding Fathers, with Benjamin Franklin one in his later years. I am not sure about John Adams, but his son, John Quincy Adams, was one.

Jefferson himself wrote things criticizing slavery and essentially recognizing its immorality, but effectively argued that its end would come in time. He also seems to have supported at one time at least the idea of freed slaves having their own nation somewhere. However, he also wrote that blacks were inferior intellectually and in various ways. His views on all this were contradictory and less then fully clear, sometimes denouncing slavery, sometimes sort of accepting it.

His relationship with Sally Hemings was gossiped about and publicly reported on during his lifetime, most prominently during the hard fought presidential campaign of 1800, when supporters of John Adams spread the rumor and even had it appear in some newspapers. Of course, Jefferson and his supporters denied it and denounced all this as dirty campaign tactics, even though we are now reasonably certain it was true. That race was so close, there was a tie in the electoral college, the only time that has ever happened, and the race was ultimately decided in the House of Representatives, the only time that ever happened except for 1824, when four candidates ran, with John Quincy Adams eventually winning, even though he lost both the popular and electoral vote to Andrew Jackson, but Jackson did not have a majority of the electoral college.

As it is, here in Virginia, I happen to know people who still claim that all these tales are untrue and a smear on Jefferson. But the historical and genetic record are pretty clear. Tests on descendants of both Jefferson and Sally Hemings are decisive that her descendants are also descendants of a male in the Jefferson line. Dead end deniers that this was Jefferson claim it could have been his nephew, and indeed, it cannot be ruled out that one or more of the six children she had were by him. But Thomas Jefferson himself was apparently near her during all six times when the conceptions would have occurred, and he did take her to Paris with him, and she was the half sister of his late wife, and the story in her family passed down to her descendants today is that he was the father of all six children, so he probably was.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Barkley Rosser

Rewarding to see that you have drawn the consequence of a rare flash of insight and left economics altogether.*

Your true competence has always been insightful comments on the sex life of the House of Sa’ud and other celebrities as demonstrated in two recent pieces:
― Muhammed Bin Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al Sa’ud Confined To His Palace
― Was Thomas Jefferson A Monstrous Rapist?

Economics has never been your thing. Good for society to learn that you have left profit, capital, equilibrium and other nonentities behind for good and dedicate your talent now fully to Sexual Research.

May the rest of scientifically failed economists follow your example.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

* See ‘Economists: scientists or political clowns?’

Jerry Brown said...

Egmont, your posts are typically extraordinarily rude. If you want people to consider your ideas, don't you think that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn't start out by calling them idiots or otherwise insulting them? I have no doubt that you are an intelligent person- it is obvious you know how to write English and post comments- but your social skills are lacking in the extreme. Maybe you could improve them a bit before commenting, otherwise there is really no point to your commenting.

Anonymous said...

With slavery as with present employed labor there is a major aspect of favoritism to obtain more income, better positions, faster promotions, better raises, better jobs within the firm.

So when is an employee's motivation for improved status in employment differentiated by "willingness" to engage in sexual "favors" and "unwillingness" to do so? So too it is and was under slavery as well. Is this any different than "licking the bosses boots" and siding with his position in return for better chances for better employment conditions --- as described above? If it is different than in what manner is it different --- other than one involving a physical act and the other verbal acts?

And what about the female employee who dutifully and willingly made sure the boss was well served with coffee and donuts in his office every morning or at meetings while also enduring blatant unwanted and opposed sexual advances, ass grabbing and the clear use of wandering hands to get a breast feely now and then, or even an occasion bj?

Were and are these not personal choices to satisfy a quid-pro-quo relationship beyond official "job" requirements to obtain favoritism and it's possible benefits in a competitive environment?

Do we call this willing or unwilling? Is this considered submission or not considered submission?

Is the only distinction physical touching in contrast to verbal acts to make the quid-pro-quo trade? In economic terms isn't this simply a trade to obtain sought after benefits on both sides of the trade?

In the context of power all we're talking about is the power to provide better benefits or remove them -- as I listed above. At the lower income levels in employment I'm not convinced there's any significant difference to slavery .. you can quite but if you have mouths to feed and maintain a roof overhead quitting is an option but not one without suffering great negative consequence. A slave can be sold, perhaps to a more demanding owner or to one which will put you to work in the fields rather than as a house servant.

I also make note that I'm referring to slavery in historic terms... the Greeks were composed of 80% or more slaves, but who were indistinguishable from what we would refer to today as the middle class. The were owned but free to shop, purchase things, go about their normal private lives, be the clerks and craftsmen in the shops, take positions in government (tax collectors, clerks, even positions of authority).

There were then two or three classes of slaves, the lowest of which worked the mines and died from overwork quickly. They were the slaves that didn't conform to the norms, who stole from others, or were otherwise unruly... they were the expendable slaves. There were military slaves, highly trained and well cared for, not expendable except in warfare. And there were the slaves that constituted the economy providing all the goods and services, and bulk of consumption.

I'm sure there were similar classes of slaves in the US and Caribbean as well, just not quite as well distinguished in class or treated as well. But a slave is an object which is legally owned, dependent on their owner, and can be bought and sold as any other physical asset, and thus not "free" in the classical sense of the term. An employee may be effectively owned and dependent on their employer .. or by any employer unless and until they become independent by being their own business... whether by legal definitions (e.g. Uber drivers as "independent contractors") or in the traditional sense.

Jerry Brown said...

Is this you?


Very nice if so.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...


I did not check the first one, but I am not in the second one, which is Lars Spyll with a bunch of usual worthless remarks by our friend, Egmons, whom I have no interest in debating with further here after the very long exchange now over at my decision on the "Profits and Capital" thread, with its now 65 comments, way overboard.

So, sorry, I do not think I am in these links, and I have no interest in any discussion of the stuff in the one with the troll Egmont going on and on and with his usual utterly unplushible drivel. Really. I have had it.

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Oh, sorry Jerry. The comments on the now ancient thread on Profits and Capital are up to 66, although I am not going to add any more there, the discussion having completely degenerated to worthless idiocies totally beneath contempt.

I am now more interested in my latest post, which in fact gets to the serious heart of my post on Profits and Capital, where Larry Summers has chosen to repeat an unacceptable and hypocritical slur against Joan Robinson regardng capital theory, which is far more important that arguing with totally worthless morons about what equilibrium is.

Jerry Brown said...

Actually, Lars Syll quotes a J. Barkley Rosser Jr. quite favorably and the link goes to the original piece. I was wondering if that was you. Our friend Egmont has yet to comment there so far, I think.

I have read and enjoyed your latest post and I am a fan of Joan Robinson but I will have to admit that I am not all that knowledgeable about the particulars of her work. From what I do know, she was more "Keynesian" than Paul Samuelson was, which is a good thing in my opinion. And certainly more along that line than Larry Summers.

I don't know why Larry Summers decided to quote this remark from his uncle. For someone who is so acclaimed for his intelligence it seems a bit foolish. But then I say stupid things also, but have the benefit that no one pays attention :)

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Jerry Brown

You say: “Actually, Lars Syll quotes a J. Barkley Rosser Jr. quite favorably and the link goes to the original piece. I was wondering if that was you. Our friend Egmont has yet to comment there so far, I think.”

Ideed, I have commented on Lars Syll* and corrected Barkley Rosser as follows: “It was just the other way round. Non-Euclidean geometry had been developed well before relativity theory by mathematicians (Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, Hilbert, Rieman, Poincaré etc). Without non-Euclidean geometry Einstein could not have formulated relativity theory.”

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

* Don Lars and the axiomatic windmill

Jerry Brown said...

Egmont, perhaps you have commented at Lars' blog and maybe you attempted to 'correct' what Barkley Rosser said. That is very kind of you. As far as Einstein, I recognize that he was a bit brighter than I am, and I would not speculate about what he could or could not have achieved. But perhaps you also know more about the development of relativity theory than Einstein did. He was probably just as wrong as EVERY other person in the world is according to you.

AXEC / E.K-H said...

Jerry Brown

I commented on Lars Syll and Barkley Rosser and economics and axiomatization. My post says clearly that the two talk nonsense about axiomatization. I do not correct relativity theory, I correct what Barkley Rosser says about testing of axioms.

The point at issue is NOT the brightness and the achievements of mathematicians/ physicists but the incompetence and failure of economists.

Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

rosserjb@jmu.edu said...

Oh right, Jerry. I remember that post, and I think Lars did say some nice things about me in it, although I could not find it, and, of course our fave troll came in to make inappropriate remarks.

Just for the record, troll Egmont, I may not have said it in whatever it was that Lars quoted, but I was and am fully aware of the work on non-Euclidean geometry prior to Einstein, who drew on that work without needing any "correction" from you. You really do overdo it so much, you fail to see how ridiculous you look.

I think it is funny when you attempt to lecture me on either physics or logic, both of which I have no doubt I know far far more about than you do. I have published on both, substantially more than you have been able to publish at all on your silly theories. I realize that why you troll these blogs is because you are unable to publish beyond one or two articles in totally obscure non-econ journals, so otherwise all those links you have are to SSRN papers, which, of course, are not peer-reviewed. You cannot survive a peer review and are bitter about it, so you come on these blogs trolling and insulting and generally making a complete fool of yourself.