Good Example Of Essay On The Founding Father´s Views On Slavery
Slavery in the United States is a topic that still causes debate among historians. No one can deny this part of the American heritage, but no consensus has been reached yet in regards to the conditions of slaves, or what the public opinion was at the beginning of the nineteenth century towards slavery. It is impossible to downplay the regrettable consequences of this institution, but it is important to remain objective when studying this time period in order to construct a description that is closer to what truly happened. When studying history one must first try to establish the reasons for delving into the past, and then determine what sources will be used for that purpose. This essay will try to find out how people saw slavery by contrasting the views of two people from both sides of the institution. The first source is the book Notes on the State of Virginia, written by Thomas Jefferson from the point of view of a slave owner and a statesman. The second source is a testimony given by a former slave named Harriet Jacobs who wrote and published a book in 1861 called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. It is important to note that the sources are not strictly contemporary so there might be some elements that are not going to be subject to contrast.
Thomas Jefferson is often seen as one of the advocates of abolitionism, and a defender of liberty and equal rights. On the other hand, he was one of the biggest slave owners in the State of Virginia and did not follow the lead of other exemplary contemporaries, such as George Washington, who freed all their slaves. Although Jefferson only freed two slaves during his life, he was not known to be a cruel master. Many discuss his thoughts on slavery and why he did not find it convenient to free his own slaves or push harder for abolition. In order to understand his conflicting views, one must read his testimony.
Firstly, Jefferson thought that slavery was an institution that corrupted society. In section XVIII of his book he expresses that this institution was based on despotism on one side and submission on the other . He saw those were demoralizing values and asserted that when children grew among them, they absorbed and imitated them. Thus perpetuating a model that allows a part of the population to step on the rights of the other. This constant imitation creates a society of despots and enemies. It might be considered as a sign that Jefferson would try to abolish this hateful institution, but he struggled with this idea.
The Founding Father apparently wanted to find a way to free black people but he saw them unfit to live among the white as free men. In section XVI he explains that both races should remain separated from each as he alleged certain differences and quarries among them. For example, he establishes what he considers objective proofs that African people were inferior to whites. He based his assumptions on traits such as body odor, hairiness, perspiration, bravery, lack of reflectiveness and aptitude for art and sciences. He considered that whites were superior in all these aspects. He then tries to demonstrate that it is not only because of their condition of life. He compared blacks to slaves during the Augustan age in Rome. According to Jefferson, conditions of slavery back then were greatly worse than those in America, and still there were slaves who could produce great works of art and science. Given that he had not seen any black sharing these skills, he attributed the superiority of the Augustan slaves to their belonging to the white race.
The Point of View of the Aggrieved
Harriet Ann Jacobs was an African American woman who grew up being a slave during the nineteenth century. Her story details her life and that of her family as slaves. She starts off by describing how she grew unaware of her condition up until she realized she was not in control of her own life. Through the book one can realize how the institution, the laws and the attitudes of people towards slavery forced her to make very difficult choices in order to attain her freedom and that of her children.
Through Jacobs´ story, one can see that Jefferson might be right about how slavery really demoralizes people and brings out the worse of some men and women. Even rights that are now taken for granted, such as the right to hold property or to celebrate contracts, were denied to them. However, the testimony of Harriet Jacobs helps demonstrate that many of Jefferson´s assumptions about black people were based on prejudice or poor understanding of the human condition. Throughout her book, she shows how black people were as capable as white men of feeling all human emotions and of reasoning. She shows herself as a cunning person, and even depicts many of her masters as being cruel or even having psychopathic traits.
Lastly, Harriet shows that, even when she grew up being a slave, she was capable of producing a great work of art and a piece that can even be used by social scientists as testimony of an era.
The Importance of Contrast
Reading Harriet Jacobs´ testimony alone is something that might lead some to wonder how a whole society could allow and institution such as slavery to exist and be defended. One might think she was trying to prove something to the people who treated her as property. It is important then to read what Thomas Jefferson wrote many decades before and see that his ideas were used as justification for what Harriet had to endure. Only then Harriet´s book becomes a solid argument against most of what the Founding Father thought he knew about the human condition.
Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Boston: Public Domain, 1861.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Please remember that this paper is open-access and other students can use it too.
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