Letters

"All heroes are tarnished." Readers weigh in on slavery and our Founding Fathers. Plus: Others respond to a review of Michael Korda's "Horse People," and an interview with Studs Terkel.


Salon Staff
December 2, 2003 10:24PM (UTC)

[Read "Founding Sinners," by Laura Miller.]

I thoroughly enjoyed your piece on some of the latest mainstream histories now being published that engage with the issue of slavery and our "Founding Fathers." I found the article exceptionally well researched and impressively informed. There are two points I would like to raise in response: First, scholars in African-American studies have been writing on this same issue for several decades, but at best they have been ignored, and at worst condemned for propagating angry lies rather than producing serious scholarship. In this vein, the new scholarship of Wills et al. is not exactly pathbreaking, but is in fact largely derivative (see Winthrop Jordan's 1968 tome "White Over Black," to name just one).

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Second, my own visits to Colonial Williamsburg and similar sites (Greenfield Village in Michigan now features some original slave houses) has not shown the majority of the American public to be sympathetic to the slaves. In listening to the types of questions put to the guides and (I will admit it) eavesdropping on families as they left the site, I found both tourists and guides eager to sanitize the past. I have heard folks asking how much slaves were paid, guides referring to slaves as "servants" and asserting that the slave system was a beneficial kind of paternalism. To be sure, not all guides and not all tourists have espoused these views, but in my experience they have been far from uncommon!

I think more than acknowledging the pervasiveness and cruelty of slavery and the complicity of Washington and Jefferson in its practice, it is incumbent upon us to educate today's schoolchildren in African-American history, showing that we were in fact far more than passive victims of a powerful people; we resisted, we created, and we fought for our freedom many lives and many times over.

-- Dr. Michelle M Wright

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A sensitive and beautiful article, on the whole. But I would like to look more closely at something you wrote: "Negro President" takes as its central idea the assertion that Jefferson would not have won the 1800 presidential election without the Electoral College votes provided by the "three-fifths clause" in the Constitution, and that Jefferson knew this all too well. (The clause counted each slave as three-fifths of a person in apportioning representation to each state.)

It is not usually pointed out, but Northerners benefited from slaves not being counted as human beings, because this would reduce the political influence of the Southern states. Southerners benefited from slaves being counted as human beings, because that would increase their political influence. The dehumanization of the "three-fifths clause" -- downgrading blacks by 40 percent from full humanity -- results from the success of Northern interests.

This is not to say, of course, that the Southern interest in this matter was humanitarian in its motives. Nevertheless, one of the signs that you are correct in your general thesis -- that we have yet to look at slavery objectively -- is that we still gloss over this issue. We are ready now to examine the hypocrisy of Southerners such as Jefferson and Washington, but we are not yet ready to examine the callous self-interest of Northerners who did not want slaves to be counted as complete human beings.

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The issue is not simply that slaves did not have the vote. If I recall correctly, only landowning white males had the vote. The issue is that each side wanted the largest apportionment it could get, and humanitarian concerns were irrelevant to both.

-- John Chesnut

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As someone who began his study of the history of the American South in the 1960s, I must say I find Laura Miller's paean to the "discovery" of the entanglement of American history with slavery more than a little amusing. Academic historians were downright obsessed with the subject in the 1960s, and most of the work that laid the foundation for the books Ms. Miller reviews was done well over a generation ago.

But, not unlike many a layperson who complains of what gets "left out of the history books" (usually something, it turns out, the complainant read in a history book), Ms. Miller seems unaware of, say, the work of Winthrop Jordan or David Brion Davis or Leon Litwack or any number of African-American historians from much further back than them. She mentions the masterful work of Edmund Morgan on the ironic connection between American slavery and American freedom, without noting that it was published nearly 30 years ago.

Not only have academic historians not evaded the subject in their writings, but many of us boomer history teachers have built our U.S. history survey courses (in my case, for nearly a quarter of a century) around the scandal of slavery in the land of "freedom," and the difficult struggle to resolve the contradiction.

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I guess Ms. Miller wasn't in my class, or was asleep; but I sure wasn't "evading" the issue, nor was any other tweedy professor I know. Rather, it's the popular media who have ignored what's been going on in the musty ol' stacks and the classroom for lo these many years. It's commonplace among academic historians to complain of how difficult it is for us to penetrate the thick haze of self-congratulatory myth that pervades popular understandings of American history. Commercial entertainment plays on familiar (and thus safe) story lines (the occasional, partial exception such as the movie "Glory" notwithstanding), while local school boards and politicians demand civic uplift over truth-telling.

But we've been doing our best for many years to lay these contradictions bare -- because they feed into so many of the moral conundra that vex us as a people today. It's bad enough that we've been ignored -- but to have the likes of Ms. Miller turn around and complain that we didn't tell her what many of us have spent our lives trying to tell her? Puh-leeze!

-- David L. Carlton

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I enjoyed Laura Miller's article on the founding sinners, but she makes the historically questionable claim that Thomas Jefferson was the father of at least one of Sally Hemings' children. While this is now the perceived wisdom based on a series of articles and TV programs, the truth is not so clear. Historians who have since looked at this question feel that the weight of evidence suggests that Randolph Jefferson, Thomas' younger brother, is the more likely candidate as Sally Hemings' lover and the father of her child Eston, whose descendants have Jeffersonian DNA.

Randolph Jefferson was a widower during Sally Hemings' child-bearing years, he had visited Monticello at the time that Sally Hemings conceived Eston Hemings, and a slave's memoir from the time stated that Randolph Jefferson liked to play the fiddle and dance with the slaves when he visited Monticello. Thomas Jefferson was also 64 at the time, which makes his younger brother or one of Randolph Jefferson's sons the more likely candidates as fathers.

It makes a much more interesting story for the general public and the descendents of the Hemings to believe that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children, but the case is certainly not as strong for him as for his younger brother or nephews.

-- Martin Kannengieser

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The article on slavery that described that institution as "America's oldest wound" is being sloppy to the point of falsity with the history of American misdeeds. Pretty obviously America's oldest wound (in the European era of the continent) in any sense of the metaphor would have to be the death of the Native American population starting in 1492.

Without demeaning the lingering horrors, psychological and economic, of African-American slavery, we shouldn't cease to think about that first great American tragedy. The atrocities against Native Americans (intentional and, granted, not so intentional) came before slavery, resulted in many more deaths, and have resulted in a Native population that is poorer and worse off on average than the descendants of slaves. Apparently, due to various cultural, economic and demographic circumstances, the Native American's current plight, and the cause thereof, seems more easily forgotten than the second great "wound."

I admit it's a catchy tag line for the article. Unfortunately, quite false and ridiculous, but catchy ...

-- Adam Ferguson

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Allow me to express my appreciation for Laura Miller's fine historical and literary review of slavery and the Founding Fathers, while disagreeing with its opening sentiments that the "legitimate question behind [Samuel Johnson's jeer regarding Americans and slavery] has never gone away, mostly because Americans have long avoided answering it."

I recall numerous nuanced discussions in grade school and high school about precisely this subject -- discussions that acknowledged the contradictions between the Founding Fathers' lofty political sentiments, and the realities of their personal economic decisions. These discussions formed part of the background of the larger discussion of the civil rights movement in 1960s Minnesota, and extended as far as acknowledging the deep ambivalence of Abraham Lincoln, the great emancipator, about the black race. Even Lyndon Johnson's murky relationship with civil rights and raw political manipulation came under scrutiny.

All this led me to understand at an early age that all heroes are tarnished in one respect or another when examined sufficiently closely and dispassionately, and that this truth should neither diminish their importance to us, nor serve as justification for closing our eyes to their, and our, shortcomings.

-- Steve Demuth

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[Read "The Horse Pamperer," by Sally Eckhoff.]

I would like to know whom, exactly, I have to sleep with to get into Michael Korda's social set. I work for a major publishing house in New York, but I don't have a hundred acres of prime Hudson Valley land. Instead, I drag my ass out of bed on rainy, cold weekend mornings and drag myself to New Jersey to shovel manure and fix fences for a few hours on a friend's farm so I don't go mad from not seeing a horse for over a week. Then, if the ring isn't underwater, I can ride for 45 minutes.

Horses are like heroin, and most horse people are like smack addicts, rather strung out and financially depleted from their habit. (Do you know how much the two or three brands that actually make breeches for men cost?) So, what is this magical kingdom Mr. Korda lives in, and where can I get a pair of ruby paddock books to click together so I can go there?

-- Ken Mondschein

Wow! Did Sally Eckhoff not get a pony when she was a little girl? Is she still not over it? She has enough opinions about the sport of riding to stop a freight train. She contradicts herself so many times with so much vehemence, I wonder how "professional" an exercise rider she is, much less essayist.

I would like to know exactly who or what her target is -- the world of eventing or Michael Korda or both? She rants that eventing is narcissistic, noninclusive, for obnoxious "haves," doesn't do any good for the world and that eventers feel neglected. At the same time she berates Mr. Korda for covering his little piece of that world. In fact, he is quite frank about his and his wife's abilities and qualifications.

I can understand a certain amount of impatience with someone who has bought her way into the sport as Michael Korda's wife has; however, Margaret is definitely not the norm -- there is as wide a range of "eventers" out here as there are basketball players and skiers. Yes, to get to the top in eventing you need trainers and barn help, but Tiger Woods and Bode Miller aren't exactly going it alone either, nor are the millions of weekend warriors out there on whatever turf their sport of choice requires. We all have to buy the shoes to play the sport -- some choose the latest Nikes, some go to the "replay" store, but we can all still play and enjoy it whatever the level. Eventing is no different.

What Eckhoff didn't include is that riding at nearly any level is hard work in many ways and requires endless amounts of patience and care for that equine partner (underdog or not). As far as doing any good for the world, hey, all that money spent on farriers, tack and training is only going into our economy -- what's so bad about that?

Eckhoff muses about possible public interest in the book. Well, perhaps some people are interested in the behind-the-scenes of the horsey lifestyle. It is too bad that horse sports are not appreciated in this country as much as in other countries, and misguided writing like Eckhoff's does not help public perception any more than Michael Korda's book.

-- Kim Davis

I simply wanted to say to Sally Eckhoff: What a splendid review! Thanks for so deftly skewering both Michael Korda and the whole breed (no pun intended) of horsey setters. Not to mention giving me the chance to while away several spare minutes in an extremely amusing way.

-- Carol Wheeler

[Read "America's Storyteller," by Andrew O'Hehir.]

I'm living thousands of miles away from my homeland on this Thanksgiving Day, and I just want to give thanks that a man with the integrity and vivacity of Studs Terkel is out there telling it like it is, especially during a time when the U.S. is looked upon with much international wariness.

I was raised by a widowed housewife who shared Terkel's views and put up with such silliness as being called a "communist" for marching for civil rights and decorating our VW with peace-symbol stickers. Now I know exactly what I can get her for Christmas. Thank you, Salon and Studs, for providing us with some genuine hope in these gloomy times, and showing the world that the U.S. is not entirely made of corporate CEOs and warmongers!

-- Emily Petrou


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