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Christmas spirit exhorts higher character standards

Melvin B. Miller | 12/20/2012, 1:51 p.m.
Man, if we could learn how to love one another a little better, we would have Christmas every day. Dan Drew - Cartoonist

“Peace on Earth, good will to man” is a universally recognized Christmas prayer. It induces everyone to respond to their higher instincts and be compassionate and generous to others. That is not the usual state of mind. There is so much cruelty and violence in the world, we take that conduct to be commonplace; but during the grace of yuletide, stories of inhumanity seem to be deviant.

Recently, scholars and historians have been debating the character of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president. He was an intellectually imposing figure whose language in the Declaration of Independence inspired the colonists. The Declaration states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Analysts are unable to fathom the incongruity between this language and Jefferson’s hostility to blacks. According to Paul Finkelman, author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson,” he was in fact the “Monster of Monticello.” Finkelman stated in a New York Times op-ed article that Jefferson owned about 175 slaves when he wrote the Declaration.

Since slavery was a common practice in the nation in those days, some historians are willing to excuse Jefferson because of his great contributions as one of America’s founding fathers. If he were a benign plantation owner that would be possible to do. However, according to reports, Jefferson was upon occasion so brutal that he made Simon Legree, the character from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, seem like a veritable coddler of slaves.

According to Finkelman, Jefferson would sell troublesome slaves and separate them from their families. He once sold off some slaves to acquire the funds to replenish his wine cellar and buy art. His racist writings against slaves were equally antagonistic to emancipated blacks.

At his death, George Washington freed the slaves he owned. Jefferson had no intention of following that practice. In fact, he did not even plan to free the children he had fathered with his mistress Sally Hemmings. When his wife died, Jefferson took up with her half sister, Sally Hemmings, whose mother was a slave. In response to Hemmings’ entreaties, Jefferson finally freed only his last two children in his will, but he left some 200 slaves to be sold at auction. Even Sally Hemmings remained a slave.

It is clear from his conduct that Jefferson did not consider blacks to be human, or at least the same exalted category of human being as whites. Historians and his contemporaries have been willing to ignore this infamous deviancy because of Jefferson’s contributions to the new nation. Apparently, they do not view this as an unforgivable character flaw.

One wonders whether a more humane view on race by someone as powerful as Jefferson would have ameliorated the nation’s awful history of racial discrimination. While it is unlikely for society to sustain the spirit of concern for others that exists at Christmas time, we should learn a lesson from the Jefferson experience.

Whatever talents a political leader may have, good character is most important. A man who would keep his children and his lover enslaved has none. Do not believe that as a mere citizen you count at all if those closest to the leader do not.

It is worth every effort to elevate the concern for humanity that the Christmas spirit brings, but do not be beguiled by charismatic leaders who have no real human compassion.