THOMAS JEFFERSON’S ETHICS AND THE POLITICS OF HUMAN PROGRESS: The Morality of a Slave Holder. By Ari Helo. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2013.
Ari Helo’s Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress: The Morality of a Slave Holder is a thorough and complex contribution to Jeffersonian scholarship. Helo is primarily concerned with reconciling Jefferson’s intellectual contributions to the foundational American ideas and ideals of mass democracy while simultaneously being a racist slaveholder. The short answer is that Jefferson was a politician, but this is not a tongue-in-cheek critique of two-faced politicians today. Those with waning interest in the besiegement of historical figures in order to critique popular notions of today’s society will be relieved by Helo’s efforts here. Helo scours Jefferson’s documents, letters, and notebooks in order to prove that he was the utmost believer that human betterment was a product of political actions, i.e. those with political power have the ability and responsibility to be benevolent.
But Jeffersonian progress offered no guarantees against temporary setbacks in even enlightened, democratic majority opinion. Eventually, Jefferson’s conception of individual self-determination remained subordinate to the simple practice of renewing one’s commitment to justice and benevolence every day, here and now, in concert with others. (13)
The book’s five chapters walk the reader through a thicket of Jeffersonian texts, philosophical theories, and historical facts. The first chapter distinguishes Jefferson’s thoughts about history versus progress and lays the most convincing arguments regarding Jefferson’s seemingly contradictory beliefs. Throughout, Helo highlights Bacon, Locke, and Newton, the trinity influencing much of Jefferson’s thoughts regarding intellectual development, humans as a species, and humans as moral actors. Jefferson’s plan to dismantle slavery and then deport African Americans elsewhere is Helo’s evidence that Jefferson deplored the institution enough as to imagine a political future that would undo it peacefully. Jefferson’s abolition plan was also reflective of his belief in the evolutionary capacity possessed by each individual race given the basis for natural rights, but that also required tremendous effort and ideal contexts to come to fruition (41–43).
The second chapter illustrates Helo’s arguments regarding Jefferson’s belief in scientific and moral progress as experiential and pragmatic. Jefferson saw humans as naturally social and their knowledge and ethics as consequences of cultural and historical context, e.g. the institution of slavery prevented Euro-Americans and Africans from developing their innate capacities, including their intellectual and moral senses (59–61). While this cultivation had no bounds, it would certainly take time and the appropriate context to bring the races of African Americans, Native Americans, and the Euro-Americans beyond their stagnation. Importantly, neither instant freedom nor a mixed-race society was conducive to this in Jefferson’s eyes (41).
In chapter three, Helo explicates the role of Epicurean ethics in Jefferson’s thought, primarily that a good man is always in the midst of further cultivating intellectual and moral abilities, balancing the virtue of the head and the heart. It is here where those with interests in Jefferson’s personal ethics and his sense of ideal citizenship should focus. Chapter four complicates other scholars’ view that Jefferson’s sense of natural rights, arguing that each generation, at the consent of the governed, would have to further investigate them. This position is critical to explaining why Jefferson held onto his slaves while a few of his contemporaries released them. That is, individual sacrifice was not the substance of progress, only mass consensus. Chapter five contextualizes Jefferson’s moral commitments through his political efforts. This is primarily best illustrated through the example of the empowered citizenry in a mass of local governance (not necessarily small, inexpensive governance) should be the locus of political change.
Helo situates these claims within relevant theories prevalent during Jefferson’s life and in a manner that we may condemn his racist actions and beliefs yet reinvest ourselves into mass and individual governance. He also challenges the commonly held Jeffersonian commitments to agrarianism, constitutions, and small-government. The complexity and detail may thwart a non-Jeffersonian scholars attempt to plunge into the text. However, certain sections should certainly be parsed out and explored in other disciplines and classrooms, especially American studies, history, political science, and philosophy. Anthropologists of ethics and cultural critics bent on the Foucauldian notion of self-governance should especially consider the value of this text in terms of its analysis of American leadership as ethical subjects in practice, in private, and in policy production.
Casper G. Bendixsen (National Farm Medicine Center, Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation)
This book review also appears in print in American Studies 54.2 (2015) and is available via Project Muse.