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Brands's 3rd law
Great leaders have limited vision (part 1 of 2)
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, where the public high schools have traditionally been named for presidents. Thomas Jefferson High is one of the oldest, having been founded in the first decade of the twentieth century. At the time, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and third president seemed a role model for the students who walked through the school’s doors. A century later, many people in Portland were having second thoughts about Jefferson. The Virginian had been a slaveholder, and though he expressed strong reservations about slavery as an institution, he didn’t free his slaves. Accumulating evidence fairly demonstrated that he had fathered children by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who as a slave lacked the power to resist his advances. Americans at large wrestled with Jefferson’s place in the pantheon of American heroes; Portlanders wrestled with his name on one of their schools.
Liberals, of whom there are many in Portland, were especially conflicted. On most issues, Jefferson was their kind of guy. He was broad-minded, a free thinker on religion, an inquisitive intellectual, the founder of the Democratic party (called the Republicans in Jefferson’s time), a champion of the ordinary people of America, and an opponent of the cozy relationship between government and business favored by his rival Alexander Hamilton. Liberals often spoke as though they wished they could go back and fix that one flaw in Jefferson; if they could talk him into freeing his slaves, he’d be someone they could really embrace.
Which might have been an appropriate position to take if they were considering Jefferson for sainthood. But as a role model for students potentially considering public service, his very participation in the odious institution should have made him all the more valuable. Had Jefferson, a Virginian, not been a slave owner, he would never have been chosen to represent Virginia in the Continental Congress. Slaveholding per se was not a prerequisite, but perceived success was, and successful men in Virginia, typically planters, owned slaves, often scores or hundreds of them. Jefferson didn’t own his slaves free and clear; his creditors claimed them as collateral for his many debts. But even if he had owned them and been able to emancipate them, his doing so would have made him seem eccentric and unreliable to those other slaveowners whose support he needed to advance in the political world. His troubled conscience might have benefited from freeing his slaves, but his career would have suffered. And he never would have been in a position to write the words that did more for human equality than any other single sentence in American history: “All men are created equal.”
The case of Jefferson illustrates a basic principle of history. The people who have the greatest political impact on the world are people of their place and time. Effective progressives can never be more than a half-step ahead of their contemporaries. Any farther and they lose touch with those they hope to influence. This is especially true in democratic political systems, where a prerequisite to power is popularity. Unpopular candidates, including candidates preaching unpopular ideas, don’t get elected. Jefferson might have been a better man for freeing his slaves, but he wouldn’t have been the author of the Declaration of Independence, he wouldn’t have founded the party that became the home of modern American liberals, and he could never have been elected president.
In fact, he might not have been a better man. Slavery was one issue Jefferson’s generation had to deal with, but it wasn’t the only issue, and it was rarely the preeminent issue. Jefferson, like nearly all those who founded the American republic, considered slavery a blight on the conscience of the republic, and they looked hopefully to the day it would disappear. The planters among them deemed slavery at best a necessary evil: necessary to the operation of the Southern economy, but evil nonetheless, for dehumanizing the slaves, devaluing white labor, and corrupting the morals of the petty tyrants slaveholders became.
Jefferson, in particular, condemned the British for having introduced slavery to the American colonies; in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he castigated King George, saying, “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
None of the founders would have introduced slavery into America had it not already existed there. Indeed, at the Constitutional Convention they effectively set a cutoff date on the introduction of any more slaves. This, they hoped, would be the first step toward eliminating the institution entirely.
Things didn’t follow their script. Slavery became anachronistic in the North, as the economy there modernized and required a more flexible labor force than slavery allowed. As the necessary evil became less necessary, its evil grew more glaring, and it was abolished—albeit often in stages that left some slaves in bondage decades into the nineteenth century.
But in the South, slavery grew more profitable. The cotton gin eliminated the bottleneck that had kept cotton from becoming a mass-consumption item, and the opening of new territory to settlement on the Gulf Coast Plain between Georgia and Texas created demand for more slaves. With slave imports banned as of 1808, the price of slaves rose. By 1860 the value of slaves was greater than the value of any other asset class in America besides land.
What this meant was that ending slavery became much harder than the founders had ever imagined. George Washington’s will called for freeing his slaves after his death; Washington was wealthy enough to do so. (He had no children, which made his act easier.) But for most slave owners, especially as the nineteenth century wore on, freeing their slaves would have meant financial ruin. Jefferson couldn’t have freed his slaves if he wanted to; they were attached by his creditors, who would have sold them—not freed them—to pay his debts.
Any solution to the slavery problem in America required more than just good will. It required tackling core elements of the American economy. And in a democracy, it required persuading a majority of voters to take on the job. Henry Clay enlisted. As a young legislator in Kentucky he proposed a plan of gradual emancipation. Clay owned slaves himself, but he hated slavery and sought its end. He failed to win the support of most other Kentucky slaveholders, who were able to block his program. Yet Clay didn’t give up. His Lexington neighbors elected him to Congress, where he became speaker of the House of Representatives. There in 1820 he devised a legislative scheme that kept slavery out of most of the Louisiana Purchase. The Missouri Compromise didn’t please the growing number of Northern abolitionists, who condemned Clay for giving up any of the western territory to slavery. Nor did it satisfy all Southerners, many of whom complained at losing any of Louisiana. Ignoring the complaints, Clay defended the bargain as the best that could be struck, and maneuvered the package through Congress.
During the next three decades, Clay served as the model of the antislavery pragmatist. He never lost his conviction that slavery was an evil institution, nor his hope and belief that one day it would die. Yet he continued to recognize that its demise would come not through the fulminations of the abolitionists but through the workings of democracy. The final act of Clay’s political life was the Compromise of 1850, which dealt with the territory taken from Mexico at the end of America’s war with that country. California was admitted to the Union as a free state, which offended the South, in exchange for a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, which angered the North. Once more Clay was condemned on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line; once more democracy muddled on.