Day By Day

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Jefferson and Kosciuszko

I won't be able to attend, but this Friday Gary Nash of UCLA and Graham Russell Hodges of Colgate will be in Philadelphia Friday presenting a paper to the McNeill Center for Early American Studies. The title is:

“Thomas Jefferson and Tadeuz Kosciuszko: Slavery and Freedom, Honor and Betrayal”.

Here's the abstract:
Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s return to the United States in 1797 initiates the narrative we present in this paper. Although crippled by deep wounds, Kosciuszko returned in triumph to reside in Philadelphia as a revolutionary hero. Americans applauded him for his leadership in Poland’s vain uprising from 1792-1794. Americans cherished him in the hearts and memories that linked his glory during the American Revolution with their anxieties over the conservative policies of President John Adams. Kosciuszko had more than adulation in mind; he intended to collect some $12,000 plus interest in overdue pay from the American Revolution. The American Congress, aware of his enormous popular appeal, quickly voted to allot the back pay, which, with interest rose to over $15,000.

Kosciuszko remained in Philadelphia, where he befriended Vice President Thomas Jefferson. The pair talked of Poland, France, liberty and slavery long into the night on numerous occasions in the winter of 1797-1798. International anxieties promoted secret actions. Kosciuszko was worriedabout the newly passed Alien and Sedition Acts and wanted to travel to Paris to gather support for the revitalization of Poland. Jefferson was distraught over the possibility of war between the United States and France and asked Kosciuszko to act as a covert ambassador.

What to do with Kosciuszko’s pension? He gave Jefferson power of attorney; the two men drafted an extraordinary will that gave the American Patriot the power to use the cash to purchase, manumit, educate and give land and cattle to as many enslaved people as could be afforded. Jefferson even had the right to “buy” his own enslaved people and free them. It was a solemn pact between two noble men.

Our narrative then jumps two decades to the time of Kosciuszko’s death in late 1817 and Jefferson’s realization that his promise was now due. We then discuss at length Jefferson’s decision to relinquish executorship of the estate, now worth in excess of $20,000. Nonetheless, we view Jefferson’s eventual decision to shed his oath of honor to Kosciuszko as a betrayal of a promise rich in potential to shift American attitudes about slavery, While Jefferson’s attitudes about black potentials for American citizenship have long been considered, we consider his inaction in this affair of honor deeply troubling for a man deemed America’s greatest symbol of liberty.
I have a link to the full text of Gary and Graham's paper if anyone is interested. Just drop me an e-mail. This is a fascinating view into Jefferson's character. Note that in 1797-98, as Vice-President, he is actively plotting to conduct his own foreign policy in contradiction to that of the elected President, John Adams. The point regarding Jefferson's unwillingness to use Kosciuszko's bequest as directed in his will is also important. It has often been argued that Jefferson held a deep moral objection to the institution of slavery, but that his personal financial situation and familial obligations kept him from freeing his slaves. Neither of those inhibitions, however, would pertain in the case of executing his friend's will, and his inaction is telling.

UPDATE: Jefferson's reputation takes another hit here. Prof. Bruce Ackerman claims to have definite proof that Tom rigged the disputed election of 1800 to gain the Presidency.

As sitting Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson was President of the Senate in 1801, and the Constitution assigned him the job of presiding over the final stages of the bitter presidential election of 1800. When the electoral votes came in from the states, it was up to him to open the envelopes and announce the results. There was only one problem – Jefferson himself was running for president against John Adams, and his rulings from the chair could determine whether he or Adams would be president.

Despite its potential importance, no modern scholar has studied how Jefferson exercised his powers. The Failure of the Founding Fathers provides indisputable evidence that he used his authority to count himself into the presidency.

Read the review here.

No comments: