“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” — John F. Kennedy in 1962 while dining with 49 Nobel Laureates
“Fuck Thomas Jefferson. He owned slaves.” — Your average bonehead
I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the founding fathers and the early republic. In schools today they’re taught in two different forms: 1) solemn reverence and 2) disregard and scorn.
These are both wrong ways to teach about the founders and other canonized leaders. The first is wrong because it elevates them above us, as though their accomplishments are unattainable by us modern mortals. Why reach for greatness if it is surely out of our grasp?
But it isn’t the first group I am here addressing. It’s the second. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a conversation with a person, mentioned a great idea or deed by Washington or Jefferson and was immediately dismissed because the men were slave owners.
However, most of these people advocate various forms of slavery. Recently John Stewart was quoted as suggesting a return of the draft. This is a pretty popular concept not only with progressives, but also conservatives. The only separating matter is whether the draft would be military or civil in nature.
Today, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Sotomayor advocated mandatory pro bono service for attorneys.
Allow me to recite the 13th Amendment:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Now, I’m certainly not the only person to suggest that the draft was unconstitutional. Indeed, it’s been argued in front of the Supreme Court and summarily laughed out of the court despite just how obvious a violation it is to force men to labor against their will. The court’s argument was simply, “Nuh huh, it isn’t slavery or involuntary servitude because we need it.” This sort of sound legal thinking is why I’m glad we have a Bar Association holding the line on legal ethics and professional development.
It’s also why a sitting justice can advocate involuntary servitude and not immediately be laughed at. “Because we want it” is a legal argument that has stood the test of time since the first ruler enacted his first tax on a free man.
Gary Johnson is the presumptive presidential nominee for the libertarian party. And yet he is advocating the imposition of anti-discrimination laws saying that the jewish baker should be required to bake the cake for the Nazi customer. How is it that even so-called libertarians cannot see past their generation’s version of slavery?
What these people are caught up in is generational inflation. The modern man may advocate slavery or involuntary servitude, but look with scorn upon those men of the past as though they are somehow less intelligent or more barbaric. He’s completely oblivious to the fact that there has been no intellectual growth — he’s at the same place intellectually as the men of the past — he’s supporting forcing people to work against their will. Now, if he wants to advocate the draft or compelling me to free work, then so be it. But do not damn Thomas Jefferson for being a slave owner. He was simply performing as a man of his time, just as draft advocates are today.
It should be our goal to get ahead of generational inflation. That means we have to not just do the same bad things as before under a new justification or with only the veneer of growth, but rather let us think independently, embrace the good, and abandon the bad. That is going to require us to always be in a place of intellectual insecurity. Question your sacred ideals and embrace the possibility that you’re wrong. It is my standard assumption in my ideals that I’m probably correct 75% of the time. I figure that that means I’m pretty full of myself, but it also means that I’m wrong…. a lot. It means that I’m constantly in a place where I have to reevaluate my beliefs constantly. Insecurity, especially intellectual insecurity, is not fun, but it’s the only way to grow. Be intellectually proactive, not simply reactive to your times.