Thomas Jefferson owned about six hundred slaves over the course of his life. That is to say, he was involved in denying individual sovereignty to six hundred people. Barack Obama, by comparison, wishes to deny individual sovereignty to over three hundred million people. And yet according to the left, Jefferson should be dismissed as a hypocrite, and one of the noblest documents ever written reduced to the status of mere “politics,” whereas Obama, who seeks to destroy that document, ought to be seen as a champion of equality and fairness.
If you are inclined to incredulity at the notion of comparing Obama’s policy agenda to slave ownership, then you may wish to excuse yourself from the rest of this discussion, as the comparison only gets worse for Obama.
What, at its base, is slavery? Slavery, we would casually answer, is the ownership of one man by another. That is to say, it is a perversion of the notion of private property, rooted in a fundamental illogic about the nature and source of property itself.
Property is a derivation from what Jefferson, following Locke and others, termed the right to life. A human being, as an animal, has a natural inclination to self-preservation; however, as a rational being, this inclination is not simply an instinct, but initiates a moral imperative, i.e., it becomes a matter of choosing to live in accordance with his nature, first and foremost by preserving himself. It is this moral imperative that modern political philosophers termed a “right,” in the sense that to thwart or restrict it is to deny a man his very nature, which means to deny Nature itself. Thus, it is literally correct to say that to violate the right to life is unnatural.
As a rational agent, a man achieves his self-preservation through voluntary effort aimed at providing the means of his survival and prosperity. Just as the right to preserve himself entails what may be called ownership of his own life, so the man’s efforts are also his property, in as much as they are the practical manifestation of his right to self-preservation, i.e., of his self-ownership.
From this, it is a “self-evident” truth that the acquired (earned) product of the man’s voluntary effort is also his rightful property, following upon his ownership of the labor that produced it, which in turn followed upon his ownership of himself, and his moral imperative of self-preservation.
The institution of slavery is a perversion of property rights because it treats as one man’s property an entity that already has a natural owner, namely the entity itself, i.e., the slave. But what exactly is slavery’s definitive violation of the principle of self-ownership? Owning a man, independently of owning his actions, would be as meaningless as it is rationally incoherent. If I am free to act as I choose, and to enjoy the fruits of my efforts, then I cannot be said to be owned by another, in any practical sense.
Thus, slavery’s definitive violation of self-ownership is the presumed ownership of another man’s actions. In other words, to be a slave is, at its core, to live without any property claim on one’s own effort or its results. The more overtly coercive elements of slavery are corollaries of this basic denial. To own the results of a man’s work – that is, to own them without mutually voluntary exchange – is to own his labor; to own his labor is to own his time; to own his time is to own his life.
If, however, one grants the humanity of the slave, then the institution of slavery is refuted by a clear understanding of the notion of property itself. Property rights presuppose – are derived from – self-ownership. A naturally self-owned being cannot logically be owned by someone else. Therefore, slave ownership – one man “owning” another man – violates the premise of all ownership. Slavery is self-refuting, as it contradicts the foundation of property rights, namely that a human being owns himself.
The American founders, experts on property rights, understood this, which is why the nation’s internal conflict over slavery devolved into a question of whether African slaves were fully human. Americans wishing to defend the institution of slavery had no choice but to answer “no” – basic logic required this, for reasons outlined in the preceding paragraph. Common sense, on the other hand, forced men like Jefferson to answer “yes,” thereby concluding, in the name of reason, that slavery was illegitimate.
Jefferson’s famous “all men are created equal” is in no way susceptible to the smug condescension of all-knowing leftists like Jon Meacham, as it is obvious that Jefferson meant to include African men in that subject, “all men.” He was implicitly addressing, as broadly as possible, the great moral inconsistency of his time.
Hence, Meacham’s snotty demurral that Jefferson was “somewhat of a progressive on slavery as a young man – as much as a young slave owner could be in the Virginia of his time,” rings false on every level. As a child of a slave-based society, living among and owning slaves his entire life, the courage revealed in his grand declaration that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” is a monument to a man of character – the antithesis of the “pragmatic politician” Meacham describes. He saw the iniquities of the world that had nurtured him, as much as of the circumstances imposed upon him by the British crown, and wished to set down as a line in the sand of history his desire that all men should be granted their birthright. The declared equality of all men, powerful in its simplicity, implicitly raises the slave, just as it lowers the king.
What is more, for all the modern left’s snide remarks about the fact that Jefferson did not free his own slaves, we can say that in a more fundamental sense, he did effect the change he sought, and did so more definitively than any private act could have achieved. After all, it was precisely Jefferson’s own words and principles, as invoked by later Americans, which proved the ultimate downfall of the institution of slavery – which, we must recall, was a multinational institution in his day, as irrationalism, socialism, and a degenerate popular culture are today. We all live in conditions of moral inconsistency; correction is always maddeningly incremental. Jefferson, however, was instrumental in enunciating the founding principles of the nation that delegitimized slavery more thoroughly than any nation ever had.
The left, in its effort to undo the constitutional republic, would smear Jefferson as a moral hypocrite. On the contrary, we should all wish to be so efficacious in realizing our moral intentions in the grand scheme of things. There is a lesson here for all of us today, imperfect beings though we be, who seek a path to civilizational renewal.
The most predictable and telling aspect of Meacham’s ahistorical sophistry is his claim that Jefferson’s youthful distaste for slavery showed him to be “somewhat progressive,” while his ultimate failure to free his slaves reveals that he was “not progressive enough.” Meacham’s point here, beyond mere anti-founders revisionism, is that the anti-slavery position is progressive, while the pro-slavery position is, by implication, “regressive,” i.e., conservative. This is the pseudo-intellectual version of Joe Biden’s rant about how the Republicans “are going to put y'all back in chains.”
This claim must be addressed directly, as it takes us to the heart of the leftist educational establishment’s long range purpose of skewering language on the spit of Marxist indoctrination.
Progressivism, as its most prominent advocate these days tells us, represents the desire to “spread the (that is, your) wealth around” by means of government coercion. Progressivism is the advocacy of so-called positive rights, i.e., claims against other men grounded not in human nature, but rather in a vindictive ideologue’s wish list. Progressivism is the balkanization of society based on income strata and their corresponding layers of resentment. It is a fundamental denial of even the possibility of individual achievement, in favor of the anti-theory that all goods are ultimately the product of collective, centrally planned action – that “you didn’t build that,” that no human being ever ultimately achieved anything, but rather the state achieved everything.
Progressivism is, in sum, the rejection of the individual, which means of individual human nature, which means of individual natural rights. Where there is no rights-bearing individual, there is, needless to say, no self-ownership; there is no concept of “my labor” and “my time”; therefore, there is no product of “my efforts.” Property does not exist.
Allow me to emphasize this point. For progressives, private property is not merely to be “sacrificed” in the name of some higher good. Their goal is much more profound: property is to be refuted.
And what, according to every semi-rational conception of mankind the world has ever known, is a man who has no claim on the product of his labor, on his effort, his time, or, as naturally follows, on his own life? The answer would have been self-evident to every man, woman and child, until Marxist progressivism overwhelmed modern education: this man is a slave.
Progressivism espouses the basic principle of slavery. Unlike past slavery, however, the progressive version does not try to force the square peg of “owned men” into the round hole of property rights. The progressive simply denies property rights completely, and hence rejects the tortured reasoning of private slave ownership in favor of universal enslavement to the state.
The progressive, in short, seeks to nationalize the slave industry. This is the literal (though unspoken) meaning and source of his demands for confiscatory tax rates, redistribution of wealth, hyper-regulation of industry, and government control of health care and education. It is the meaning and source of the progressive’s mockery of private success in favor of the charms of public dependency, his efforts to redefine and legislate the private family out of existence, and his disdain for religions which teach the dignity of the individual soul, and appeal to men’s hearts beyond the reach of their allegiance to the government.
You may object that whereas a slave is not free to leave his owner’s land, a citizen in progressive America may live or work elsewhere. This is true – for now. It has not always been true in leftist nations, of course. In any case, we ought to judge the left by its hopes and inclinations, rather than by its practical manifestations alone. (The fact that the progressives have been resisted on many of their wishes cannot be used in their defense.) And what is the last hundred years of leftist evolution, if not the development of ingenious strategies for tempting civilization into its own demise – for slowly habituating men to desire the chains that previous oppressors had to slip over their targets’ necks as they slept?
To understand the defining intentions of progressivism, consider the left’s demonization of those who avail themselves of foreign “tax havens.” Consider the death tax. The assumption is that whatever you have acquired ought to be subject to government confiscation – that you are cheating the state by acting as though your “possessions” are actually your own, rather than a loan from the collective. Watch during the next few years, as doctors’ appeals to individual rights are crushed under the tank of socialized medicine, just as they have been in every nation that has adopted this inhuman scheme.
Progressivism is the nationalization of slavery. This brings us back to the Jefferson/Obama comparison with which we began. Contrary to Jon Meacham’s lame effort to claim Jefferson’s anti-slavery instincts as progressivism, it was actually his dedication to the notion of property, which, following Locke, he understood to be inseparable from self-ownership, that stoked his moral objection to slavery.
And here is the point: Jefferson was a man who opposed slavery at its root – its incompatibility with the basis of private property, namely individual sovereignty – but who found himself unable to undo the societal wrong in his lifetime, or even to extricate his own life from its taint. His ideas and his words paved the way for many great developments, not least of which was the end of slavery in America. His principled hope was achieved, albeit belatedly.
Obama, on the contrary, is a man who embraces the core principle of slavery – the denial of individual sovereignty, i.e., self-ownership. His main difference on this score from the slave owners of the past is that, rather than pursuing the contradiction of defending private property while simultaneously defiling it, Obama merely wishes to undo property itself, thus rendering enslavement a universal principle of government. If his hopes, which he shares with the Communist Party and all other progressives of the past hundred and fifty years, are achieved, life in the resulting America will make life under George III seem a lost paradise.
Bluntly stated, Jefferson was a great, imperfect man who believed deeply in freedom as an equal right, but struggled to find the best path to its realization. Obama is a resentful demagogue who deeply disbelieves in the notions of freedom and property, who believes only in the equality of shared dependency, and whose planned post-Marxist nightmare presently slouches, like Yeats’ “rough beast,” towards America to be born.
In the earliest moments of representative government, the philosopher Democritus could already see something:
“Poverty in a democracy is as much to be preferred to so-called prosperity under tyranny as freedom is to slavery.” (Fragment D115)
The Greek experiment in political self-determination revealed something that subsequent generations broadly remembered and refined, until education finally came under the control of the relativists and propagandists for tyranny: the government’s denial of self-determination – of the dignity of the individual, of self-ownership, of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property – is merely slavery by other names. Those other names – social justice, fairness, progress – must no longer be allowed to stand in the public arena without their proper translation.
That translation may sound harsh, strange, or extreme to some ears – all the more reason to be clear and unequivocal now, before language grounded in reason, our primary weapon, dissolves completely into the goo of progressive irrationalism.
(This article originally appeared at American Thinker.)
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