Morning Joe | December 03, 2012
>>> that's a beautiful picture of the united states capitol . it's 6:44 in the morning. back here in new york city , welcome back to " morning joe ." time for our "must-read op-eds." the one we're going to lead with comes from the weekend from "the new york times." headline, "the monster of monticello," talking, of course, about thomas jefferson . we just happen to have thomas jefferson 's biographer, jon meacham here, so this is perfect. let's read a little of this. "there is, it is true, a compelling paradox about jefferson when he wrote the declaration of independence , announcing the self-evident truth that all men are created equal , he owned some 175 slaves. too often scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch to write off jefferson 's inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition . but while many of his contemporaries, including george washington , freed their slaves during and after the revolution, inspired perhaps by the words of the declaration, jefferson did not. over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service , jefferson remained the master of monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings ." jon, this is written by paul finkleman in saturday's "new york times." it's a conversation which is this sort of tension between clearly a great man but also a man who owned human beings . how do you reconcile that for yourself?
>> well, i reconcile it -- actually, you don't really reconcile it. what you do is you try to explain it without excusing it. and to my mind, i think jefferson represents the best of us and the worst of us, as the piece made clear. he articulated an ideal of human liberty that -- he set forth a promise. dr. king called it the promissory note of liberty that was slowly being fulfilled. and also in his own life was a terrible slavemaster who kept an institution going and failed in his political life after a certain point to try to do anything about it. so that's all stipulated. what my view of how we should talk about it and think about it is that if we choose to dismiss from our consideration anyone who was flawed, then we are going to dismiss from consideration virtually anyone. and that my sense is we learn more from people when we look them in the eye instead of either looking up to them or looking down on them. and as arthur slayzinger used to say, self-righteousness in retrospect is easy, also cheap. so for us to wag our finger at posterior, it's fine. we have to note it. but ultimately what's the moral utility of that? do we therefore take thomas jefferson and hold generations of people and just say, well, because of this horrible element of their lives, a central element , an inextricable element, do we just not talk about them? i don't think we should venerate by any means. these were men before they were monuments. and i learned a lot more from sinners than from saints. and so i think you have to take these guys all in all. and to pretend that they were perfect or to pretend that they were totally evil is not productive.
>> michael, how do you as an african-american man grapple with that? i know you think thomas jefferson is a great man --
>> well, it's interesting, it's ironic, a lot of people don't know this, but the lieutenant governor's office in maryland was the office of thomas jefferson for 18 months. he worked in the space now --
>> in annapolis.
>> in annapolis. and i would sit there as the first african-american elected statewide in this grand office. and i'd think to myself, thomas jefferson is someplace going how did a brother wind up in my office? it's a context. and we have a tendency -- and i'd love to get your reaction to this, jon -- we have a tendency these days to reflect back modern attitudes and ideas and appreciations on a time that was very, very different. and not understanding in the context the complications of this man and the complications of his time. but to be able to write, you know, all men are created equal at the same time you're holding slaves and what that really means.
>> right. and you'll appreciate this, too, as a politician. my argument in my book is that jefferson is quintessentially a political being. he is a man of ideas, yes, but actually for 40 years, day in and day out, he was a working politician, putting together coalitions to solve problems in realtime. and on four or five occasions prior to 1784 , he took a very progressive stand on slavery. and he lost publicly and decisively each time. and there are two things you know that politicians don't like, and that's losing publicly and decisively. and in 1784 , he wrote a version of the northwest ordinance that would have prohibited slavery in the northwest territories . it lost by one vote. and he said eloquently, which is redundant for jefferson , and he said in that moment the voice of heaven itself was silent. and then he did something very uncharacteri uncharacteristic. he gave up. and he never marshalled those formidable political skills again because he believed -- he chose to believe -- let me put it that way -- he chose to believe it was an intractable political problem for his generation.
>> sorry, go ahead, mike.
>> ist just going to say, to use your phrase, when you wag your finger at history, you'd best keep your eyes open and look at the whole landscape.
>> and now, i mean, my sense -- my argument about this is that the moral utility of history is that we can look back. we learn from the sins and omissions of the past, but the use of that is to sharpen our own moral antenna for our own time. because if one generation's accepted practice, 40 years ago in my native region we weren't letting african-americans vol s vote, for god's sake. it's not as if he was the only thing standing between abolition and slavery.
>> people have known about this hypocrisy for a long time, right?
>> well, of course, sally hemmings knows how i wound up in that african-americans made this country what it is today. that's part of the nash i narrative of the story of thomas jefferson , the journey of africans american in this country. it's complex, it's interwoven and makes america what it is today.
>> no one's defending jefferson on slavery at all. his hypocrisy is also the country's hypocrisy. and his tragedy was also a big part of the country's tragedy. and it took another 40 years after he died and 600,000 casualties to adjudicate this.
>> it's a fascinating conversation. that piece was in "the new york times" on saturday. you can go online and check it out and see both sides of this.
>>> still ahead, nbc political director chuck todd and political columnist from "time" joe klein join the conversation. more " morning joe " in a moment. with the