Thomas Jefferson, Racist Pig
Jude Wanniski
October 3, 1996


Memo To: Mortimer Zuckerman
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Thomas Jefferson, Racist Pig

If I am not mistaken, you still own and publish the Atlantic Monthly, one of the most distinguished and venerable periodicals in American journalism. This is why I write to raise objection to the cover story in the October issue, written by Conor Cruise O’Brien, which advises your audience that Thomas Jefferson was a racist pig, a despicable man who punished his runaway slaves, who had a secret plan to deport all dark-skinned residents of the USA to Santo Domingo, whose monument in Washington should be demolished, whose name should be defiled forever by right-thinking Americans because of his slave-owning, racist history. This Mr. O’Brien has apparently written a whole book on this subject, which makes him an intellectual, I suppose, as opposed to a garden-variety supermarket tabloid scribbler. Now I don’t hold you completely responsible for the trash you have allowed to appear in the Atlantic, which I began reading almost 50 years ago. For one thing, I understand you have in this recent period been in the process of getting married. You have been understandably distracted. For another, I appreciate the fact that you do not take day-to-day, month-to-month responsibility for the editorial content of the publications in your far-flung empire. The responsibility for putting garbage on the cover of the Atlantic must directly fall on the shoulders of the editor-in-chief of the magazine, James Fallows, whom I see you have rewarded by promoting him to be editor-in-chief of U.S.News&World Report.

About the Jefferson, racist pig, cover. Are you not aware, Mort, that every one of our Founding Fathers was a racist, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, all the signers of the Declaration of Independence? Are you not aware that in the 18th century every adult white male in the 13 colonies, not to mention the known world, believed that black people were intellectually inferior to white people? In fact, Mort, every adult male in the educated class, North and South, in the 19th century believed that black people as a class were marginally subhuman, to some degree -- in the sense that their intellectual potential was limited relative to that of white people. That includes Abraham Lincoln, Mort. Check it out. You will even find that as President, Abe had the bright idea of sending all the black people to Santo Domingo. Did you know that? Check it out. And then give a buzz to Conor Cruise O’Brien and to Jim Fallows, and alert them as well, so they do not go to the trouble of putting George Washington, racist pig, on the next issue of Atlantic or U.S.News&World Report.

To put an even finer point on it, Mort, it was not until this very century that the idea began to occur to any white guys anywhere that black guys might really be genetically on a par at conception. Here and there, one white guy or two, not many more. It began picking up as the century unfolded, but even 20 years ago, in the 1970s, I still had not met a white guy who believed that black guys were on an intellectual par with us white guys, genetically speaking. Jack Kemp and I used to talk about how so few of our friends, in politics or journalism, liberals or conservatives, believed we would ever see a black quarterback in the NFL or even AFL. Black guys could run or jump or tackle or catch, but of course they did not have enough between the ears to be QB.

To sharpen the point still further, when Charles Murray’s book, The Bell Curve, was published two years ago and hit the best-seller lists, practically every white guy I know in American journalism who had anything to say about the book agreed that maybe white guys are a teensy-weensy little bit smarter than black guys, genetically speaking. Do you mind telling me your thoughts on this matter? Do you mind telling me what your far-flung journalistic empire had to say about The Bell Curve? Can you check and find out what Conor Cruise O’Brien had to say about it? I mean, if the folks who are dragging Tom Jefferson through the muck and mire for being a racist can’t show me any evidence that they are not racist themselves, what is the point? In fact, I recommend you get a tape of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s 3-hour speech at the Million Man March and watch it in its entirety (not on your honeymoon, of course) and you will discover he thinks practically all of us white guys are white supremacists. You know, Mort, I think he has a point.

In July, I read a biography of Tom Jefferson written more than a hundred years ago by a leading historian of the late 19th century, John T. Morse Jr. The passages describe the thoughts of young Jefferson in his first elected office, the Virginia House of Burgesses, and again ten years later. What is most important are the comments of Morse, written a century later

by  John T. Morse, Jr., 1883, p.46

In the notion that such a costly and elaborate scheme might be carried into effect we get a manifestation of the most dangerous weakness of Jefferson’s mind. His visionary tendency would thus often get the better of his shrewder sense, and the line of demarcation between the practicable and the impracticable would then become shadowy or wholly obliterated for him. In palliation it can only be remembered that he lived in an age of social and political theorizing, and that he was a man eminently characteristic of his era, sensitive to its influences and broadly reflecting its blunders not less than its wisdom.

Probably even at this early date the slavery problem had become insoluble. Certainly Jefferson’s opinions concerning the two races in their possible relations towards each other rendered it insoluble by him. His observation had thoroughly convinced him of a truth, which all white men always have believed and probably always will believe in the private depths of their hearts, that the negro is inferior to the white in mental capacity. Yet, if this were so, a measure of inferiority much greater than any one ventured to insist upon would not justify the enslavement of the black men. It was from another conviction that Jefferson’s practical difficulty arose; he felt sure that “the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.” The attempt, he predicted, would “divide Virginians into parties and produce convulsions which would probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Perhaps in this he was wrong. Yet holding these two firm convictions it is impossible to see what better plan he could have adopted than that which he did adopt, impossible though it was of execution. At least his prescience of a condition of things at which, as he said, “human nature must shudder,” proves his social and political foresight.

In connection with a topic which was destined soon to become so important in the history of the nation, a few words may be pardoned, though they carry us for a moment away from the subject of the Virginian reforms. Some ten years later Jefferson wrote a letter to his friend M. de Warville, of Paris, which the abolitionists of a subsequent generation were so fond of quoting that they made it widely known. Therein he says: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions; the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate it. With the morals of the people their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate no man will labor for himself who can make another labor for him.”

Having allowed the Atlantic to reach its nadir with this cover story, I think you owe it to the magazine, its founders and its subscribers, to somehow make amends.