Misplaced musings on paternalism and history.


I needed a place to work something out. So this really isn’t about grief or grieving and it may have some sort of political dimension to it that some people disagree with. It might not be the usual exposition on pain and loss or words of comfort. But I needed a place to write and this was here. And at this point it is a rough draft.

Something about Locke and Hobbes, and Montesquieu and about the Hemings family and the slave auction after Jefferson’s death. I was thinking about walking the DC Mall and visiting the Jefferson Memorial along the tidal basin.

I spent a week at Monticello with brilliant people, listening to brilliant people and really studying the life and work of a singularly brilliant person. Thomas Jefferson. Looking at his papers and his house, walking through his rooms, reading letters, hearing about his life and talking about it all. Soaring words about all men being created equal, about unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Considering two incredible and contradictory facts- that from his mind sprang forth the most shaping democratic principles of our government, and that he owned slaves.

Neither is news. But walking around Monticello in gardens that were tended by enslaved laborers, through halls built by enslaved hands, where every brick was made by a slave, and every nail by an enslaved child. Seeing unmarked graves of lost lives. Hearing the names and stories. And even the university he founded… was built by enslaved laborers. After a week it was difficult to look at anything in the area and think of anything else but the huge and evil deprivation of human liberty all under the the control of a man who helped craft our ideas of liberty, equality and freedom.

And on the first day we heard about an 8th grader on a tour… who after exuding that adolescent disaffected vibe for some time answered a question about Monticello posed by the guide, “It’s a metaphor.”

Monticello has layers and hidden passageways and secrets. Jefferson designed it to minimize the appearance of slavery, and yet he took note of everything, everyone, and every activity. Copious, exact, detailed, obsessive notes. Spreadsheets and ledgers and every sign of enlightenment efficiency applied to human property and misery. He was heavily dependent on the labor of enslaved people and even their sale was a significant source for his income. From the dome, to the dependency- that level hidden under the first floor, to the garden, to the quarter farms… as it sits on the mountain- it is a metaphor. And Monticello’s layers were human as well. From the master and his family at the top, to the enslaved house servants, to the skilled slaves living on Mulberry Road all the way down to those who toiled for a short brutish life on the quarter farms.

Jefferson knew his life, his happiness, was dependent on his captive labor. And yet he considered himself the paternal lord of the plantation (even his biological progeny that was property), and that his human capital was somehow childlike and dependent on him for their existence as if somehow they were the benefactors of his generosity. And that bothered me. “The Dependency” under the house was for his happiness, not theirs. Their labor made him profit at their loss. Even their children became a saleable commodity… so really the paternalism, it was bullshit.

And so it is, I think today. Layers. Owners- management at the top. Labor in the dependency under the floor. Capitalists- not the rich, but the filthy, rare rich,  heralded as the paternal “job creators” with labor as the childlike benefactors of their good will. Except that the labor is only there for the happiness and profit of the master. No profit exists on this scale without labor. Labor creates the profit, and labor becomes the hourly saleable and disposable commodity. Livelihoods and lives still on some Jeffersonian spreadsheet. Just another entry in the cost column to be treated only in terms of cost and profit. And the paternalism is still bullshit.

You hear it when people decry the minimum wage or teacher tenure. You hear it in the contempt of labor and the vilification of unions. Paternalism. This idea that we owe the rich for our subsistence. That they deserve gratitude and loyalty because they give to us, that they are our benefactors. That we are dependent on them.

You hear it when taxes are debated. Or when inheritance is discussed. Or when you look at campaign finance or income inequity.

Today as unions become rare, the middle class loses ground. We race to the bottom in pay, benefits, pensions… It’s fading- the American dream of owning a house and a car working a job for life with solid benefits and a real pension, and that whole suburban fairy tale of the 50s and 60s. We had that once. We lost it. In our worship of the wealthy we bought into paternalistic bullshit and we moved from the house, to Mulberry road, to the harsh uncertainties and brutal realities of the quarter farm. The rich got richer. The poor moved down the road to a much less certain future.


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