Paul Finkelman has repeatedly argued that Jefferson… was at best ambivalent towards slavery, at worst he worked to preserve it. Finkelman and his cohorts: Annette Gordon-Reed, Paul Meacham, and Henry Wiencek- strike an adversarial position in the field of Jefferson scholarship. Historians who believe the well established theory that Jefferson detested slavery throughout his life are considered “supporters” and “defenders.” Finkelman and the others are on the attack, and nothing, not even history can stop them!
Merrill Peterson argues in his best selling… study, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, “All of Jefferson’s values and goals dictated the extermination of slavery.” Peterson not only considers Jefferson’s personal beliefs and actions, but he measures the impact of his words and deeds on our history. Finkelman and his fellow detractors build their criticisms on an essential, but faulty premise. The analysis must be literal- Jefferson’s actions must be judged to the strictest letter. A straw man is created to account for the backlash this type of critical interpretation will surely bring– presentism. It is argued that when Jefferson and other Founders are”justly” criticized, “defenders” wrongly accuse these true scholars of practicing presentism; unfairly judging historical figures with present-day values. Presentism is a crutch, argues Finkelman, for the Jefferson “fans” to ignore the flaws in their own scholarship while attacking the morally superior studies.
Who are you going to believe?