Contrasts clarify. In November, journalist Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson hit the market. Many will buy it as a Christmas gift. But if you want a richer understanding of Jefferson, consider a contrasting picture presented in another book, Crossed Lives – Crossed Purposes. It might be a better last-minute Christmas gift.
Ray Blunt’s Crossed Lives – Crossed Purposes: Why Thomas Jefferson Failed and William Wilberforce Persisted in Leading an End to Slavery was published in 2012, contrasting Jefferson’s occasional forays against slavery with William Wilberforce’s sustained fight over 40 years. Two words might account for their contrast legacies: the Enlightenment. Jefferson was an Enlightenment man. Wilberforce was not.
Jefferson and Wilberforce hail from the same era and shared a similar trajectory early on in their careers. Jefferson’s first effort in legislation was in 1770 in the Virginia House of Burgesses. It was, in his own words, “an effort for the permission of the emancipation of slaves.” Jefferson’s bill was roundly rejected so he came to the conclusion that the odds of success in the future were rather dim. He backed off after that.
William Wilberforce’s first effort at legislation was also to abolish the slave trade. On May 12, 1789, the 30-year-old Parliamentarian made his first speech against slavery. He brought forth a bill that was also roundly rejected. Over the next 40 years however, Wilberforce persisted, joining a band of brothers and sisters composed of leading politicians, bankers, and business professionals working together to abolish the English Slave Trade. They succeeded. The Abolition of Slavery Act was finally passed in 1833, three days before Wilberforce passed away.
There are numerous reasons why Jefferson didn’t press the case against slavery while Wilberforce pressed on. The root of it might be that Jefferson was the quintessential Enlightenment man. Wilberforce wasn’t. Jefferson believed in “the progress of the human mind,” and that laws, institutions, and “manners” (i.e., culture) would change “with the progress of the human mind.” This is the Enlightenment’s central conceit – changing the mind is the key to changing the world. “Enlighten the people generally,” Jefferson wrote in 1816, “and tyranny and oppression of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”1
This conceit has consequences. They’re being uncovered by neuroimaging. Emphasizing human rationality (i.e., “the mind”) mostly activates the brain’s left hemisphere. The left hemisphere sees things as a detached observer.2 It feels little to no responsibility for what it purports to know. Left to itself, the left hemisphere is quite comfortable with what would normally be discomforting disconnects. It allows individuals to placidly not practice what they preach. That pretty much sums up Jefferson.
Paul Finkelman thinks Meacham’s biography glosses over this sordid chapter in Jefferson’s life. A professor at Albany Law School and the author of “Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson,” Finkelman notes that Jefferson owned some 175 slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal.”3 A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, Jefferson advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth.
The enchantment of the Enlightenment is that it prizes elocution over execution, words over action. Jefferson wrote eloquently against slavery and debt. He died deeply in debt. Even at his death, Finkelman writes, “Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.”
William Wilberforce was not an Enlightenment man. He felt that the British Empire, including every citizen, was in some way morally responsible for the slave trade, even though he owned no slaves. Wilberforce empathized with the plight of slaves and worked to create images that reframed the problem and provoked the conscience of England.4 Neuroimaging reveals that it is only in the right hemisphere that we think in images as well as have the capacity to form bonds with others – empathy, emotional understanding, and so on. Wilberforce was operating more out of his right hemisphere. Jefferson was operating more out of his left.
Like anything else, neuroimaging can become faddish. But properly understood as an emerging and developing science, it can help us understand more deeply the contrasts between the life of Jefferson and Wilberforce. If however books on neuroscience are not on your Christmas list, Crossed Lives – Crossed Purposes makes the same point. Contrasts do clarify. This book might prove to be the better last-minute Christmas gift.
1 As cited in Alf J. Mapp, Jr., Thomas Jefferson: Passionate Pilgrim (Lanham: Madison Books, 1991), p. 266.
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
3 NYTimes.com Opinion: The Real Thomas Jefferson
4 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 198.