Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Bieganski

Taduesz Kosciuszko, a true hero
Isaac Granger Jefferson, a slave at Monticello
Bieganski, the Brute Polak, is the world's worst anti-Semite. He may be the source of anti-Semitism. He may be the worst hater on the planet. When Willard Gaylin wrote a book about hate per se, he chose Poles as his archetypal haters.

"Bieganski" talks about how the image of the Brute Polak as the worst hater in the world has been applied to American race relations. In this use of the Brute Polak stereotype, Polaks and other working class white ethnics, not WASPs, not elites, are blamed for racism. White supremacy was a cherished dogma of the Old South, a land inhabited largely by WASPs. Economic elites profited from slavery, while it economically damaged poor whites, who could not compete with slave labor.

Somehow, though, Polish-Americans and other blue-collar ethnics can be demonized as the worst white bigots. This is epitomized by a critically acclaimed and economically successful 2001 film, "Monster's Ball," about white supremacy in the American south that features a main character with a Polish last name. The ultimate brute Polak, Stanley Kowalski from "A Streetcar Named Desire," was placed in the South. The American South is not a significant location of Polish American population. These hateful, hating Polak characters are not placed in the South as a reflection of any demographic reality. These fictional monsters are placed where they are placed because of the power of the Brute Polak stereotype. The Brute Polak stereotype serves to exculpate WASP and elite Americans of their racism, in the same way it serves to exculpate Nazi Germany.

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Tadeusz Kosciuszko was a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Kosciuszko stipulated in his will that his money be used to liberate American slaves, including Jefferson's. Americans never carried out Kosciuszko's desire to use his legacy to liberate American slaves.

In October, 2012, Smithsonian magazine published a scathing depiction of Thomas Jefferson, slave owner. An excerpt from that article, below:

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In 1817, Jefferson's old friend, the Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kos­ciuszko, died in Switzerland. The Polish nobleman, who had arrived from Europe in 1776 to aid the Americans, left a substantial fortune to Jefferson. Kosciuszko bequeathed funds to free Jefferson's slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own. In the spring of 1819, Jefferson pondered what to do with the legacy. Kosciuszko had made him executor of the will, so Jefferson had a legal duty, as well as a personal obligation to his deceased friend, to carry out the terms of the document.

The terms came as no surprise to Jefferson. He had helped Kosciuszko draft the will, which states, "I hereby authorize my friend, Thomas Jefferson, to employ the whole [bequest] in purchasing Negroes from his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name." Kosciuszko's estate was nearly $20,000, the equivalent today of roughly $280,000. But Jefferson refused the gift, even though it would have reduced the debt hanging over Monticello, while also relieving him, in part at least, of what he himself had described in 1814 as the "moral reproach" of slavery.

If Jefferson had accepted the legacy, as much as half of it would have gone not to Jefferson but, in effect, to his slaves—to the purchase price for land, livestock, equipment and transportation to establish them in a place such as Illinois or Ohio. Moreover, the slaves most suited for immediate emancipation—smiths, coopers, carpenters, the most skilled farmers—were the very ones whom Jefferson most valued. He also shrank from any public identification with the cause of emancipation.

It had long been accepted that slaves were assets that could be seized for debt, but Jefferson turned this around when he used slaves as collateral for a very large loan he had taken out in 1796 from a Dutch banking house in order to rebuild Monticello. He pioneered the monetizing of slaves, just as he pioneered the industrialization and diversification of slavery.

Before his refusal of Kosciuszko's legacy, as Jefferson mulled over whether to accept the bequest, he had written to one of his plantation managers: "A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly.... [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us."

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The full text of the Smithsonian magazine article "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" is visible here.

The article's author, Henry Wiencek, responds to criticisms of his work, including his treatment of Tadeusz Kosciuszko's will, here.

1 comment:

  1. /// Americans never carried out Kosciuszko's desire to use his legacy to liberate American slaves.

    Ok.I have heard, on Polish TV, about Kosciuszkos will and I had thought-thats so Polish of him :-D ("Za Waszą wolność i naszą" For Your freedom and our)- and, it was not carried out?!

    This here amused me very much:

    The more interesting point, which Wiencek does not explore, is that Jefferson was experimenting with methods of discipline that might help minimize use of the whip.

    So, its like: He, he denyied slaves their basic humanity (which includes freedom), and yes, he did beat them, but you know, back than, that was the social norm so dont judge him (apparently, not for Kosciuszko and others so I will judge him by these standards) he he did not beat them that severely with his whip.

    WTF?!

    I love his answer,though:

    I have never had the arrogance to regard myself as a champion of the enslaved people; but if an esteemed historian goes around talking about "kinder, gentler slavery," they surely need one.

    ReplyDelete

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