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Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

Ambrose, Stephen E. | Touchstone, 1996


pp. 30-31, 34

Virginia planters at the end of the 18th century were expected to live up to a code. They had to be skilled at riding, hiking, and dancing. They were expected to be adept at the small sword, cards, and fiddle-playing. (Thomas Jefferson was pretty adroit on his Amati violin.) They had long political discussions about liberty, and about the combination of liberty and good order—the two treasures always in tension with each other. (P. 31) “A Virginia gentleman was expected to be hospitable and generous, courteous in his relations with his peers, chivalrous toward women, and kind to his inferiors. There was a high standard of politeness; . . . The unpardonable sins were lying and meanness of spirit.” Unfortunately, all these high-minded character virtues applied only to and between white men and women. (P. 34) “There was a snake in the garden. The glittering social, intellectual, economic, and political life of Virginia rested on the backs of slaves. Those backs were crisscrossed with scars, because slavery relied on the lash. [So much for avoiding the unpardonable sin of meanness of spirit.] Not every master whipped his slaves . . . but every master had to allow his overseers to use the lash whenever the overseer saw fit, or felt like it. Slavery worked through terror and violence—there was no other way to force men to work without compensation.”

Even the estimable Edmund Burke was corrupt in his thinking about the matter. He believed that the master, looking at his slaves and comparing their situation with his own, treasured his freedom all the more and became eloquent on the subject: “those who are free are by far the most proud and jealous of their freedom.” Burke appeared not to notice that only the free would be in a position to be proud of their freedom. “Thus the sting in Dr. Samuel Johnson’s embarrassing question: ‘How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?’”