26 11 / 2012
A maddening (and fascinating) detail from Jon Meacham’s new biography of Thomas Jefferson:
“She [Sally Hemings] was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved,” said Madison Hemings. “So she refused to return with him.”
It was an extraordinary moment. Fresh from arranging terms with the bankers of Europe over a debt that was threatening the foundation of the French nation, Thomas Jefferson found himself in negotiations with a pregnant enslaved teenager who, in a reversal of fortune hardly likely to be repeated, had the means at hand to free herself.
…So he began making concessions to convince Sally Hemings to come home to Virginia. “To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years,” Madison Hemings said.
Sally Hemings agreed…
Their father kept the promise he had made to Sally in Paris. “We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born,” Madison Hemings said. It was one of the most important pacts of Jefferson’s life.
24 7 / 2012
We think we know what authoritarianism is and why it survives, but our notions about it have not changed much since the 18th century, when Montesquieu contrasted the capricious rule of a despot, who holds power through fear, with the bounded governance of a monarch, held in check by law. In our political language, monarchy has evolved into democracy, but despotism remains despotism (or authoritarianism). In comparison to monarchies and democracies, each in their own time, despotism has always seemed archaic. The gleaming military uniforms, Tolkienesque titles, and Orientalized imperial paraphernalia of modern dictators like Idi Amin, Pinochet, and Qaddafi evoke the 19th century; leaders who are truly modern are supposed to wear self-effacing suits.
If authoritarianism is a relic of a pre-democratic age, Putinism, like the late regime of Putin’s friend Silvio Berlusconi, is not authoritarian. Regimes that see themselves as successors to democracy are not rare—fascists and communists were equally convinced that liberal democracy belonged in the dustbin of history. The difference is that Putinism is partly right in seeing itself as post-democratic, which is why the problems it poses are so vexing. It represents one answer to a set of contradictions that exist not just in Russian democracy but also in contemporary democracy in general."
16 7 / 2012
"Politics and political office are not and never have been the method and means by which we can govern ourselves in peace and dignity and honor and security, but instead our national refuge for our incompetents who have failed at every other occupation by means of which they might make a living for themselves and their families; and whom as a result we would have to feed and clothe and shelter out of our own private purses and means. The surest way to be elected to office in America is to have fathered seven or eight children and then lost your arm or leg in a sawmill accident: both of which - the reckless optimism which begot seven or eight children with nothing to feed them but a sawmill, and the incredible ineptitude which would put an arm or a leg in range of a moving saw – should already have damned you from any form of public trust."