Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress: The Morality of a Slaveholder by Ari Helo (review)
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Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, Ethics, Progress, Racism

Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress: The Morality of a Slaveholder. By Ari Helo. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. 282. Cloth, $95.00.)

In one of his most famous reflections on the subject, Jefferson not only attributed progress to human agents but also claimed to have personally “observed” progress “pass over us like a cloud of light, increasing our knowledge and improving our condition.”1 Evoking the movement of celestial bodies that also informed his related concept of revolution, Jefferson’s “cloud of light” may be seen as a prime example of the moment when, to paraphrase Reinhart Koselleck, progress is transformed into its own subject: that is, when progress itself begins to progress, constantly changing the conditions under which it is observed while becoming so emptied of human responsibility that it can, at least in principle, be used for all sorts of purposes.

Jefferson’s intricate, abstract yet active concept of progress clearly was [End Page 170] a key player in his view of American history. Hence, Ari Helo in Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress has made an excellent choice in letting progress take center stage in his analysis of Jefferson’s moral thinking. Helo is not mainly interested in the question of who or what precisely progresses in the above example or elsewhere, focusing instead on the problem of how Jefferson expected progress to take place. Jefferson’s consistent answer, Helo argues from a variety of perspectives, was that progress was possible only through “political action—that is, embracing legal reforms, not individual crusades against the contemporary legal order” (3). On the topic announced in the subtitle, “The Morality of a Slaveholder,” the book builds on Helo and Peter Onuf ’s important essay on the subject, which may justly be described as a “cloud of light” passing over Jefferson scholarship on the issue.2 Suggesting that Helo’s longer study cannot always shed further light on Jefferson’s morality as a slaveholder is more a tribute to the article than any sharp criticism of the book, while it may also be a good occasion to discuss what strikes this reviewer as a central problem of the book’s methodology. For example, in his treatment of the difficult passages on race in Notes on the State of Virginia, Helo shows himself aware of Jefferson’s psychological racism, but his argument emphasizes Jefferson’s faith in human improvability and his openness to future scientific observation (55–59). Helo is not mistaken concerning the attitude he labels “epistemic prudence” (177)—although he insists on this point with some vehemence, it has long been noted in both Jefferson’s writings and self-referential concepts of progress more generally, as sketched above—but his approach causes him to miss another aspect whose consistency is at least as striking. Seen from the perspective of progress, the main characteristic of blacks according to Notes on the State of Virginia is that they seem by nature exempt from the effects of a progressive temporality, unable to anticipate the future and characterized by “fixed” physical traits that combine to evoke a complete absence of development and movement. While in contrast to later racists Jefferson did not directly tie this characterization to the question of rights, it is unlikely that he would have constructed his foil to progress in such hyperbolic terms—Jefferson’s blacks are creatures so deeply frozen in the moment that literally not a hair moves and even their facial expressions seem unable to [End Page 171] change—had he not hoped to gain some mileage from it for persuading his audience of his alternative progressive vision. This level of Jefferson’s writings, however, is inaccessible through a methodology that tempts Helo to interpret even Jefferson’s rather crude rhetorical questions in this part of Notes, questions obviously supposed to close rather than enable discussion, as signaling his openness to scientific progress by “remain[ing] in the form of a question” (58).

Coming to terms with the racism inherent in Jefferson’s conception of progress is arguably less a matter of separating...