THE FIRST MODERN AMERICAN
INCA GARCILASO AND THE BIRTH OF A HYBRID SOCIETY
Luis Francisco Martinez Montes
From Spanish and Mestiza, Castiza, by Miguel Cabrera, 1763. Museum of the Americas, Madrid.
In the Anglo-American standard narrative the first modern Americans are, of course, the Founding Fathers. Even at the other side of the pond, when in the late 1960s Kenneth Clark first mentioned America in his highly popular and critically acclaimed book and TV series on Civilisation, the man he introduced as the epitome of the emerging American Age was Thomas Jefferson. The reason he occupies such a prominent place in Lord Clark’s predominantly Eurocentric plot, has to do, I think, more with Jefferson’s aesthetic choices, quite similar to those cherished by the British historian, than with his inconsistent political ideals or dubious morality. We know that, though in theory Jefferson was enthusiastic about freedom, political representation and the equality of men—he was the main author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence—in practice he had no qualms about being the owner of at least two hundred fellow human beings and having a quite unequal affair with one of his female slaves, a mulatto named Sally Hemmings, with whom, as a DNA test conducted in 1998 demonstrated, he fathered at least one child. Jefferson was also one of the most vocal proponents of the new Republic’s territorial expansion at the expense of the native Amerindians, whom, despite rhetoric sometimes worthy of Bartolomé de las Casas, he considered as little more than a temporary nuisance, people who had to give way to the new masters of the land or risk being deprived of everything, even their lives. In a response to a letter addressed to him by James Monroe, the Governor of Virginia, Jefferson made it clear that, in his mind it was “impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will… cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface”. For a man who did not recoil from satisfying his most basic passions with, at least, one of his slaves, the abhorrence of any kind of contact with the “lower” races lest they contaminate the purity of the new republic sounds, at least, hypocritical. But it should not come as a surprise if we consider that, at the end of the day, Jefferson’s frame of mind was moulded in a very colonial English cast.
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