“If we are made in some degree for others, yet in a greater are we made for ourselves. It were contrary to feeling and indeed ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbors, or indeed all of them put together. This would be slavery, and not that liberty which the bill of rights has made inviolable, and for the preservation of which our government has been charged.” —Thomas Jefferson
“Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” —Frederick Douglass
Thomas Jefferson stands accused by many of being immoral, and his seminal role in America’s founding is often voiced as a valid reason for condemning America’s founding as racist from birth. But this accusation is simplistic, lacking nuance or serious consideration of the historical context within which Thomas Jefferson lived. It also ignores many important facts of Jefferson’s biography, many of which are quite striking. While such an unsophisticated estimation may be excusable for neophytes, seasoned scholars and caring teachers have little to excuse them for such intellectual simplicity and counterfactual instruction. Or dare I say dishonesty? Absent from most erroneous evaluations of Jefferson is an honest accounting of Jefferson’s own personal actions to seek the abolition of slavery.
Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia, (http://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2016/11/professors-ask-sullivan-to-stop-quoting-jefferson) has written of Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” that “[t]hose words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power, they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.” Dr. Sullivan wrote those words in response to an accusation that it was inappropriate for her to quote the University of Virginia’s founder, due to the fact that Jefferson was a slaveholder. While it is true that Jefferson owned slaves, the amount of good that he accomplished in his life—as well as the ongoing use of his words to promote equal rights—merits thoughtful reflection before ultimately deciding to condemn Thomas Jefferson altogether.
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Jefferson was, in fact, an energetic opponent of slavery, believing it to be contrary to Natural Law. Jefferson referred to slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” As the Revolutionary War was raging, Jefferson was actively working to abolish the slave trade. Although Jefferson would succeed, by his leadership efforts, in 1778, in banning the importation of slaves into his home state, making Virginia one of the first jurisdictions worldwide to ban the practice, he would not succeed, as Virginia’s governor, in banning slavery altogether, although he would make the attempt.
Jefferson’s Denunciation of Slavery in His Original Draft of the Declaration
Despite the fact that Jefferson inherited slaves from his father and acquired slaves by marriage, he would fight his entire adult life to abolish the South’s Peculiar Institution, famously denouncing slavery in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/ruffdrft.html) complaining about King George III’s unprincipled promotion of human trafficking: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die*, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.” After the Revolutionary War was over, in 1784, Jefferson proposed a ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory. Jefferson also devised a plan to improve the treatment of slaves and then to emancipate slaves by degrees, making every child born after a certain date a free person.
Jefferson wrote that hanging onto slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” Jefferson thought that America, the world’s first true democratic republic, might eventually be destroyed by slavery, if the institution were not ended. And Jefferson turned out to be right. The Union was indeed brought to an end over slavery, dying a bloody death in a terrible civil war. It was Abraham Lincoln who would eventually restore the Union as a country with freedom for all, according to the nation’s original promissory note.
During Jefferson’s time as President of the United States, it was he who, in 1807, would sign a law criminalizing the importation of slaves into the United States, in line with the 1808 Clause of the US Constitution, an action which, in concert with England’s decision to do likewise, would effectively abolish the legitimate international slave trade. While Jefferson lived an imperfect, often conflicted, human life, his more judgmental critics tend to convict him in their minds as a villain through and through, typically with very little to offer in the way of complex analysis—let alone an appreciation—of this Founding Father’s righteous accomplishments. Any attempt at a nuanced approach to Jefferson is generally seen by Jefferson’s most severe detractors as racist on the face of it, a view which tends to oversimplify the issue unfairly.
Frederick Douglass Believed in America’s Founding
The truth about Thomas Jefferson is that he—along with other Founding Fathers—was, and is, an important influence upon the way Americans conceptualize freedom to this day. Frederick Douglass, a famous American abolitionist and lecturer who escaped from slavery, valued Jefferson’s words as written in the Declaration of Independence, as well as believing in the language of freedom contained within the US Constitution (http://thefederalist.com/2017/02/16/yes-frederick-douglass-american-patriot/). Douglass did not believe that America’s founding documents were racist but saw, instead, a blueprint for freedom that all men—being “created equal”—had the right to enjoy. Douglass comprehended the Constitution in all its subtlety, seeing it as the blessing that it is and understanding the intentions of the 3/5 Clause as a reward for any slave states that might free their slaves (since freemen would count as an entire person in the census, thereby increasing a state’s representation in the Congress as a consequence of freeing slaves).
What Frederick Douglass understood about full-blown Americanism was this: While the Declaration illuminates the philosophy of American liberty, by using 27 complaints against injustice to shed light upon crucial issues, it is the Constitution that eventually provides permanent solutions to those issues, by establishing a free republic that protects the rights of every individual equally. The plain language of the Constitution, to borrow the words of George Washington, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And Douglass knew it.
America’s Ever-Unfolding Promissory Note
Whatever their shortcomings, America’s Founders understood they were not perfect. They knew, however, that even an imperfect birth of freedom would provide America with the opportunity for a great and, hopefully, unending experiment. The blueprint for this experiment in individual liberty, that they wrote into the US Constitution, would provide its inheritors with an ever-unfolding promissory note for the sustenance and enlargement of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness throughout the ages. It was a freedom big enough to encompass any and all races, creeds, and colors, so long as they would only make common cause with lovers of liberty.
The Constitution America’s Founders bestowed upon their country is written in a neutral style, without specific references to race or gender. President Reagan referred to America’s constitutional republic as a “shining city on a hill” and the “last best hope for man on earth.” If those words are to remain true, American patriots must jealously protect the promissory note embedded in the US Constitution for every American generation yet to come. Thomas Jefferson would have wished it, Frederick Douglass would have approved, and modern-day patriots should all strive to pass on America’s rich heritage and the lessons learned from the country’s history that blesses every free American.
*distinguished die [honorable dye] = venerable color
“And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die*, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them.”
[“And that this assemblage of horrors might lack no fact of honorable (skin) color*, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them.]
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