I come at last to my gripes with Thomas Jefferson, my former hero. I can’t begrudge his list of accomplishments. It’s still no small thing to have written an inspiring document like the Declaration of Independence — that alone would have been remarkable. Then he went and followed that up by being a secretary of state, a vice president, a president, the founder of a major university, a violinist and the inventor of the swivel chair. Talk about an overachiever.
Talk about that, sure. But for years, there was so much we never talked about. But once we did, I could never look at the man the same way again.
I have heard, of course, that you can’t judge someone from the past by today’s standards. But I believe that even by the standards of his own day, he knew what he was doing was wrong. He just didn’t have the will or desire to extract himself from it. And for that, I fault him for it. Gravely.
Do As I say, Not As I do
The rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence is soaring. Inspiring. They form a blueprint for the American spirit that, if we could just live up to it, would truly make our nation the envy of the world:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It sounds so basic now, so obvious. At the time it was, well, revolutionary. The words launched a war, after all, that’s how inspiring they were.
Unfortunately, we didn’t mean any of it.
Because if we did, we never would have put “all” in there. It would have read “some men” are created equal. It would have said that rights are indeed alienable. It would have acknowledged the hard truth that rights could be stripped away as easily as one could be placed on the auction block. America was born in a lie, as Thomas Jefferson well knew. He owned 600 people in his life. He had no problem alienating people from their rights.
Not just “people,” though. His own family. I have written about Sally Hemings in the prior post. I’ve told you that she was only 14 when she bore his first child. That alone is detestable. But there’s more than that. Not only was Sally a child, she was also the half-sister of his wife, Martha, who had just died two years before. You start to get the picture of a hopelessly enmeshed tangle of family relations, some holding unlimited power over others, including the power to split apart parents from children, and the power of life and death itself.
How are you feeling about the author of freedom now?
How about this section from the Declaration? “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
What do you think went through the mind of a slave owner as he wrote those lines? My mind boggles.
But sometimes, it’s not just what he wrote that matters. It’s what got left out.
What Gets Left Unsaid
The Declaration of Independence itself says not a single word about slavery. It doesn’t even mention the word. That’s no accident. It was a careful decision.
However, an earlier draft of the document actually did deal with the institution of slavery. Here, in total, is what Jefferson had to say about it:
He (King George III) 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 again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
I understand there are historians who read this passage as being critical of slavery. And in fact, the section was removed from the final document because Southern states and Northern merchants involved in the slave trade were angered that it was too kind to enslaved people. For the life of me, I can’t see what they’re seeing. It reads to me like a hypocritical, disgusting mess.
Let’s pick that apart, shall we?
First, Jefferson lays the entire blame for slavery at the feet of the British, as though Americans themselves had nothing to do with it, and in fact, wanted no part in it. That is a lie. Protest it as much as he wants, but Jefferson himself did buy and sell people from time to time, even though he argued for agricultural pursuits that didn’t rely on enslaved labor and preferred the “natural increase” of his existing enslaved people. If he truly believed slavery to be morally wrong, as he seems to suggest in this writing, he could have stepped back from it at any point. He never did.
Then, he seems to suggest that Americans are chomping at the bit to shed themselves of slavery. This is also a lie. There may have been pockets of abolitionists in the colonies, sure. There were even entire states who were willing to sign up for a slavery-free nation. But there were also entire states who were willing to throw all their economic and political might against that in order to preserve slavery, as Jefferson well knew. His own Virginia was among them.
Finally, Jefferson levels his chief complaint: Britain is stirring up the enslaved population to rise up against us. And there it is, the root of the lie that is still with us today — Black people must continue to be oppressed, otherwise they will rise up against us if they are not.
This is the American version of the blood libel. Having been abused and oppressed beyond belief, Black people are then smeared with the lie that their oppression must continue, lest they rise up to murder “good white folk.”
Not At All Equal
In his private writings, Jefferson also revealed himself to be a hypocrite. He had declared to the world that he believed all men to be created equal, but among friends, he showed that he believed the exact opposite.
In a letter to Edward Coles in 1814, discussing what to do with the Black population should slavery end, he wrote:
(they) are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising the young. in the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them. their amalgamation with the other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.
Basically, something you could find on any neo-nazi website. And, shockingly, he wrote so disparagingly of having children with someone of another race after fathering six children with Sally Hemings. What is he saying of his own sons and daughters, and of Sally herself? It’s too ugly. Too hurtful. This, from the founding father. This, from the man we were taught to venerate.
Oh, but there’s more.
Jefferson wanted slavery to continue. In fact, he thought it must — the alternative was the dissolution of the nation. The trick, he thought, was to make slavery more kindly and palatable. To that end, he paid his … favorite? … enslaved people a monthly gratuity, and he encouraged … somewhat? … stable families among his enslaved people. For instance, when Eston Hemings (also his son) ran away for a night to be with his wife, who was owned by someone else, Jefferson did not consider this to be an insubordination, but rather an understandable action. And when another enslaved man at Monticello was alarmed that his wife, enslaved at a neighboring plantation, was about to be lost to him as her owner was about to move to Kentucky and take her with him, Jefferson arranged to buy her and bring her to Monticello. Jefferson also thought that whippings should only be used as a last resort.
But that’s nowhere near good enough, as anyone with a heart, brain or soul knows instinctively. Even Jefferson, had he bothered to read his own Declaration of Independence, would know immediately the problem of this devil’s bargain. All mean are created equal means exactly that. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means what it says. You cannot have half measures and consider it good enough.
Jefferson wasn’t stupid. He knew this.
He just did not care.
A New Tomorrow From a New Past
This weekend, we’ve watched the musical Hamilton at least twice on TV. My wife adores it. And I like it, for a musical. What I love, though, is that it made the mythology of America’s founding accessible to people of color by casting the entire production — characters who represent the Founding Fathers — entirely by people who represent marginalized communities.
Honestly, it warms my heart. America is meant to be shared by everyone who lives in it. For that to be true, it’s founding story has to belong to everyone.
But if I’m being honest, Hamilton really doesn’t do the trick.
It still puts people like Washington and Jefferson on pedestals. And again, I’m not besmirching their accomplishments. But boy howdy, do I take issue with who they were.
What we really need is a new national mythology, one that makes room for all of us. Everyone needs to be able to see themselves in America’s origin story. We need to all be able to take pride in where we came from and how we got here.
People like Thomas Jefferson might have done the trick years ago, but Jefferson stopped doing the trick some time ago.
It’s time for a new national narrative. One that can be told by anyone with their chin held high.