Struggling for Independence: Some Reflections on a Coincidence

At first glance, the article seems to be an exercise in the history of coincidences, even a gimmick to display the irony of common people sharing the names of uncommon men. The New York Times feature “Lens: Photography, Video and Visual Journalism” has presented the portraits of individuals who share the names of American presidents. The results are somewhat predictable: A retired Atlantic City firefighter who was the butt of jokes because his name is Richard Nixon, or the story of Ronald Reagan of Syracuse, New York, who loves the name his son hates. (In a spirit of bipartisanship, it should be noted a man named after John F. Kennedy concedes his name didn’t help his reputation with the ladies.)

However, one photo of a presidential namesake from the December 1 edition captures more than ironies although many are obvious. Thomas Jefferson, a combat veteran crippled by a stroke and troubled by his past substance abuse, appears in his wheelchair posed in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. As you will recall, this was the home of the Continental Congress and the room famously portrayed in the beautiful (though highly stylized and very inaccurate) Jonathan Trumbull portrait showing the presentation of the Declaration of Independence. The contemporary Mr. Jefferson, who is black, looks at the camera calmly, surrounded by the tables covered by green baize where his namesake presented the words “all men are created equal.”  In my opinion, the photo is electrifying.

Visual poetry, to be sure, full of things that are the staff of life at the Times: The contradictions of American democracy, the sufferings of various minorities, and the image of great places humbled by the presence of ordinary Americans. However, I suggest the photo captures an additional idea. The Declaration brought black Americans into that room in 1776, into the very presence of those who forged the identity of the United States and made it a nation. The escape from slavery would not be found in the U.S. Constitution, a document of compromise that would not even grant full humanity to slaves (witness the famous Federal Ratio), or in the Bill of Rights (where slaves, as chattel property, belonged to their masters with the full force of Amendment 5 and its promise that Americans would not be deprived of their property without due process or just compensation). It is no accident that the abolition movement quickly turned to the Declaration for its inspiration.

Much has been said and written about the Jefferson’s Rough Draught and its original anti-slavery clause that was struck from the final version of the Declaration by a vote of the men in that room. That, too, was another compromise in the name of colonial unity and state-making. In it, Jefferson spared no criticism of the institution in which he participated as he laid blame for the slave trade at the feet of George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & 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 to 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, & murdering the people upon whom he also 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.

Congress struck that section. Yet, it is too easy to speak of the contradictions and hypocrisy of that decision. They are there – but so is another section that exists in the Declaration’s final form.

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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Frederick Douglass

That is the section containing the political powder keg: “All men are created equal.” Jefferson and the Congress wrote that God gave humanity equal political rights. Arguments regarding what the Founder’s concept of “men” in the language of the 18th century and the political ideology of liberty abound, but the men in that room were intelligent individuals capable of understanding the door that they would open with that phrase. People outside of the room certainly understood the meaning. For example, as the nation moved forward both the Jeffersonians and the apologists for Jacksonian Democracy argued that they were the guardians of American liberty, which include the expansion of political rights. Abolitionists black and white seized the same ideas and ran toward the logical conclusion that America’s founding statement applied to all people in the United States. (Women, too, would argue for their political emancipation through suffrage and equal right using the rationale of the Declaration.) No wonder Frederick Douglass once wrote, “Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration … With them, nothing was ‘settled’ that was not right. With them, justice, liberty and humanity were ‘final;’ not slavery and oppression.”

I wish the contemporary Mr. Jefferson nothing but peace, hope, and a long life. I am glad that the other Mr. Jefferson gave us a road map that gives his namesake (and all of us) a fighting chance to find those things in the United States.

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