It Is The Words That Matter, Even If Jefferson Wrote Them

Thomas Jefferson, author of The Declaration of Independence

Thomas Jefferson, that living paradox in the pantheon called the Founding Fathers, is scrutinized in a new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” now on view at the National Museum of American History. It is the latest attempt to reconcile the obvious: How could Jefferson preach liberty and practice slavery? It is not a question easily ignored. Fulfillment of the Declaration’s promises are the only valid test that can measure whether the United States is truly a land of liberty. As the seminal American historian George Bancroft stated, the Declaration enshrined the “unchangeableness of freedom, virtue, and right” in the American political psyche and “heart of Jefferson in writing the declaration” became identified as the American political psyche. James Parton, the nation’s first professional biographer, described the formula succinctly: “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong. If Jefferson is right, America is right.” That is what is at stake.

Contradictions abound in the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the least of which is Jefferson (who penned the words “all men are created equal”) was a prominent slave owner his entire adult life. Identifying consistency in Jefferson’s philosophy regarding anything is the historian’s answer to an exercise that attempts to nail jelly to a wall, and Jefferson the slaveholder is also Jefferson the lawyer who in 1770 represented Virginia slave Samuel Howell in an unsuccessful attempt to gain the enslaved man’s freedom through a legal argument stating that under nature’s law “all men are born free.”  Jefferson the father of at least one child by his slave Sally Hemmings (a conclusion verified by modern DNA comparison testing of the descendants from both lines) is also the Jefferson the author of a attack on slavery contained in the Rough Draught of the Declaration of Independence that laid the blame for the Atlantic slave trade (one of the legs in the economic tripod of the lucrative Triangle Trade that had made Britain wealthy through mercantilism) at the feet of George III.  In words that attacked the sovereign’s claim to be a member of Christian civilization, Jefferson wrote: “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people, who never offended him, captivating and 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.” Only two things seem clear: Jefferson believed that God granted personal liberty and freedom to all humankind, and he owned hundreds of slaves. In eyes of his critics, the author of America’s (and some would argue, the world’s) seminal statement of freedom and democracy was a slave breeder, the Declaration is a document rooted in racist duplicity, and Jefferson “must have been a demon, a hypocrite, or an enigma.” What more could critics of the Founding Period’s figures and their shortcomings ask for, particular those who label the Declaration a racist document? Jefferson failed, and America failed is often the answer.

Fortunately, the task at hand is not to find consistency in Jefferson’s political philosophy. Undoubtedly, Jefferson was an intellectual along with many other pursuits, but he was also a man of affairs who was drawn to the pragmatic and utilitarian more than to the abstract, a lawmaker who had spend most of his adult life in the worldly, concrete enterprise called politics. He was interested in methods that worked, that respected the history and tradition of English law, and that operated with efficiency and precision. He drew from multiple sources such as the Whig tradition that English history displayed an on-going struggle recover and keep liberty, the Enlightenment which taught Jefferson that rational thought and inquiry would vanquish ignorance that had been based on dogmatic authority, and the classical past that provided examples of how to deal with contemporary problems when its politicians and thinkers were read within the context of the modern world. This is where Jefferson’s consistency lay: In the sources he used and admired, sources which praised liberty and allowed men to secure it. All of this is reflected in what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

Equally fortunate, there is ample evidence that liberty and freedom in the United States succeeded because of what Jefferson wrote, which he considered an expression of what was communally held as basic American political truths. The tenets expressed in the natural rights statement are well-known and straightforward, but those tenets are worth examining not just to understand the elementary philosophy of government Americans were fighting for during the Revolution. Equally important, there are specific examples of how the Declaration influenced the expansion of American democracy and American freedom as time and events changed the nation, examples that manifestly demonstrate that the United States is not a failure when it comes to the expansion of human freedoms because of the moral power of that document.

That power found in the Declaration’s own words can be synopsized in the following manner:

1)      These are self-evident truths (truths that withstand any argument because of they are almost mathematically logical):

  1. All men (humankind) are created equal (political equality and equality in the realm of advancement as far as talent and work can take one in life).
  2. They are endowed by their Creator (in hindsight an ambiguous deity, yet one that would be readily recognized as either Nature’s God of the Enlightenment or Jehovah of the Christian tradition) with certain unalienable rights (rights that can never be separated or transferred from humankind by any government or governor): life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (a trio of rights that would cover the gamut of human existence and provide the safest means for self-government and personal independence).
  3. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted (established by consent) among men, deriving their just (morally, legally, and politically sound) powers from the consent of the governed,
  4. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (including the current form of government), it is the right of the people (also “unalienable”) to alter (change) or to abolish it (eliminate it), and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles (namely, consent of the governed, freedom, and liberty) and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness (the results of protecting the trio of rights – and others—mentioned in the earlier clause of the natural rights statement. Concurrent with these rights is the right to just revolution, which is validated by the right to resist tyranny).

2)      Prudence (caution in deliberating and consulting on the most suitable means to accomplish valuable purposes) dictates that long-established governments should not be cast aside light and transient (hasty and momentary) causes.

3)      But when a long train of abuses (of power and the ruled) and usurpations (of the governed’s right to government by their consent) reveals a plan to reduce them under absolute despotism a) it is their right, b) it is their duty overthrow a despotic government and “provide new Guards for their future security.”

Its logical power is even more briefly identified as a form of deductive argument by Stephen E. Lucas, professor of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin,Madison:

Major premise: When government deliberately seeks to reduce the people under absolute despotism, the people have a right, indeed a duty, to alter or abolish that form of government and to create new guards for their future security.
Minor premise: The government ofGreat Britainhas deliberately sought to reduce the American people under absolute despotism.
Conclusion: Therefore the American people have a right, indeed a duty, to abolish their present form of government and to create new guards for their future security.

Yet, for all of its cool logic and philosophical depth, this section of the Declaration achieved something so moving that we often forget its absence in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights: It issued a basic manifesto of equal rights and political participation. The Constitution protected slavery: Witness the 3/5 “federal ratio” used to count enslaved humans for apportionment, the 20-year moratorium on banning the slave trade, the early fugitive slave clause, all drafted without mentioning the word “slave” once in the entire document. The Bill of Rights protected slaveholders in Amendment 5 because slaves were chattels, property that could not be taken without due process of law. All this had been included to compromise with the political and economic interests of the slave-owning South, among other reasons. The Declaration uncompromisingly stated what other American state papers dared not. “All men are created equal.” Those words matter, even if we cannot fully understand that enigma called Thomas Jefferson.

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Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

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