Wednesday, July 06, 2016

We hold these truths to be self-evident

In commenting at this post, before Anne returned to her senses, er, to this blog, Mike referred to Woodrow Wilson's racism.  In my rejoinder, I hoped that we are at least moving forward in the correct direction.  I had also noted about the founding fathers--"slave owners on the one hand, but talking the big talk about all men being created equal and about freedom."

Why not explore that some more?

Consider Thomas Jefferson.  He was the main author of the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson was only 33 years old when he drafted that.  Only 33!  With soaring, majestic, rhetoric, Jefferson tells us:
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
The same Jefferson was a big time slave owner.   Writing at the Scientific American, John Horgan says that it was more than a small blemish; Jefferson was "an egregious hypocrite, who willfully betrayed the ideals he espoused."

"Willfully" is the key word here.  I.e., Jefferson knew better, and yet continued with his slave owning.
Jefferson was a “brutal hypocrite” even when judged by the standards of his time, according to historian Paul Finkelman. He notes that “while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slaves during and after the revolution--inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration--Jefferson did not.” Jefferson also “dodged opportunities to undermine slavery or promote racial equality,” Finkelman writes. As a Virginia state legislator Jefferson “blocked consideration of a law that might have eventually ended slavery in the state.” As President he purchased the Louisiana Territory but “did nothing to stop the spread of slavery into that vast ‘empire of liberty.’” Finkelman accuses Jefferson of being “deeply racist,” noting that he called blacks “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
Pause.  Think about this.  Jefferson writes that "all men are created equal."  Many of his notable contemporaries, including Washington, freed their slaves consistent with the spirit of the revolution and the very idea that "all men are created equal."  Yet, Jefferson not only did not free his slaves, he even resisted legislative attempts to free them!

The public "doesn't know enough about Jefferson's poor record on issues of race."
"I don't think you go around honoring people for behavior that was truly awful, and Jefferson's relationship with slavery and race was truly awful, even from his own times," Finkelman said. "This is not looking back from now," he stressed.
...
"George Washington ceased using white overseers to manage his plantations before he became president," and gave the positions to slaves "as a prelude to emancipating them in his will," Finkelman said. Jefferson never took such a step. "Washington famously said that he did not take men to the market like cattle, but Jefferson sold nearly 100 slaves in the 1790s," Finkelman said.
Which is why I appreciate Horgan's use of the word "willfully" when it comes to Jefferson's slave ownership.  Not only Jefferson knew better, his contemporaries were freeing slaves whereas he continued to treat them worse than cattle.

Horgan runs quite a list of Jefferson's hypocrisy.  He ends with this:
The United States has come a long way since Jefferson’s era. Our moral progress is exemplified by the fact that a black man is President. But this country still falls far short of its professed ideals of peace, equality, justice and liberty for all. Perhaps if Jefferson had set a better ethical example, we would have come further by now. 
If Jefferson had set a better example by freeing his slaves, and as a legislator and president if he had championed the rights of blacks, perhaps our history would have been different.  Maybe we would have moved much faster in the correct direction towards Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, and I would not be worried about the possibility of a racist in the White House making a speech in 2019 marking the four hundredth anniversary of twenty captive Africans sold into slavery in the British colonies in North America!

2 comments:

Ramesh said...

I don't know a thing about Jefferson's attitude to slavery and I am better informed now. I endorse your attention to the word "wilfully". There must be a difference to doing something out of ignorance and doing something wilfully. To say one thing on such a weighty matter and then do the opposite is certainly a higher level of deceit.

Even in a post like this I have to castigate you for the spelling and exhort you to be more respectful to Her Majesty. And also encourage you to read Shachi's latest post and my comment there :):)

Sriram Khé said...

it is easy for us to judge harshly the people and their actions of the past--but rarely is the individual alone at fault because those horrible practices could have been the norm of the day. In this case, with Jefferson, "willfully" is the operative word because he makes it crystal clear that he knew better, and his words even influenced his contemporaries to change their practices for the better, and yet he continued on ...

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