By Philip R. Devlin.
(June 25, 2020) — Context matters. When re-examining American history in light of today’s very legitimate concerns about racial equity, a closer examination of the relevant facts is necessary to obtain a more truthful and accurate view of our slave-holding Founding Fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Let’s start with the Declaration of Independence signed on July 4th 1776. It is instructive to examine the original version of the Declaration first presented by Thomas Jefferson (its author) to the Continental Congress on June 28, 1776. The gathered delegates in Philadelphia debated that first draft for two days before finally agreeing upon the final draft that became the Declaration that we know.
When I was teaching American literature to juniors in high school, the anthology which I used contained a full draft of the original Declaration and also showed the final draft as well. This was an eye-opening experience for the students, as the original draft by Jefferson to their surprise contained powerful anti-slavery language—as strongly anti-slavery as I have ever seen. Here are some excerpts from the last few paragraphs in the original draft to prove the point:
“He [meaning 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 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 [my italics and to be said with biting sarcasm] king of Great Britain.”
Shortly after this statement in the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson references the fact that the 13 colonies under the rule of the English king were not allowed to take any action to abolish slavery (or anything else for that matter) without the king’s permission—something he refused to grant to colonies that attempted to do so while under colonial rule, saying that the king was “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: and that this assemblage of horrors might … not die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by 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.”
The italics in the previous paragraph are mine, designed to call the reader’s attention to the very powerful anti-slavery language used by Thomas Jefferson in the original draft. Both paragraphs quoted here– as well as other more implied anti-slavery language in the original Declaration– were deleted from the final version of the Declaration of Independence, largely because of passionate objections voiced by delegates of two southern colonies—South Carolina and Georgia.
Jefferson was not happy about these deletions; however, recognizing the need for the colonies to be united in their coming war with England, he did not pack up in a “my way or the highway” huff and go back to Monticello; instead, he decided that once independence had been secured, the country could and should re-visit the issue of slavery. This is what I call pragmatic idealism: Get what you can at this political moment and then work for change in the future. Let’s not forget that the still often quoted sentence by those calling for racial equity —“All Men are created equal”—was allowed to remain in the document.
Opposing the institution of slavery was a consistent theme throughout Jefferson’s entire life, not just at the time he wrote the Declaration. This view should be regarded as extraordinary in a time when slave labor was the norm throughout most of the world. As a Virginia representative in the House of Burgesses, he had drafted a law to prohibit Virginia from importing slaves. It failed to pass. Later, in 1784, he proposed a law to prohibit slavery in the Northwest Territory. That failed by one vote but was later revived by George Washington and passed early in his administration; furthermore, Jefferson advocated for Virginians to cultivate crops such as wheat, rice, and grapes which, unlike tobacco, were not so heavily dependent upon manual labor.
As President, Jefferson asked Congress in 1806 to pass a law to make the importation of slaves from foreign countries a crime and to “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights … which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe.” Congress did just that. On March 2, 1807, Thomas Jefferson signed that law. That law and the Louisiana Purchase are considered by many to be the two most significant achievements of the Jeffersonian presidency. (One more step taken on the road to ending slavery.)
It should be noted that the state of Virginia—as well as most other Southern states—had a long history of imposing severe penalties upon owners who wanted to free their slaves. These legal restrictions began as early as 1692:“No Negro or mulatto slave shall be set free, unless the emancipator pays for his transportation out of the country within six months.”
Over time, these state laws restricting manumission became even more burdensome and punishing; an 1806 law passed in Virginia required slave owners to support economically any slave that they freed. This law made it impossible for Jefferson in his later years to free his slaves in his will, as the 3rd President barely scraped by economically, often living on the charity of others at Monticello until his death in 1826 and unwilling to sell off any of his slaves for fear of breaking up families. Context matters.
A brief liberalization of manumission laws in Virginia in 1782 allowed George Washington, a much wealthier man, to free his slaves upon his death in 1799. The more liberal manumission provisions were repealed in the 1806 Virginia law that Jefferson was subject to.
To those who wish to trash Jefferson these days, would you also trash some of the most vocal leaders of the Abolitionist Movement in the years and months before and during the Civil War or are they your heroes? Would you pull down statues of people like Frederick Douglass, John Quincy Adams (called the “Hell Hound of Abolition”) Lincoln, Daniel Webster and other Abolitionist leaders? I suggest you re-examine their speeches and writing and note that among those they most often quote in lobbying for abolition is one Thomas Jefferson.
Daniel Webster in 1845:
John Quincy Adams:
“The inconsistency of the institution of domestic slavery with the principles of the Declaration of Independence was seen and lamented by all the southern patriots of the Revolution; by no one with deeper and more unalterable conviction than by the author of the Declaration himself. No charge of insincerity or hypocrisy can be fairly laid to their charge. Never from their lips was heard one syllable of attempt to justify the institution of slavery. They universally considered it as a reproach fastened upon them by the unnatural step-mother country and they saw that before the principles of the Declaration of Independence, slavery, in common with every other mode of oppression, was destined sooner or later to be banished from the earth. Such was the undoubting conviction of Jefferson to his dying day. In the Memoir of His Life, written at the age of seventy-seven, he gave to his countrymen the solemn and emphatic warning that the day was not distant when they must hear and adopt the general emancipation of their slaves.”
Abraham Lincoln, who issued the emancipation Proclamation in 1862, constantly quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence in justification for freeing the slaves. In refuting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln referenced Jefferson “who was, is, and perhaps will continue to be, the most distinguished politician of our history.”
So to those of you who want to pull down a statue of Jefferson, spray graffiti on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C., or dynamite Mt. Rushmore, I suggest you re-examine the life and words of Thomas Jefferson more carefully and deepen your understanding of the historical context in which the man acted. Jefferson inherited slaves upon the death of his father, Peter Jefferson, when the future President was only 14 years old. He grew up in a time where slave labor was the norm all over the world. It is truly extraordinary that a man in this context would pen those important words: “All men are created equal” that are still cited today as an ideal for those who seek racial equity.
Though his powerful anti-slavery language in the original Declaration of Independence was rejected, Jefferson, ever the pragmatic idealist, continued to work toward the ideal of abolition incrementally. To those of you who say, “Yeah, but he didn’t free his slaves,” I would ask you to examine the laws of Virginia that since 1692 imposed huge penalties—both financial and criminal—upon people who freed their slaves. As Jefferson had written in 1814, “The laws do not permit us to turn them loose.”
No presidential pensions existed when Jefferson was alive. It is common knowledge that he was nearly poverty-stricken in the later years of his life, approximately $100,000 in debt—an astronomical sum in 1826! For all intents and purposes, there was no legal way for him to free his slaves in his will. Yet in the year before he died, he wrote the following in a letter to a “Miss Wright” in August of 1825:
“At the age of eighty-two, with one foot in the grave and the other uplifted to follow it, I do not permit myself to take part in any new enterprises, even for bettering the condition of man, no even in the great one which is the subject of your letter and which has been through life that of my greatest anxieties. The march of events has not been such as to render its completion practicable with the limits of time allotted to me; and I leave its accomplishment as the work of another generation. And I am cheered when I see that on which it is devolved, taking it up with so much good will and such minds engaged in its encouragement. The abolition of the evil is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object.”