July 4, 2013

FROM THE ARCHIVES: THE MARCH OF LIBERTY BEGINS WITH A STEP:

'All men are created equal' is not hypocrisy but vision (Jeff Jacoby, July 4, 2010, Boston Globe)

[Y]es, it is easy to damn Jefferson and the other Founders for not living up to their highest ideals. But if that is all it takes to be convicted of hypocrisy, how many of us would escape conviction? Surely what is more remarkable about Jefferson is not that he owned slaves, but that he acknowledged forthrightly and repeatedly that slavery was wrong. In his "Notes on the State of Virginia,'' for instance, he characterized slave ownership as "the most unremitting despotism'' -- an outrage bound to provoke divine wrath. "Indeed,'' Jefferson wrote, "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.''

The Founders weren't stupid. Of course they knew that the universal ideals embraced in the Declaration were not matched in reality across the colonies. The controversy over slavery was intense; but even more intense was the need for a united front against England. The urgent choice in 1776 was not between slavery or abolition. It was between hanging together, as Benjamin Franklin supposedly quipped in Philadelphia, or most assuredly hanging separately. They chose to hang together, and the confrontation over slavery was left for later.

But in that confrontation, the lofty ideal of equality enshrined in the Declaration -- precisely because it was enshrined in the Declaration -- imparted enormous moral authority to the abolitionists' cause. Those who indict the Founders because their treatment of African slaves didn't come up to the standard of "all men are created equal'' should be asked: Would the Declaration of Independence have been improved if those words had been omitted? Would slavery have ended sooner had abolitionists not been able to invoke that "self-evident truth''?

[originally posted: 7/04/10]

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Posted by at July 4, 2013 12:59 AM
  

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