July 3, 2020


The scandal of the Declaration (Noah Millman, July 3, 2020, The Week)

The custodians of Jefferson's memory highlight the ways in which Jefferson did wrestle morally with the institution of slavery, which he saw as fundamentally in conflict with republican ideals and corrosive of the character of the free, white, slave-owning population of Virginia. But he could not see a way of ending slavery without inconveniencing that same free, white, slave-owning people. So while he waited for an imagined future emancipation date, he would do nothing consequential to further the cause of the slaves' freedom. He even refused a large bequest from his old friend, the Polish nobleman and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciusko, intended for the purchase of slaves to give them their freedom, along with land, livestock, and farm equipment to enable them to live the life of yeoman independence that Jefferson claimed to favor over all others.

What was the reason for this lethargy? Jefferson was emphatic that people of African descent could never be the equal of, nor live peaceably among, people of European descent. So Jefferson took a harsher line on miscegenation than many of his fellow Virginians (particularly ironic given that all the slaves he did free were relatives of Sally Hemings), worked to prevent freedmen from residing in Virginia, and believed (as most of his contemporaries did) that emancipation would have to be accompanied by deportation of the previously enslaved to Africa or to Santo Domingo. Jefferson could dream of a more egalitarian world in which slavery had vanished, even if he could not see how to get there. But he had a positive horror of a world where he would have to live with the descendants of slaves as equals.

My point is not to demonize the nation's third president unduly. Even Ben Franklin, president of the Abolition Society, had previously owned slaves, until he saw black children learning in school, and concluded that perhaps slavery was not their natural condition. Even Abraham Lincoln believed that after emancipation the freed slaves would have to be shipped overseas, until their valor in battle proved to him their worth as fellow citizens. Our national inheritance bequeathed to us from Jefferson is substantial, including as it does the doubling of the size of the country. But James Polk, who brought into the Union a territory of not dissimilar scope, is not honored with a temple on the Potomac. What elevates Jefferson is the Declaration. If we have hidden from ourselves the full picture of this founder, it is precisely because we do not want to admit either that he did not really believe his own fine words or that he was too cowardly and too greedy to live by them.

Posted by at July 3, 2020 12:00 AM