Frederick Douglass vs. Alexander Stephens
On July 4, 1852, the abolitionist leader and former slave Frederick Douglass delivered a scathing rebuke to the hypocrisy of America's celebration of freedom in the shadow of slavery. In his famous 4th of July speech at Rochester, Douglass asked: "What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?"
Several years later, the white supremacist Alexander H. Stephens, newly inaugurated as the vice president of the secessionist southern confederacy, declared that Jefferson's ideals and principles, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, had everything to do with Douglass and other African Americans. This, however, was a great "error" in Jefferson's thinking, according to Stephens. In his famous (or infamous) "Cornerstone Speech," Alexander Stephens criticized Thomas Jefferson and America's Founders for embracing the supposed "equality of the races."
What Did Thomas Jefferson Mean By "All Men Are Created Equal"?
In his landmark Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, Joseph Story, an imminent early American judicial figure, wroite: "The first and fundamental rule in the interpretation of all instruments [documents] is to construe them according to the sense and the terms and the intentions of the parties."
While my postmodernist readers may differ, I wholeheartedly agree with Justice Story's take on language. When someone makes a statement or puts words on paper, that author infuses those words with meaning. Deciphering author intent is the ONLY fair way to answer questions related to the author's motive, meaning, and purpose.
Let me also add that the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, which embodied modernist thinking. They would've had little patience for the postmodernist nonsense that tries to render language as wholly incapable of expressing coherent meaning.
The best way to answer those questions is to look at Jefferson's other writings as well as his actions. It's true that Thomas Jefferson, and many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, were slave owners. In this respect, it is tempting to dismiss Jefferson's words as eloquent, but useless or hypocritical, rhetoric. Yet Jefferson showed himself to be a man torn by the moral difficulties inherent in slavery and by the inconsistencies between his values and his status as a slave owner.
Despite being a slave owner himself, the Virginia statesman nevertheless called the institution of slavery an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity," a "hideous blot," and a "fatal stain" on the country's honor. He wrote that the "rights of human nature [were] deeply wounded by this infamous practice." And in spite of his condescending, paternalistic attitude toward slaves (and his tragic belief that Africans were socially inferior to whites), Jefferson nonetheless preached that "all men are born free."
In a 1770 Virginia court case, Jefferson declared: "Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance."
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote:
"[H]e [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & 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. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has 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."
That the Founders weren't comfortable with such a denunciation of slavery in the Declaration of Independence, especially in light of the slave-based economies of the Deep South, is why this portion of the document was removed (much to Jefferson's chagrin). Nevertheless, it is instructive in understanding Jefferson's meaning. Clearly, Thomas Jefferson regarded slaves as "human" and as "men." As such, they were most certainly included in the scope of his words "all men are created equal."
Reevaluating Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence
While it cannot be denied that the Founding Fathers collectively fell short of their own expressed values and principles when it came to the issue of slavery, it is simply not accurate to say that they visualized only white people when Jefferson wrote and they approved the Declaration of Independence.
The Founders were human. And like all human beings, they were sinners. They didn't always live up to the highest ideals. But this doesn't discredit the ideals or principles. It merely reminds us that they were human.
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most eloquent and influential documents of all time, because it rests on the "equality of the races." In that sense, Alexander Stephens was correct. Tragically, Stephens saw this as an "error" on the Founders' part and hoped that the new Confederate States of America would correct it. Thankfully, Stephens' vision would not endure, but Jefferson's did.