Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"All Men Are Created Equal" and Slavery: What Did Thomas Jefferson Mean by 'All Men Are Created Equal'?

With its eloquent declaration of equality and human rights, the Declaration of Independence is one of the most influential and moving documents in western history. Yet while declaring some of the most noble sentiments in history, it nevertheless was signed by men who in some cases practiced and in all cases tolerated slavery, one of the greatest evils in world history. What did Thomas Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress mean by the words "all men are created equal"?

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."

Frederick Douglass had every reason to take the United States to task for the nation's hypocritical acceptance of slavery, but it's interesting that his take on Jefferson's ideals differed from that of Stephens' in the way that they did. If Douglass was right, the Founders never really contemplated African Americans in their Declaration of Independence. This assessment seems to be the predominant one in modern times. But if Stephens was right, this raises very interesting questions as to how we today should evaluate our nation's origins.

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.

So, what did Jefferson mean when he wrote "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence? How can we decipher his 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.


JoeT said...

Mr. Tubbs,

You speak of Jefferson's "tragic belief that Africans were socially inferior to whites". I am not sure what you mean by socially inferior. If we go to Jefferson's own words in his Notes on the State of Virginia, he says:

"I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications."

and when he states "their (that is, blacks) own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species" you get the distinct impression that Jefferson is viewing blacks as a different species.

In any case, to make an effective argument, you're gonna have to deal with Jefferson's Notes.

Stan Dyer said...

This is a nice attempt to salvage the image of the Founding Fathers, and Thomas Jefferson in particular. Yet, I doubt that Jefferson truly believed that all men were "born free," since he owned slaves, kept slaves, and even listed children he may have fathered as "property" rather than children. Even if Jefferson did truly believe in equality of the races, he didn't do enough to promote that sentiment, even though he had the influence to do so. But, rather than debate back and forth as to what people of Jefferson's time thought, intended, or meant, it is better to look at the errors they made, and try not to make them again ourselves. The one glaring failing of this "Great Experiment" is that, even though we try to improve on its imperfection, we can never improve on human nature. Hence, the best part of this discourse is the part that reads, "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." Yes, they were human, and they made mistakes. We are all still human, and we are all still just as guilty as the Founding Fathers of being human when we allow their mistakes to persist.

Lech Dharma said...

In order to get the support of all the "states", certain compromises had to be made; even in the wording of the Declaration of Independence from England. This is an example of the inherent problems of too much cultural diversity within a single population---even in 1776 America.

The struggle for independence from England could only be accomplished through the committed support of a large majority of people living in all 13 States, so the declaration had to appeal to a set of "common values" embraced by all the people who would be pledging their lives, liberty and fortune to the cause.

Finch said...

The term "Equal" has changed since 1776 and is still changing. As a nation, we have not achieved de facto equality yet, although we're moving in that direction.

Taking into consideration the mindset of the writer and circumstances under which it was written, do you think there's any credibility to the notion that Jefferson's " All men . . ." phrase could have been meant, more than anything else, as a thumbing of America's nose towards England's Divine Right Theory?

Armed With Knowledge said...

The debate gravitates to whether Jefferson thought of slaves as "men" and believed in human equality, but that is immaterial in the modern era, unless one tries to portray the Founding Fathers as this or that.

The point which is more important, and has less to do with the reputations of the Founding Fathers, is this idea of political equality and opportunity contrary to what existed in aristocratic Europe.

I think we should also take this phrase into consideration the same way we should view "a Republic for THE people, not ANY people, but THE people. The point is, whether Jefferson was in favor of slavery or not, whether he thought of Blacks as an equal, he NEVER meant to make a statement that everything and anything could and should become American and national homogeneity is unimportant.


JWHill said...

Great discussion.
Just as apologists will argue the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, the Founders are often painted as anti-slavery freedom fighters. The Somerset case and an inconvenient tobacco crop failure had serious economic and political implications leading to large scale armed insurrection. The weapons, uniforms and artillery supplied by King Louis in 1776 and the direct alliance with France in 1778 were partially funded by slave produced tobacco. The real revolution was the industrial revoluion and it certainly wasn't taking place on the plantations of America. All this anti-monarchy talk followed by alliances with the Bourbons of France and Spain adds to the hypocrisy. America has developed into the greatest country on earth and the Founders should be credited with the idea. However, their actions have little in common with their ideals. The majority of people living in the 19 Provinces (there were more than 13) did not support the move to independence. I think Thomas Jefferson did write some impressive stuff but his later life and his relationship with his dead wife's enslaved half sister, speaks volumes about his complicated and conflicted life.
Thanks for the article and the great comments above.

Anonymous said...

it should also be noted that Jefferson's statements against slavery in his original draft for independence equally could have referred to whites who were being sent to America as indentured servants, and the commerce that existed between Britain and the colonies through the buying and selling of them, as well as the goods that were produced through their labor, as they did to the colonists who felt that they were being held in bondage to the king. I highly doubt that jefferson was so conflicted within himself that he would denounce the enslavement of blacks, meanwhile keeping many of them as slaves. there is a danger of misinterpreting things upon viewing them through the lenses of modern progressivism.

Anonymous said...

It was really good. The only thing is you seem to say all men of the second Continental Congress were slave owners however, wasn't it that John Adams (and John Q. Adams) never owned slaves and was against slavery?

Chris Calkins said...

Jefferson was talking about the law. Obviously, people are not created equal . . . not even close. In fact, inequality is so "self-evident" examples of human inequality need not even be made.

I'm not sure if there is some way that God -- assuming ones believes the biblical rhetoric --created us "morally" equal. We're obviously not morally equal, either.

Perhaps, the declarations by people in the bible about equality mean that we all have the same (similar) moral choices to make even though we may make different choices in similar situations?