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.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Alexander Stephens vs Thomas Jefferson

On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, the vice president of the newly formed Confederate States of America, declared that slavery was the "the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization" and criticized America's Founding Fathers (specifically Thomas Jefferson) for embracing ideals that "rested upon the assumption of the equality of races." According to Stephens, this was an "error." The new Confederate States of America, declared Stephens, is "founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner–stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition."

This remarkable critique of the Founding Fathers is what justifies our stepping somewhat out of this blog's parameters. Normally, we focus on early American history and not the American Civil War. But Stephens' assessment of the Founding Fathers raises some interesting questions regarding how America's Founding Fathers came down on the issues of race and slavery.

Who Was Alexander Stephens?

If one looks at the pre-Civil War career of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, it is somewhat surprising that the Georgia politician would become one of the national leaders of a secessionist confederacy. A pro-slavery Unionist, Stephens spent most of his political career advancing southern economic interests, while at the same time defending the Union against any talk of secession. As late as the 1860 U.S. presidential election, Stephens was speaking out against southern secession.

Increasing regionalism and polarization in the 1840s and 50s, however, had set the stage for civil war, and there was little Stephens and others could do to stop it. With the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860, the die was cast.

Stephens was elected to the Georgia secession convention, where he spoke out once again for Union, but defended the legal right of any state to secede. He soon found himself a member of the Confederate Congress, vice president of the provisional southern government, and finally vice president of the Confederate States of America. Though a reluctant secessionist, Stephens became an ardent supporter of the new Confederate government and its new Constitution.

The Deep South and Slavery

There are many Americans today who argue that slavery was but a minor factor or cause in leading to the American Civil War. These individuals, most of them serving as apologists for the "Lost Cause" myth of the American South, are correct that slavery wasn't the only issue of the war. They are also correct that Abraham Lincoln initially promised to leave slavery alone in the South, thus making clear that the Civil War (at least in the beginning) was not a war for liberation. But any efforts to downplay slavery as a relevant, defining issue of the Deep South run headlong into a high, thick wall of evidence to the contrary. For one thing, southern apologists who wish to downplay or ignore slavery must contend with the harsh reality of Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens' infamous "Cornerstone" speech.

The Deep South states were very much motivated by slave interests. Their own secession documents, as well as numerous speeches and writings of their leaders (including Stephens), attests to the unmistakable fact that the Deep South seceded primarily over issues related to slavery. This is perhaps not so much the case with the Upper South, but there can be no doubt as to the initial wave of secession that began with South Carolina.

Stephens on the Founding Fathers

Today, America's Founding Fathers are continually attacked in the media, in academia, and in various other quarters of our society for being racist, pro-slavery, etc. Alexander Stephens also criticizes the Founders on the issues of race and slavery, but not in the same manner as modern critics. For Stephens, the Founders were NOT racist and pro-slavery, and THAT (in his mind) was the problem. Here is an excerpt from Stephens' speech, where he raises these objections to the Founders and their ideals:

"The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the 'rock upon which the old Union would split.' He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the 'storm came and the wind blew.'

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

According to Stephens, Thomas Jefferson and America's Founders believed in racial equality, but they had it all wrong. The races, says Stephens, are not equal. And, says Stephens, the new Confederate government understands this.

Very interesting.

Was Stephens Right About Jefferson and the Founders?

Hopefully, all those reading this will agree that Stephens is fundamentally, tragically, and reprehensibly wrong on the issue of race. All human beings are equal in God's eyes.

But was Stephens likewise wrong when he described Jefferson and the Founding Fathers as believing in racial equality?

Well, let's agree that America's Founding Fathers certainly did not practice racial equality, not with any kind of advanced twenty-first century understanding of racial equality anyway. But Stephens' critique is that their principles "rested" on the general assumption of racial equality and his remarks primarily dealt with slavery. So, for our purposes, the issues here are slavery and the general, overall principles associated with basic human rights.

Our question then is did Thomas Jefferson have non-whites in mind when he penned the eloquent words of the Declaration of Independence? When Jefferson said "all men are created equal," was he just contempating whites or did he have a broader understanding of the word "men"?

Stephens would say that he did. That would be his answer. Many of today's critics of the Founders say Jefferson did not. What's the truth?

That is the question we will take up in my next post. In the meantime, I invite you to read Vindicating The Founders: Race, Sex, Class and Justice in the Origins of America by Thomas G. West.