With the 245th Independence Day and the first national Juneteenth commemoration now behind us, here is the question: If we could only keep one document from American history, and one only, which would it need to be? Opinions will vary. Some might say the Emancipation Proclamation, others the Bill of Rights, still others the U.S. Constitution itself. Or perhaps Lincoln’s magnificent Second Inaugural Address, delivered just 42 days before he was assassinated by an actor who could not stomach the idea that African Americans might have rights.
I Do Declare
My answer? Without question the Declaration of Independence, unanimously adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776. Thomas Jefferson was the principal author, though in some limited respects it was a committee effort. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams each played a minor role. Moreover, Jefferson leaned heavily on previous human rights documents, including John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government” and fellow Virginian George Mason’s “Virginia Declaration of Rights.” The wits of Congress saw fit to change (he said “mangled”) some things in Jefferson’s draft before it could achieve unanimous consent. One of the passages that wound up on the cutting room floor, the longest single passage in the Declaration, accused King George III and the parliament of Britain of stymieing occasional colonial efforts to restrain or abolish the slave trade. This was sort of true, but no lofty rhetoric could disguise the fact that the colonies, especially Southern colonies, had welcomed the importation of slaves, prospered from their unpaid labor and intended to perpetuate the slave labor system at least for the foreseeable future. It was the British curmudgeon Samuel Johnson who pointedly quipped, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”
“The United States has never fully lived up to its promise, but if the promise of America is embodied anywhere, it is in Jefferson’s famous preamble.”
Historians believe that Jefferson understood the true dynamics of slavery (and profited from the institution himself) but earnestly wanted to find a way to insert an anti-slavery manifesto into the birth certificate of the United States. In a sense, he wanted to address Dr. Johnson’s charge of contemptible hypocrisy among Southern patriots and revolutionaries.
Jefferson’s words are stirring: George III “has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
Still, we all know that Jefferson owned several hundred slaves, bought and sold enslaved people all of his life, clandestinely while serving as the president of the United States. We know that Jefferson “talked a good game” and frequently wrote letters saying, “nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery: and certainly nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object” (1788), or “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free” (1821).
But Jefferson freed only eight slaves, three in his lifetime, five at the time of his death on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1826. As he grew older, Jefferson experienced a hardening of his spiritual arteries and wound up being a more or less typical member of the Southern slaveocracy, finding what now seem like casuistical rationales for doing precisely nothing. And we all know the Sally Hemings story.
Prospects for Redemption of Jefferson’s Plummeting Reputation
Given all this, and more, Jefferson’s reputation has suffered, even plummeted, in the past 20 years. His statues have been vandalized or in some cases plucked down. Schools and other institutions have changed their names from Jefferson to something less offensive. There has been talk of pulling down the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and in more radical circles of razing his visage at Mount Rushmore.
The face of Thomas Jefferson — one of four presidential faces — carved into Mount Rushmore in Keystone, S.D. (National Park Service)
Whether this new angry condemnation of Jefferson is just and proportional is a question for sober and careful debate, but it is undeniable that he has been seriously diminished. Like it or not, this is the state of things as the nation celebrates its 245th birthday.
But Jefferson’s decline raises two important questions. First, to put it in the simplest terms, should we throw out the baby with the bath water? Because we are prone these days to discredit Jefferson, do we distance ourselves also from his principles and his larger achievement? Do we jettison him altogether, knowing that every brick at Monticello was baked by enslaved men and women, every timber in the joists at the University of Virginia was cut by enslaved workers, all of the wastes at the White House were removed by slaves brought from Monticello to the federal capital for that express purpose? Does Jefferson’s complicity in the tragic oppressions of American history cancel him altogether? Can we still admire his architectural whimsies, his mastery of natural law, his stunning capacity with English prose, his pioneering work in paleontology, his inventiveness and his vision of a self-governing, self-actualizing American citizenry? Or must they all be seen as sullied achievements built on the backs of Black men, Black women and Black children? The answer to this question is not clear. Can we admire the Declaration of Independence while no longer admiring Jefferson?
America with an Asterisk*
I believe that Thomas Jefferson deserves demotion from the highest pantheon of American heroes. After all, he was the loftiest of the Founding Fathers, the only one who dared write those soaring words about the “self-evident” truth that all human beings are born equal. He set himself up for his fall. What is surprising to me is that it took so long for Jefferson’s problems with race to catch up with him. I believe that Jefferson will now be permanently downsized in American memory, and I somewhat reluctantly agree that this is just. I believe, too, that virtually every chapter describing Jefferson’s stupendous intellectual and artistic achievement must hereafter be accompanied by an asterisk. Jefferson created the template for the university campus in America* (* a fabulous public university built by slave labor); Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory* (* but ignored pleas to outlaw slavery in the new territories).
“(Jefferson) had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times … that shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.”
— Abraham Lincoln
But I do not believe that Jefferson’s character flaws (and those of virtually all of the other members of the “Republic of Letters”) discredit the Enlightenment. Give Jefferson a C- (or worse) for his many important imperfections, for his willingness to talk the talk but never to walk the walk. He would be the first to say that his weaknesses, though he might have defined them differently from us, are of little importance compared to the principles, the perspectives, the scientific achievements, the breakthrough in political theory and the commitment to civil and rational discourse that define what we mean by the Enlightenment. Banish Jefferson if you wish, but we must continue to embrace the Enlightenment, which is perhaps Western Civilization’s single greatest achievement.
If you find yourself arrested, you will invoke the Enlightenment in all sorts of ways: habeas corpus, due process, trial by a jury of one’s peers, the right to a speedy trial, the right to refuse to incriminate oneself, the right to confront your accusers, the right to counsel. Now get yourself arrested in Iran or Saudi Arabia and see how well those Enlightenment values are cherished. Vladimir Putin’s political opponents would give anything to live in a polity where dissent is protected, where criticizing the reigning government does not get you injected with poison or thrown into a state prison. Examine the status of freedom of expression in China or Turkey or Cuba.
Still the Standard for Self-Government
The Declaration of Independence set the standard once and for all of a people’s right to govern themselves, to insist upon a government that embodies their will and protects their rights, to put every government on warning that the people are sovereign. You can spend your energy arguing that beneath these lofty pronouncements and ideals there existed in Jefferson’s time and ours a far more mundane and corrosive power dynamic, but unless you believe the Enlightenment’s ideals just don’t exist, it would seem more useful to strive to fulfill these ideals through the imperfection of the human condition, than to discard them because we have never realized them in full measure.
Abraham Lincoln got it right. Jefferson, he said, “had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men at all times … that shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.” In other words, in what might have been a mere announcement of rebellion and a request for foreign recognition and foreign aid, Jefferson wrote the single finest expression of the deepest aspirations of humankind, and though the standard he set can be used to put him in a pretty unfavorable light, it is the standard that matters, not the scribe who distilled those self-evident truths into perfectly modulated English prose.
The Declaration of Independence has been invoked again and again as America evolved from a white propertied patriarchy (1774-1865) into a steadily more inclusive, rights-respectful, multiracial, multi-ethnic republic. Think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848 (“all men and women are created equal”), Abraham Lincoln 1863 (“whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure”), the Progressive Movement, Martin Luther King in 1963 (the Declaration as a “promissory note” that has been repeatedly rejected at the bank of American justice, but this time must be cashed), even Ho Chi Minh on Sept. 2, 1945 (“In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free”). The United States has never fully lived up to its promise, but if the promise of America is embodied anywhere, it is in Jefferson’s famous preamble.
Jefferson himself understood that his words were greater than he was. In a letter May 8, 1825, he insisted, that “this was the object of the Declaration of Independence, not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent. … Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion.”
If we jettison the principles of the Declaration of Independence merely because Jefferson was a deeply flawed man or because we recognize how inadequately we have lived up to the standard his words set, we will effectively be giving up on the human project. The whole world is watching. It is our peculiar destiny to carry this burden. It is essential that we never rest until we achieve those ideals. It we give up now, in this era of profound disillusionment, then it really was all nothing but humbug.
Still the First Among the Founders
More than any other of the American Founders, Jefferson, the most optimistic and forward looking of them all, understood on his deathbed on the Fourth of July that the American search for perfection was not ending but just getting started. Jefferson’s last written words were, “the mass of men were not born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others, for ourselves …”
The City of Alamogordo held its Fourth of July fireworks display at Griggs Field on July 4, 2021. (Nicole Maxwell/Alamogordo Daily /TNS)
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “The Future In Context.”
Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.