Thomas Jefferson, speaking for the Second Continental Congress, wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” He either meant this to be a universal proposition (self-evident) and therefore was a contemptible hypocrite since he owned as many as 600 slaves in the course of his life, or he meant the statement to serve as what Martin Luther King Jr. would call a “promissory note,” to be cashed sometime later in American history, which would seem to be self-serving, since it enabled Jefferson to complete his 83-year life surrounded by people he regarded as property, forced at the end of a whip to do whatever he might instruct them to do. Or perhaps he meant the statement to apply only to “people who count,” i.e., white people only, and even then, primarily white males, which would deflate the great statement to the point of cynicism.
We don’t know just what Jefferson meant when he wrote that famous sentence. He was, as his biographer Joseph Ellis has argued, capable of walling off different sectors of his consciousness so that they did not have to negotiate or even speak to each other; he might well have worked himself up, in that heady revolutionary time, in that boarding house in Philadelphia in June 1776, into a kind of sincere universality of principle, without stopping to blush about his own complicity in the institution and perpetuation of slavery. We don’t know, but under any construction of the great utterance, Jefferson does not fair very well in the eyes of history. We do know that several of Jefferson’s contemporaries, after reading his stirring words in the Declaration of Independence, hastened to assure their fellow Southerners that the document was not to be read as having any wild emancipationist tendencies.
Fourscore years later, Abraham Lincoln argued that it no longer really mattered just what Jefferson meant, or the Founding Fathers either, because we could no longer go on as a nation, as a republic, unless we now read Jefferson’s words in the full universal sense. Except for women.
In many respects, Lincoln resurrected Jefferson’s reputation after a 20-year period during which he was embraced (rightly, I believe) by Southern states as a slavery apologist who would rather break up the union than let the Northern industrial states disturb the institution of slavery. Two of Jefferson’s grandsons, Thomas Jefferson Randolph and George Wythe Randolph, were ardent secessionists when the Civil War finally came. George W. served as acting secretary of war in the Confederacy for eight months in 1862.
Nevertheless, Lincoln chose to read the Declaration in its most universal sense. Jefferson, he wrote, “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, as Lincoln saw it, Jefferson set the human rights standard against which all subsequent political actions and attitudes must be judged. The ideal was what was important, not the ambivalent penman who articulated that ideal.
You don’t have to embrace the entire New York Times 1619 Project to acknowledge that if “all men [human beings] are created equal” is our national ideal, we have not always, perhaps not often, lived up to its standards.
From anything but a white self-serving perspective, the baseline truth of our history is that America has wrestled with the problems of race and slavery from the beginning of the national experiment, sometimes earnestly, but that in almost every case we have kicked the can down the road for some future generation to figure out. Whenever the question came up in his lifetime, Jefferson dreamed that “our sons and grandsons, nursed from childhood in the principles of liberty,” would pick up where the founders left off and solve the problem. He was not quite sure how the problem could be solved, however, since he could not stomach the notion of a biracial republic. In other words, Jefferson did not wish to live side by side with free Black people.
Technology Deepened the Problem, Politics Couldn’t Solve It
The founders’ children and grandchildren did not solve the problem. In fact, they deepened the predicament when they discovered how profitable growing cotton could be with the help of two essential tools: Eli Whitney’s cotton gin (1793), which increased the efficiency of cotton processing by magnitudes, and of course, gangs of slave laborers to grow and pick, bale and haul the product. While Jefferson dreamed of slavery somehow magically slipping away as the American experiment unfolded, in fact it became much more completely embedded in the American economy and social structure in the first five decades of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the new American political system failed to solve the problem. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a strong paragraph condemning the slave trade (“this execrable commerce”), accusing Britain’s George III of waging “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 & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”
The passage was expunged from the final draft of the Declaration at the insistence, Jefferson said, of the delegates from the Carolinas and Georgia, who intended to continue importing slaves and would not sign any national charter that interfered with their plans. At this point, neither Jefferson nor anyone else at the Second Continental Congress stood up to defend the passage or the principle, or even to declare that the birth certificate of the new nation must contain some acknowledgement that slavery was wrong and some hint that it was on the road to extinction.
In other words, they kicked the can down the road.
The Old Dividing Line
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 wrestled with the problem of slavery in America but could not find a way out. Although the ostensible struggle in Philadelphia was between the large states and the small states, resulting in the Great Compromise of June 1787, in which each state would get two U.S. senators no matter what their size or population, the real fault line, as James Madison acknowledged on the convention floor, was between North and South. “It seems now to be pretty well understood,” Madison said, “that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination.” And have ever since.
Northern states were ready to abolish slavery or figure out a gradual path to full emancipation, but Southern states, led by South Carolina’s John Rutledge and the Pinckneys (Charles Cotesworth and Charles), not only insisted that the new Constitution leave slavery intact but threatened on several occasions simply to walk out of the convention if any attempt were made to restrict slavery or the slave trade. In the bluntest possible language, Rutledge declared that if any attempt was made to restrain the practice of slavery, Southern states “shall not be parties to the union.” In other words, they held the whole process hostage, so they could continue to “wring their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” as President Lincoln later phrased it.
The Southerners were astonishingly successful in Philadelphia. In the end, the new Constitution never mentioned slavery by name, but it addressed (and perpetuated) the institution in several important ways: the notorious Three Fifths clause, which counted every five enslaved persons as three for the purposes of apportionment and representation; the Fugitive Slave clause, which required Northern states and individuals to cooperate in tracking down runaway slaves and returning them to their owners; the Electoral College, which gave Southern states more political weight than their Northern counterparts; and a 20-year moratorium on any federal attempt to restrict or eliminate the slave trade.
In other words, the delegates in Philadelphia kicked the can down the road but not before they augmented its constitutional legitimacy.
There was some good news in 1787. The old Confederation Congress, meeting under the dying authority of the Articles of Confederation, passed the historic Northwest Ordinance, one of the greatest pieces of legislation in American history. Among other things, the Northwest Ordinance outlawed slavery in new western territories and states north of the Ohio River. Thus, the Ohio River became the line of demarcation between Free America and Slave America, a reality that the French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville described brilliantly in his seminal “Democracy in America (1835).”
Fierce Fight, Fatal Flaw
By the time the Constitutional Convention adjourned in mid-September 1787, the fatal pattern had been established. In both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787, the South had found a way to hold the American experiment hostage. It had insisted that slavery was off limits and not only gotten away with that audacious (and tragic) ultimatum but actually strengthened the Southern hold on the future course of America. It would be satisfying to believe that the Southern stranglehold ended with the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) or the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments (1865-70) that followed a Civil War which took the lives of 750,000 Americans. But all the evidence points the other way.
Reconstruction (1865-77) was followed by the effective re-enslavement of Southern Blacks by way of peonage and “wage slavery.” Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, lynching, the KKK, legal segregation (affirmed by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896), poll taxes (not abolished until 1965), literacy tests and overt evasions of such legal breakthroughs as Brown v. Board of Education (May 17, 1954), all had the intention and effect of perpetuating white supremacy in America.
As late as the mid-1970s, African Americans were quietly ushered out of the best Las Vegas casinos and blackballed in America’s exclusive country clubs, as well as denied home loans in white neighborhoods. For more than half a century, the filibuster has been effectively employed by Southern senators to stall or prevent civil rights legislation. Voter suppression has a long pedigree in American political life.
The record of the North is not perfect by any measure. But the unmistakable truth is that every time America has attempted to do the right thing by way of living up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, those who would hold African Americans down and maintain some form of apartheid and white supremacy have had the power to veto civil rights legislation; or water it down; or delay it for months, years or even decades; evade it when it finally passed; or find a self-serving workaround.
On the mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the “fierce urgency of now,” and he repeated over and over, “Now is the time …” But the available historical evidence suggests that the forces of white resistance almost always find a way to kick the can down the road. The great question for our time is whether the national outcry that followed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, will lead to a fuller embrace of Jefferson’s magnificent sentence or take its place as another failure of opportunity.
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.