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Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilentz, Gates, and Slavery:

I’m with Randy Barnett on this: Sean Wilentz’ recently-published essay on Lincoln, historiography, politics (and many other things) is a magnificent piece of argumentative scholarship, well worth reading by anyone interested in Lincoln, US history, slavery, Thomas Jefferson, the Civil War, . . .

One issue – tangential, admittedly, to the main debates, but interesting and important nonetheless – caught my eye. Wilentz had some stinging criticisms of Henry Louis Gates’ recent book (Lincoln and Race and Slavery), and Gates, in response, spends most of his time (rather oddly) arguing with Wilentz not about Lincoln, but about Jefferson. “When Thomas Jefferson wrote ‘All men are created equal,’” Gates writes, “he did not have African Americans in mind – or so I claimed in Lincoln on Race and Slavery.” It’s a claim, as Wilentz notes in his reply to Gates’ response, “that scholars have been debating . . . for some time, [and] there is a strong case to be made for this claim, but also room for measured skepticism.”

This caught my eye, of course, because, as faithful VC readers know (because I remind them ad nauseum), I’ve just published a book about Jefferson – probably the only book about Jefferson in the past 20 years in which the word “slavery” (or the name “Sally Hemings”) does not appear. I thought long and hard, in the decade or so during which I was working on the book, about that, and about what it meant. I sometimes wondered whether there was something wrong – or possibly even immoral – in that, the (very rough) equivalent of writing a book about Hitler’s painting skills and passing over his murder of millions. It gave me considerable pause. In the end, I was comfortable with my judgment – though I had a fair bit to say about Jefferson’s (rather complicated) views on slavery (much of which I put into a paper I presented at a symposium back in 2001 at Middlebury College on that issue), they were simply not relevant (at least, not in any way I could see) to the subject matter of my book, which was ultimately about governance and law on the Internet and how Jefferson’s ideas could illuminate those questions for us; I wasn’t writing a comprehensive Jefferson biography but instead trying to use Jefferson’s ideas, and any of his ideas that didn’t help me think about the Net (and there were many) were jettisoned along the way.

But having said that, let me weigh in on the “measured skepticism” side of this argument. I don’t believe we know, or can ever know, exactly what Jefferson “had in mind” when he wrote the phrase “all men are created equal.” But on the more important question – viz., what did the phrase “all men” mean, to the author, to contemporaneous readers, and to posterity – the document itself has one vitally important clue. Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration included the following paragraph in its lengthy list of King George III’s “abuses and usurpations” through which he had attempted to impose “absolute Despotism” upon the Colonies:

“He 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. 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 and sold, he has prostituted his negative [i.e., he has unjustly exercised his veto powers over Colonial legislation], 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 on 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.”

[The capitalization (“MEN,” “CHRISTIAN”) and the underlining in this passage are all Jefferson’s own, taken from his own copy of the draft]

Much has been written by scholars about this paragraph (which, like the anti-slavery provisions in Jefferson’s draft of the Ordinance of 1784, was deleted by Congress before final approval of the document) – about Jefferson’s motivations for including it in the draft, about the Congress’ decision to excise it from the final Declaration, etc. But on the textual construction point, it is deeply significant (and possibly dispositive): “MEN” – African-Americans, obviously – were bought and sold as part of the “execrable commerce” of slavery. And all “men” were created equal.

Jefferson took enormous pains later in life to preserve his early draft, to make sure that history knew that it in his Declaration of Independence, slavery was deemed “cruel war against human nature itself,” that the “men” declared equal in the Preamble included those who were “bought and sold,” and that this “execrable commerce” in human souls violated the “most sacred rights of life and liberty.”

And then there’s the “pursuit of happiness” to which all men were entitled, along with life and liberty. Jefferson’s use of this phrase in the list of natural rights has long been something of a puzzle. On the one hand, the prevailing view of the Declaration of Independence is, as Pauline Maier writes in her exhaustive history of the document (American Scripture), that it merely “summarized succinctly ideas defended and explained at greater length by a long list of seventeenth-century writers,” that the ideas it expressed were “absolutely conventional among Americans of [Jefferson’s] time.” Jefferson himself admitted as much; that, he said, was the whole point. When John Adams wrote, using language more colorful than, but in substance identical to, Prof. Maier’s, that “there is not an idea in [the Declaration of Independence] but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before,” and that the “substance of it” was already “contained in the Declaration of Rights [enacted by] Congress in 1774,” two years before Jefferson set to work, Jefferson responded: “That may all be true.”

“I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, [or] to offer no sentiment which had ever been expressed before. . . . [T]he object of the Declaration of Independence [was] not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, [or] 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, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. [Not] aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, . . . 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. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day . . .”

But at the same time, at a critical juncture in this “conventional” document, Jefferson takes a turn to the decidedly, and fundamentally, unconventional. “Life, liberty, and property” was the conventional formulation; the revolutionary generation’s favorite political philosopher, John Locke, had established that familiar trilogy almost a century before, and Congress, in the 1774 Declaration of Rights to which Adams refers in the quotation above, had, conventionally, followed the Lockean outline:

“The inhabitants of the English colonies in North-America, by the immutable laws of nature . . . have the following RIGHTS: That they are entitled to life, liberty, and property . . .”

That, too, is how George Mason’s enormously influential Virginia Declaration of Rights of the same year (1774) – another document with which Jefferson, and the other delegates in Philadelphia, were intimately familiar – put it:

“All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, . . . namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property . . .”

That formulation was, for obvious reasons, of considerable comfort to the slave-owning class, for it put their “ownership” of slaves – their “property” interest – on equal rank, in the natural order of things, with the “life” and “liberty” of those over whom that ownership was exercised.

But with the stroke of the pen, Jefferson took that away. Whatever comfort one might have taken in the notion that owning other human beings was in the natural order of things – a widespread view in the eighteenth century – that notion was not to be found in the Declaration of Independence.

Nobody understood all this (or explained it) better than Lincoln himself, and he should have the last word(s). In the Fifth Debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln said this:

The Judge [i.e., Douglas] has alluded to the Declaration of Independence, and insisted that Negroes are not included in that Declaration; and that it is a slander upon the framers of that instrument, to suppose that Negroes were meant therein; and he asks you: Is it possible to believe that Mr. Jefferson, who penned the immortal paper, could have supposed himself applying the language of that instrument to the negro race, and yet held a portion of that race in slavery? Would he not at once have freed them? I only have to remark upon this part of the Judge’s speech, (and that, too, very briefly, for I shall not detain myself, or you, upon that point for any great length of time,) that I believe the entire records of the world, from the date of the Declaration of Independence up to within three years ago, may be searched in vain for one single affirmation, from one single man, that the Negro was not included in the Declaration of Independence. I think I may defy Judge Douglas to show that he ever said so, that Washington ever said so, that any President ever said so, that any member of Congress ever said so, or that any living man upon the whole earth ever said so, until the necessities of the present policy of the Democratic party, in regard to slavery, had to invent that affirmation. And I will remind Judge Douglas and this audience, that while Mr. Jefferson was the owner of slaves, as undoubtedly he was, in speaking upon this very subject, he used the strong language that “he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just;” and I will offer the highest premium in my power to Judge Douglas if he will show that he, in all his life, ever uttered a sentiment at all akin to that of Jefferson.

The Declaration, Lincoln wrote in 1859, gave “liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time, . . . promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” The cause of American progress and American greatness was not the Constitution or the Union, but “something back of these, something entwining itself more closely about the human heart: the principle of ‘Liberty to All.’”

“All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression. He supposed there was a question of God’s eternal justice wrapped up in the enslaving of any race of men, or any man, and that those who did so braved the arm of Jehovah – that when a nation thus dared the Almighty every friend of that nation had cause to dread His wrath.”

Taking his cue from the 25th chapter of the Book of Proverbs – “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” – he wrote:

“The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture. So let us act, that neither picture, or apple, shall ever be blurred, or bruised, or broken.”

Now it is undoubtedly true (as Wilentz reminds us in the essay referred to at the top of this posting) that one always has to read Lincoln’s words carefully, and in their proper (political) context, in order to understand their meaning. Lincoln wrote and said many things that were crafted primarily for the purposes of political expediency; he wanted to claim Jefferson for his side, and whether he “actually believed” what he wrote is impossible to fathom – but I’ll take him at his word.

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