Freedom and Slavery: Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)

About a month ago, the leftist British newspaper The Guardian embarked on a campaign to reach out to American voters. The editors felt it would be a good idea to "educate" Americans in a Clark County, Ohio, about the coming Presidential election. Perhaps predictably, American reaction to the venture was not favorable. Also unsurprisingly, a fair number of Americans responded by quoting a certain eighteenth-century document that begins with the words, "When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands ... ".

Thomas Jefferson, like John Adams, died exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence - so the Norton Anthology tells us. But Norton also provides American readers with a Declaration that is different from the familiar redaction: this, excerpted from Jefferson's autobiography, is the original draft as Jefferson himself wrote it. Jefferson provides the proofreader's marks, too, as evidence of what was changed: for, as he pointedly notes, "the sentiments of men are known not only by what they receive, but by what they reject also."

What Congress rejected may be of particular interest to us here. While the emendations are numerous and often trivial, one of the longest deleted passages concerns the institution of slavery in America:
[The King] 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 off 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 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 on whom he has 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.

First, let's notice the words in capitals (the emphasis is Jefferson's own): he explicitly contrasts the Christian King against "infidel" foreign nations, and it is not in the King's favor! This calls to mind Mary Rowlandson's repeated references to the behavior of the "praying Indians" in her captivity narrative. In both cases the intent is to draw attention to the abandonment of supposed "Christian" ideals; but here, the target is the King of England himself.

Jefferson also emphasizes the words men, lives, and liberties, familiar to us from the document's famous opening passage:
We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It appears that Jefferson intends to create a certain symmetry here: the King has oppressed the Colonists and the Africans; he has deprived the Africans of their liberty, and incited them to deprive the Colonists of their lives.

Like other passages excised by Congress (e.g., the references to "treasonable insurrections of our fellow citizens" and "disturbers of our harmony"), this seems to point to a perception, on Jefferson's part, that the Crown was attempting, perhaps successfully, to sow internal discord among the Colonists. That Congress saw fit to remove these passages might suggest that it was a sensitive issue.

Now to return to the question of slavery. Clearly, a full discussion of the moral contradictions in revolutionary America far exceeds the scope of this post. However, we may raise one or two basic questions about Jefferson.

Did Thomas Jefferson intend to abolish slavery? These passages suggest that he did. He doesn't sound as if he's joking here, and I do not detect any eighteenth-century equivalent of /sarc tags in the text. He meant his document to be taken seriously, and it was, at a cost of 4,435 battle deaths in a seven-year war. The Declaration of Independence is taken seriously by Americans to this day, as the indignant voters of Clark County will attest. And yet, Thomas Jefferson himself kept slaves all his life.

Let's notice something else. Jefferson is eager to attribute both slavery, and the Colonists' internal problems, to the agency of the Crown. Is this justified? I don't know; again, that's outside the scope of this reading. But Jefferson's language around the issue of slavery seems to revolve around a disavowal of responsibility: somehow, slavery is something the King did to us, or made us do - and not something in which we voluntarily participated.

Earlier in this course, we encountered a disturbing case of complicity in the slave trade, in which Olaudah Equiano, himself a slave, writes matter-of-factly:
After we had discharged our cargo there, we took in a live cargo (as well as a cargo of slaves). Here I sold my goods tolerably well ...

For Equiano, freedom only comes, and can only come, through his participation in the system that enslaves others. He participates in this system as a matter of survival. This is one of the cruelest aspects of the system: the complicity that it enforces from those it holds hostage.

Jefferson does not see his own complicity in the slave system, perhaps, because he does not see it as something in which he has freedom to act as an individual. He is a wealthy, powerful, respected, white man, with enough courage and learning to set down the words that will "dissolve the political bands" that tie the Colonies to Britain - and yet, he cannot see himself as free to act, because, in his own mind, slavery exists because of the King.

Jefferson felt strongly enough about slavery to explicitly condemn it in the most important document he ever wrote; and when the political system of his day would not permit such a radical step, he saw to it that history would inherit the record of his efforts. And yet, Thomas Jefferson did not free a single slave - because he refused to see beyond the limits of his own, self-imposed, imaginary bondage.

Jefferson's failure is America's tragedy.