In defense of Jefferson
Everything needs a limiting principle to protect it from excess, to keep it from transitioning from positive to negative and doing more harm than good.
This is a lesson we ought to keep in mind in the context of recent efforts to “cancel” historic American figures by scorning their achievements and removing their images from the public square. Do people have (or want) a limiting principle that will keep these efforts from transitioning from good (an authentic civil rights reassessment) to bad (inflicting fatal wounds on the system)?
A limiting principle suitable for the task is the “rule of context.” It works like this. If you want to pass judgment on someone (such as Thomas Jefferson), you must, in the first instance and primarily, do so in the context of the state of the world when that person was alive, and only secondarily in the context of our world — and even then principally for comparison purposes to measure change. It is really a matter of common sense.
On July 2, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian offered his opinion on Independence Day and Jefferson in an email addressed to the CSCU community captioned “Rethinking the Meaning of Independence Day.”
Ojakian exceeded the limit in the opening sentence: “When Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘that all men are created equal,’ he of course was referring only to white, land-owning men, intentionally excluding women and people of color from his vision for America.”
The problem is with the words “intentionally” and “vision.” Ojakian is traveling through time to hold Jefferson to civil rights standards that had not been created yet and then accusing Jefferson of intentionally (by design) planning a future (vision) that would not develop them. Ojakian reads the Declaration as if Jefferson had said “all men are created equal except for women and people of color” and faults him for not saying that “all men are created equal including women and people of color.”
The civil rights standards in France were typical of Jefferson’s era. There was a monarch and two privileged classes (the nobles and clergy) — none of whom paid taxes and all of whom were supported by taxes on peasants, artisans and merchants. Jefferson used the term “all men” to spit in the eye of the privileged classes, telling them that peasants’, artisans’ and merchants’ lives mattered. It was a big first step. The French Revolution began in 1789 with Jefferson’s encouragement.
Jefferson was a racist. But then again, and as ugly as it sounds, racism was “settled science” well through the 19th century. Search the words “scientific racism” to learn more. I am not being glib — I am making the point that the scientific community can influence opinion and set the tone of the culture and politics, and it did so then and it does so now.
Jefferson was a slave owner. This brazen contradiction swirled vigorously at the time in the minds of politicians, the press, the public, and Jefferson himself. In Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration he embraced his personal paradox with a 168-word condemnation of King George of England for helping to create and perpetuate the slave trade as a crime against humanity.
Jefferson later blamed southern states for blocking this section from the final version. It took guts to put this language on the table for consideration by his peers. The Monticello website suggests that Jefferson believed and knew that slavery had to end at some point but that doing so would be messy and dangerous perhaps to the point of requiring a war to do so. He was right about that.
Moreover, Jefferson was a student of intellectual history and understood that thought evolves over time — and to this end, the republic he helped create (unlike a monarchy) has a built-in corrective mechanism to accommodate change without replacing the entire system.
We can amend the Constitution, adopt federal and state legislation, and we have access to the courts to resolve grievances. Constitutional amendments ended slavery and extended federal civil rights protections. The courts put an end to Jim Crow in 1954. Beginning with the civil rights legislation of the early 1960s, the power and resources of federal and state governments have been brought to bear on issues of civil rights, and a cost-benefit analysis of these efforts should be part of any authentic civil rights reassessment.
Finally, I sometimes wonder what those who scorn Jefferson would have had him do in 1776 — put the formation of the nation on hold until slavery had been abolished and civil rights expanded? In the late 18th century, the first thing you needed was a nation robust enough to take on these tasks — and thanks to Jefferson, we have a very good one (warts and all).
John Horak of West Hartford is a retired lawyer and nonprofit educator.
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