I made this post in my History (HST) 109 course discussion forum in response to the following class discussion question:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ever seen these words before? Sure you have. They are from the Declaration of Independence and they were written by Thomas Jefferson. Did it ever strike you that these words about “all men” being created equal and having certain rights were written by one of the world’s largest slaveholders? How do we, as Americans, reconcile Jefferson’s words with Jefferson’s deeds? Is it just that TJ is cranking out political rhetoric to stoke a revolution that he hopes will preserve him from bankruptcy? Is he a racist who in using the phrase “all men” knows that his readers know he is excluding what he considers to be lower races (Native Americans, Blacks), or is he simply one of the premier hypocrites in American history? His putative sex life with a slave mistress would probably make even Bill Clinton blush. What’s your take on Jefferson? Which of the above categories does he fall into, or does he fit into “all of the above?” Why do we consider him such a great man?
In some ways, Thomas Jefferson was ahead of his time while in others he was not. On one hand, Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the overall foundation of the United States of America. These developments served to synthesize the works of people like John Locke and Thomas Paine into a real, workable national republic ultimately leading to what we have today as our American society. It seems quite obvious that Thomas Jefferson helped to initiate an evolutionary process of moving toward equal human rights for everyone. It is quite likely he had no clue that his actions would bring out such momentus change in the world. We must take special care to avoid judging our Founding Fathers according to our modern world view.
In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, during the time in which Thomas Jefferson lived, white males were the only people recognized as full citizens in Western Europe and the American colonies. The man was expected to do the work, own the property and care for his family in all respects. The woman was expected to stay in or near the home, bare and raise children and otherwise support the man’s goals. By and large, she was not expected or permitted to act as an independent individual. For example, American women did not gain such basic human rights as ownership of property and the right to vote until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Native Americans were simply swept aside as white men of European descent mercilessly conquered the New World. It has never been the tradition of any society to recognize the basic human rights of those they wish to subjugate for their own purposes. The rights of African Americans were not considered based on the simple explanation that they were usually bought and sold as property in most of America. Finally, people with disabilities were viewed as being crippled and, thus, incomplete. Their individual needs and desires were never accommodated or considered. Such people were often sheltered by their families, forced to depend on meager charity or outright killed as a means of relieving a burden from the community. In all ways, prior to the late 19th Century, women, minorities and people with disabilities all had one thing in common: they were viewed as less than a complete person by the dominant white male society. further, no laws existed as a means of changing society’s attitude or protecting these groups against persecution.
In most respects, Thomas Jefferson was simply a product of his time. As a farmer and property owner, he was a part of the accepted dominant class of American society. Should we be surprised that he owned slaves? Of course not! Many of his contemporaries also owned numerous slaves. Few white males entertained the possibility that ownership of another human being might be wrong, and the opinions of those from other groups were simply not considered. Should we be shocked when we learn that Jefferson was promiscuous and unfaithful? Absolutely not! Remember, white males dominated. Anytime someone dominates, they hold all the cards. What power did Martha have in the relationship? How would we propose she was going to stop her husband from messing around and having children with other women? He could certainly divorce her if he became unhappy, while it was quite unlikely she would have been able to initiate her own divorce.
Ultimately, we see that the initial intent of the Declaration of Independence was simply freedom from British domination. The rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” applied only to white males in the dominant class of American society. Women, African-Americans, the “Indians”, people with disabilities, and all others were deemed less than full citizens and, thus, not entitled to the same guarantees provided by early American doctrines such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While the Declaration of Independence signifies the beginnings of the United States, the Constitution is the document that gives real staying power to the new nation. It is quite fortunate, however, that our Constitution provides mechanisms permitting the United States to evolve toward a “more perfect union.” The Judiciary interprets the Constitution while the legislative branch can amend the actual Constitution! It is only through these amendment and legislative processes that the slaves were ultimately freed, women were finally granted the right to vote and people with disabilities are finally starting to have a real chance at participating as full American citizens! We can credit Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of our Founding Fathers for demonstrating the foresight necessary to establish a nation with underlying principles that allow it to evolve away from dominance by one small class of men and toward full inclusion for all its citizens!