Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Is the Declaration of Independence Proslavery, Antislavery, or Both?

The second night of the Republican National Convention (Tuesday, August 25) began with a video with an image of the Declaration of Independence and a narrator reading its most famous passage: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they ae endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness."

The narrator then explained:

"Without life, there can be no liberty.  Without liberty, there is no happiness.  Without equality, there is no opportunity."  [At this point in the video, there are pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King.]

 "America has strived since its founding to promote equality under the law, to correct injustices, and to ensure opportunity for all.  It is a work in progress, not always perfect."

"Some look at American opportunity and see only problems.  They want equal outcome, not equal opportunity."  [Here there are pictures of Charles Shumer, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders.] 

"They criticize without solutions, demand wealth without work.  Their ways are historical failures evidenced by tyranny and poverty, a prevailing darkness in every country that it has been tried."  [Here there are images of the 1989 Tiananman Square protests in Beijing, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara,]

"The American dream inspired by American opportunity is the engine of entrepreneurship, the inspiration with the greatest intentions." [Here there are pictures of Donald Trump.]

". . . Tonight, we explore together America, land of opportunity." 

Excerpts from this video were shown throughout the convention, and it set a persistent theme: the Republican Party is defending the principles of the American founding as stated in the Declaration of Independence--particularly, the principle of equality of opportunity--while the Democratic Party is attacking those principles and promoting the principles of socialist tyranny--particularly, the principle of equality of outcome.

The theme for the third day of the Convention was "Heroes of America."  South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem was the first speaker.  She warned that the founding principles of America were under attack, and that we must struggle to live up to those founding principles.  As part of this attack on the Founding, she observed, the Democrats are tearing down all the monuments to our American heroes.

Although I did not notice any explicit reference at the Republican Convention to the "1619 Project" of the New York Times, this was certainly in the background, because the complaint that America was founded on slavery by American leaders who were themselves slaveholders is central to what the Republicans see as the attack on America.  Just a few days ago, President Trump said that he would prohibit any federal funding to public schools that adopt material from the 1619 Project as part of their curriculum for teaching American history.

The Republicans see that America is "a work in progress, not always perfect," because equality of opportunity for all has never been perfectly achieved, but it is still worth striving for.  By contrast, we are told, the Democrats see only the imperfection and not the progress, and they conclude that America must strive for a socialist equality of outcome, although this will bring tyranny and poverty.

So is it true that the Declaration of Independence rightly promised a government that would secure equality of opportunity for all Americans, and that while never perfectly attained, this American dream of equal opportunity has been the proper standard by which we can see all of American history as showing progressive improvement in striving to achieve human equality in the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?  

Or has this been a failure--or only a partial success--because from the beginning, America was founded on slavery and white racism, which have denied full equality of rights for black Americans?  If it has been a failure, does that come from the racial tribalism that is rooted in the propensity to xenophobia or in-group bias that is part of our evolved human nature?  Do we see that racial tribalism today displayed in the violent street conflicts between "Black Lives Matter" protestors and their "Blue Lives Matter" opponents?

In her Pulitzer-Prize-winning article for the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote:

"The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.  Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that 'all men are created equal' and 'endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.'  But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst.  'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness' did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.  Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed.  Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.  And not only for ourselves--black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women's and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights."

.  .  .

". . . in making the argument against British tyranny, one of the colonists' favorite rhetorical devices was to claim that they were the slaves--to Britain.  For this duplicity, they faced burning criticism both at home and abroad.  As Samuel Johnson, an English writer and Tory opposed to American independence, quipped, 'How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?'"

"Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.  By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western Hemisphere.  In London there were growing calls to abolish the slave trade.  This would have upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South.  The wealth and prominence that allowed Jefferson, at just 33, and the other founding fathers to believe they could successfully break off from one of the mightiest empires in the world came from the dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery.  In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.  It is not incidental that 10 of this nation's first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy."

"Jefferson and the other founders were keenly aware of this hypocrisy.  And so in Jefferson's original draft of the the Declaration of Independence, he tried to argue that it wasn't the colonists' fault.  Instead, he blamed the king of England for forcing the institution of slavery on the unwilling colonists and called the trafficking in human beings a crime.  Yet neither Jefferson nor most of the founders intended to abolish slavery, and in the end, they struck the passage."

Notice the contradiction in Hannah-Jones' claims here.  She begins by saying that Jefferson and the other white men who drafted the words about human equality in the Declaration "did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst."  But then she says they "were keenly aware" of their "hypocrisy" in affirming natural human equality while denying the application of this principle to black slaves.  If the founders did not believe that black people were created equal to whites in their natural rights, then the founders could not have been guilty of hypocrisy, because hypocrisy here would mean refusing to recognize the human equality of black and white people that one knows to be true.

That Jefferson recognized the equality of blacks and whites, and thus the injustice of black enslavement, is evident in the passage in the original draft of the Declaration, to which Hannah-Jones refers, in which Jefferson condemned the slave trade as a "cruel war against human nature itself."  I have written about this in a previous post.  Here Jefferson repeated a charge that he had made in his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), where he complained that the efforts of Virginia and some other colonial legislatures to impede or stop the slave trade were vetoed by the King.  He observed that stopping the slave trade would be the first step towards abolishing slavery: "The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state" (Jefferson 1984, 115).

In the same passage of the original draft of the Declaration where Jefferson condemns the King for the slave trade, he also condemns the King for inciting the slaves to rebel against their American masters:  "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."

Although this passage was struck out of the final draft of the Declaration, the condemnation of the King's inciting slave rebellion was introduced into the last of the 27 grievances against the King: "He has excited domestic insurrections among us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions."

The American colonists were threatened not only by the "domestic insurrections" of the slaves from whom they had stolen labor, but also by the attacks of Indians from whom they had stolen land.  And, indeed, in the American Revolutionary War, the British stirred both the Indians and the slaves to fight against the rebels.  But many slaves chose to fight for the rebels.  American loyalists and rebels stole slaves from one another in the war.  During the war, as many as 100,000 slaves gained their freedom.  One might say that the American Revolution became the largest slave rebellion in American history.

Jefferson and the other leading American founders all agreed that slavery violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence, because slavery was wrong in denying the natural liberty and equality of the slaves, who had a natural right to overthrow the tyranny of their masters, just as the white American colonists had the right to overthrew the tyranny of the British.  They also agreed that slavery would have to be abolished, but they disagreed about how and when that should happen.

In the 20 years after 1776, 6 of the original 13 states abolished slavery.  In 1777, Vermont became the first to abolish slavery in its constitution.  In 1780, Pennsylvania adopted a law mandating the gradual emancipation of slavery--through the emancipation of slave children once they reached adulthood.  In 1781-1783, several Massachusetts court decisions found slavery incompatible with the state constitution (written by John Adams), which declared in 1780 that all men "are born free and equal."

But none of the Southern states succeeded in abolishing slavery.  In 1785, Jefferson said that people in the North were "jealous of their own liberties, and just to those of others," while people in the South were "zealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of others" (Letter to Chastellux, September 2, 1785; Jefferson 1984, 827).

In June of 1776, Jefferson was on a committee to draw up plans for revising the laws of Virginia.  He proposed a plan for the gradual emancipation of slaves--the children of slaves would be freed at age 18 (for females) or 21 (for males), and then these newly emancipated blacks would be colonized somewhere outside of Virginia where they could live as a free and independent people.

Although Jefferson's plan for abolition was never adopted, in 1782, Virginia adopted a law that encouraged slaveholders to emancipate their slaves.  And in 1784-1785, there were proposals for the general emancipation of slaves.

But then, the General Assembly of Virginia received at least 5 petitions signed by over 1,500 people across Virginia who opposed both the manumission of slaves by slaveholders and any general emancipation.  

They made three arguments (Schmidt and Wilhelm 1973).  First, abolishing slavery was said to deny the natural rights of slaveholders to life and property, which was contrary to the Declaration of Independence.  Second, slavery was said to be supported by the Bible--both the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Third, emancipation was said to be bad policy, because freed blacks would commit "rapes, murders, and outrages" and would generally misbehave.

These Virginia petitioners in the 1780s were proslavery in the strong sense that they were arguing for slavery as a "positive good," which would become more common in the South in the 1830s, when people like John C. Calhoun would take this position.

Those American founders who were slaveholders--like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington--were proslavery only in the weak sense, in that while they recognized the injustice of slavery as violating the principles of the Declaration of Independence, they saw no way that slavery could be immediately abolished without disastrous consequences for the South.  They hoped that someday slavery could be abolished, and then the freed blacks could leave the United States and colonize some area in Africa or South America.  White settlers could then be imported as hired laborers to take the place of the slaves.

Jefferson did not think that a multiracial society in which blacks and whites would be socially and politically equal was possible.  In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he remarked:

"It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave?  Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations, the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race" (1984, 264).

Did Jefferson himself share those "deep-rooted prejudices" of the whites? In 1791, while he was Secretary of State under President Washington, Jefferson received a letter from a free black man accusing him of just that.  Benjamin Banneker was a polymath--a surveyor, a poet, and a student of mathematics and astronomy--who had just published an almanac.  He sent Jefferson a long letter along with a copy of his almanac as evidence for black intelligence.  He said that when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence affirming the equal rights of human nature, he "clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery." But then he observed that Jefferson's selfish interests in slaveholding--"in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren"--had allowed his moral judgment to be blinded by "narrow prejudices" (Basker 2012, 131).

Remarkably, Jefferson responded with a short letter of only five sentences, in which he said: "No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence."  He passed over in silence Banneker's charge of "narrow prejudices."

We know now that when this correspondence occurred in 1791, Jefferson had taken his slave Sally Hemings as his concubine.  He sired at least four children by her.  After he started this sexual relationship with Sally (while he was in Paris, 1787-1789), Jefferson never again spoke about his plans for abolishing slavery.  I have written about this in a previous post.

In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson had written about the morally degrading effects of slavery--both for the master and for the slave.  Do we see that in Jefferson himself?

Even if we see in Jefferson the moral flaws that delayed the abolition of slavery in the United States, we also see in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence the principles of human liberty and equality that demanded that abolition.  Perhaps this shows us that America really is "a work in progress, not always perfect."

But how much progress have we achieved?  The abolition of slavery through the Civil War and the Civil War constitutional amendments and then the breaking up of Jim Crow segregation through the Civil Rights Movement surely count as great progress.  But when we look at the intense conflicts provoked by the Black Lives Matter movement, we must wonder whether we have failed to completely overcome the racial tribalism that Jefferson thought would always prevent full racial equality in a multiracial free society.

I have written about the evolution of racial/ethnic identity (here and here).



Basker, James G., ed.  2012. American Antislavery Writings.  New York: The Library of America.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings. Ed. Merrill D. Peterson. New York: The Library of America.

Schmidt, Fredrika Teute, and Barbara Ripel Wilhelm. 1973. "Early Proslavery Petitions in Virginia." William and Mary Quarterly 30: 133-146.


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