The scandal of the Declaration
On reckoning with the legacy of America's loftiest document and its slave-owning author
July 4, 1776, is not the date on which the colonies achieved their independence from Great Britain; that was September 3, 1783. It is not the date on which the war began; that was April 19, 1775. It is certainly not the date that we became the United States — that wouldn't be until the adoption of the Constitution, which was created on September 17, 1787, was ratified by a sufficient number of states on June 21, 1788, and became effective on March 4, 1789. It wasn't even the date on which the Continental Congress resolved unanimously to separate from Britain; that was two days earlier, on July 2, 1776.
No, what we celebrate on July 4 are the words written to justify that resolution to the world, which were agreed to formally on that day. The words that constitute the Declaration of Independence.
Most of those words have echoed through history but hollowly. If "He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance" were enough to justify revolution, no government on earth would be left standing. The text declares by way of preamble that certain truths are self-evident, when they were widely disputed at the time and were not even directly relevant to the case being presented. And the most important truth, that the colonies did, in fact, constitute a separate people or nation, and hence were in a position to "assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them," while implied throughout, was never even properly declared, much less substantiated.
But it is those supposedly self-evident truths — "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" — for which the Declaration is remembered and celebrated.
So how do we relate to the irony that the primary author of those words, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave-owner and a white supremacist?
The irony was noted at the time by British abolitionists like Thomas Day, and by the idiosyncratic Tory Samuel Johnson, who famously asked, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" The question is very difficult to answer, and so Americans have, historically, dealt with the irony mostly by lying to obscure it. For example, the Broadway musical, 1776, has Jefferson proclaim that he has already resolved to free his slaves, but this is something he not only didn't do in his lifetime (he freed only two of his hundreds of slaves while he lived), but did not even achieve through his will (which freed an additional five). On the contrary, Jefferson's investment, financial and emotional, in slavery only increased over the course of his life, as it became clear how profitable slave labor could be for the owner (and as the Haitian revolution revealed what the consequence would be for plantation owners if their slaves took the Declaration at its word).
The custodians of Jefferson's memory highlight the ways in which Jefferson did wrestle morally with the institution of slavery, which he saw as fundamentally in conflict with republican ideals and corrosive of the character of the free, white, slave-owning population of Virginia. But he could not see a way of ending slavery without inconveniencing that same free, white, slave-owning people. So while he waited for an imagined future emancipation date, he would do nothing consequential to further the cause of the slaves' freedom. He even refused a large bequest from his old friend, the Polish nobleman and Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciusko, intended for the purchase of slaves to give them their freedom, along with land, livestock, and farm equipment to enable them to live the life of yeoman independence that Jefferson claimed to favor over all others.
What was the reason for this lethargy? Jefferson was emphatic that people of African descent could never be the equal of, nor live peaceably among, people of European descent. So Jefferson took a harsher line on miscegenation than many of his fellow Virginians (particularly ironic given that all the slaves he did free were relatives of Sally Hemings), worked to prevent freedmen from residing in Virginia, and believed (as most of his contemporaries did) that emancipation would have to be accompanied by deportation of the previously enslaved to Africa or to Santo Domingo. Jefferson could dream of a more egalitarian world in which slavery had vanished, even if he could not see how to get there. But he had a positive horror of a world where he would have to live with the descendants of slaves as equals.
My point is not to demonize the nation's third president unduly. Even Ben Franklin, president of the Abolition Society, had previously owned slaves, until he saw black children learning in school, and concluded that perhaps slavery was not their natural condition. Even Abraham Lincoln believed that after emancipation the freed slaves would have to be shipped overseas, until their valor in battle proved to him their worth as fellow citizens. Our national inheritance bequeathed to us from Jefferson is substantial, including as it does the doubling of the size of the country. But James Polk, who brought into the Union a territory of not dissimilar scope, is not honored with a temple on the Potomac. What elevates Jefferson is the Declaration. If we have hidden from ourselves the full picture of this founder, it is precisely because we do not want to admit either that he did not really believe his own fine words or that he was too cowardly and too greedy to live by them.
Of what value, then, is that loftiest part of our inheritance? Words can have a power that their authors cannot control. The Declaration's language changed nothing in Virginia, but it was echoed in the constitution of Massachusetts, where it was cited by the court to abolish slavery in the Commonwealth. The Declaration inspired independence movements from Belgium to Bolivia, Venezuela to Vietnam. Frederick Douglass, in his famous oration, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," called the Declaration the "ring-bolt to the chain of your nation's destiny." His entire speech is a scourging of the conscience of the country for so thoroughly and completely belying the promise of what the nation declared to justify its own creation. And yet the same Declaration was cited by South Carolina as precedent to justify their own secession in the cause of defending slavery.
The question left us by the Declaration is precisely how much power to attribute to the words themselves. Were they merely an empty promise unfulfilled, or were they also an inspiration? How different would history be if the Declaration had never been written, or if the Continental Congress preferred not to attach such sweeping and lofty sentiments to a list of complaints of being insufficiently defended against "the merciless Indian Savages," while also being overtaxed to pay for precisely that defense? If we note how easily the words were ignored by their own author, we might be tempted to say: not very. If we note how many people were inspired by them to die to make men free, we might be moved to say: a great deal.
As a writer, I cannot help but be inclined to the latter position. The words — the specific words — matter. Consider only as one example, how different the Declaration's history might have been had it not transformed Locke's right to property into that so-felicitously phrased right to the pursuit of happiness. In the Civil War, the Declaration would have been far more clearly enlisted on the Confederate side. Whereas, worded as it actually was, one can confidently draw a line, however meandering, from 1776 to 1967's landmark Loving v. Virginia decision abolishing restrictions on interracial marriage.
And if the words matter, then their author matters, too, because words do not write themselves. So: Was there something about Jefferson, something about America, that made such words possible? Might our hunger, our impatience, our conviction of our specialness have been the goad to the Declaration's spiritual ambition as well? If so, then it is a comic irony that this ambition has become the precious inheritance of those whom its author refused to see as kin.
Alternatively, and more in tune with our moment, we could call the author to account for his rank hypocrisies, deny any kinship with him, and renounce his inheritance as unalterably tainted. In that case, the irony is that Jefferson, the prophet of perpetual revolution who cut out any verses from his bible that offended his enlightened sensibilities, might well claim such iconoclasts even more truly as his children than those who in veneration whitewash his name.
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