Another Look at Thomas Jefferson and the Issue of Slavery in America

thomas-jefferson

All this talk about removing the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State Capitol has got me thinking about the founding fathers. We always hear that the Declaration of Independence was a big joke because people like Thomas Jefferson were racist slave owners. From what I’ve been able to find, nothing can be further from the truth. You could argue that Jefferson President and they could have written the abolition of slavery into either the Declaration or Constitution to begin with, but you have to remember that they weren’t the only people involved in the founding of the country and there were many other factors that prevented them from doing so.

Thomas Jefferson is probably the one person among all the Founding Fathers attacked the most for being a slave owner, which is true, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t try to abolish slavery. In fact, Jefferson tried several times to free slaves. In his second draft of the US Constitution he wrote, “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.” Jefferson included similar language in his third draft as well. After that measure failed, Jefferson tried to abolish slavery in his own State via his draft of the Constitution for the State of Virginia. Unfortunately, that portion of the draft was also denied by the final decision of the State.

Before his presidency, Thomas Jefferson was engaged in communication with French minister François de Marboias about the issues of race and slavery. You can read about these conversations in his book, “Notes on the State of Virginia“. What I find most interesting about this is how he criticized the effects slavery had on both whites and blacks. Jefferson believed that slavery destroyed the industriousness of whites calling it “the most unremitting despotism” while simultaneously being a form of “degrading submissions” for blacks. Basically, he believed that in addition to being inhumane, slavery made white people lazy and dependent on their slaves.

Getting back to the relationship between Jefferson, the Confederacy and South Carolina, more than 50 years before the civil war, Jefferson wanted to have all slavery abolished by the year 1800. To do this, he wrote into the Land Ordinance of 1784 a provision stating that “after the year 1800 there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of them.” This provision was struck down by a majority vote, a motion offered by Richard Spaight of North Carolina and seconded by Jacob Read of South Carolina. Jefferson later spoke of Spaight calling him a “young fool” and about the vote itself he said, “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime.” In a sort of compromise, as President, Jefferson called on Congress to put forward a law banning the importation of slaves. He referred to the international slave trade as a “violation of human rights.” Thankfully, his pleas were heard and in 1807 he signed the Act Prohibiting the Importation of Slaves. By 1808, every State had passed similar legislation except for one – you guessed it, South Carolina.

Final Thoughts

As we discuss this issue of the Confederate Battle Flag over the State Capitol of South Carolina, it’s imperative that we look beneath the surface of history into all these details. To some people, that flag means more than racism – rebellion, heritage, state’s rights, etc. To others, it’s a reflection of South Carolina’s racist past. Personally, I agree with the idea that it should not be held up by the State as something that they’re particularly proud of, but at the same time, I can see it’s historical significance. Ultimately it’s not a decision for the average American or even the President to make, it comes down to what the people of South Carolina want, let them decide, but let’s not forget the past either.

This country is great because it’s the one country where We, the People, have the power and everyone is held equally accountable under the law, regardless of sex, race or religion. Everyone has the same inherent, unalienable rights in America. Surely you can make the case that this isn’t exactly true across the board, and there is plenty of evidence to support those claims, but again, that’s what’s great about America – it’s We, the People. The Founding Fathers, despite their flaws, were smart enough to set us up with a form of government that not only protected our rights, but gave us the tools to fight back and change our government whenever we saw fit to do so.

The Great Experiment that is America was always meant to be a work in progress. Perfection is impossible to achieve and the State of Utopia may never be reached, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress. Look at the reaction to this news so far… nine innocent people were killed solely because of their race and yet the community came together. We’ve seen other cases across the country like those in Baltimore and Ferguson where race was considered by many to be a factor, and riots broke out – not in Charleston. We’re making progress every single day, getting ever closer to the dream our Founding Fathers envisioned for us. Don’t be misled by those trying to divide us. Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Muslim, Christian and Jewish, we’re all Americans first. We stand together or we hang separately. Be strong.

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