America’s July 4th holiday celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. But only 2 percent of Americans consider him the greatest president, while 11 percent think William Jefferson Clinton deserves that title.
If educated Americans are asked what the Declaration is all about, many quote: “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.” Among the most famous words ever written, yet a 10/03 poll told us that 66 percent of adult Americans don’t know it’s from the Declaration. (It also reported 53 percent not knowing that the first 10 amendments are the Bill of Rights.) George Gallup, Jr. is correct: “These findings are cause for deep concern. If knowledge of the basic components of American history and civics are lost, then the American system of representative democracy could be lost as well.”
Gallup’s stricture must be amended to make it even harsher. Scroll Jefferson up to our day. He would say that our US already bears no resemblance to his hopes for his new republic. His last written words, in 1826, said of the Declaration,
“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.”
Yet today’s President prays daily, even as his air force and naval academies admit to gross violations of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State.” Still, Bush’s fanaticism has its unintended positive effects. Intellectuals are reexamining church/state relations. Christopher Hitchens’s Thomas Jefferson: Author of America is one of the more publicized works in the growing genre.
Much contemporary writing on Jefferson focuses on the reality that the author of “all men are created equal” freed none of his slaves in his will except his mistress, Sally Hemings, and their children. Hitchens correctly points out that she was related to his late white wife and that there was no rape involved. Indeed the real issue is the fact that the man who didn’t free his other slaves started his political career in 1769, at 26, in colonial Virginia’s legislature. His first bill was “for the permission of the emancipation of slaves,” by individual slaveholders, “which was rejected.” Hitchens, with everyone else, sees this as his tragedy. But he contributes nothing to its explanation. “One is impelled to the slight suspicion that the young man was breaking a moral lance in a battle he could be sure of losing.” Except that “one” doesn’t give any evidence for his suspicion.
Jefferson’s early writings about slavery were sincere and sometimes sublime. Of course he saw what it did to the slaves. And slavery turned masters into mindless despots. But in the mix are prejudices no sane white still believes in. He gave his emancipation plan in his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia. Blacks born after passage would be free-born. Educated, they would be colonized to a place under US protection, to become fully sovereign. “Why not retain them and incorporate the blacks into the state?” He lists “deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained.” These will “produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
He gives other objections, “physical and moral.” Among these are Blacks’ “own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran-utan for the black woman over those of his own species.”
Blacks were dumb. And “the improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites … proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their conditions of life.”
But he was no kluxer. Science was still primitive. The Notes refutes the notion of George Buffon, Europe’s prestigious scientist, that American animals are degenerate compared to European equivalents. Jefferson points to the absence of even one naturalist survey on Blacks or Indians. The cautious scientist takes over: “The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations… I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks … are inferior.”
His tentative belief in black inferiority was in no way a rationalization in favor of slavery. In 1784, in Congress, he proposed that slavery be prohibited in what are now Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and the land north of the Ohio River. However, under the pre-constitution Articles of Confederation, seven state delegations had to vote for it. Because a delegate was ill, New Jersey couldn’t vote and the bill failed: “The voice of a single individual … would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading… Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven is silent in that awful moment!”
With Article I, Section 9 of the 1787 Constitution, “importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight,” the slavery question went into political limbo.
In our times it is possible for the oppressed to win. Therefore we are duty bound to fight for their liberation. But we can’t condemn Jefferson, then, for not waging a Quixotic struggle for immediate emancipation. Lincoln put it perfectly: “To the extent that a necessity is imposed upon a man, he must submit to it. I think that was the condition in which we found ourselves when we established this government. We had slaves among us; we could not get our constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery; we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more.”
In 1791, Benjamin Banneker, a free black, sent Jefferson a copy of the Almanac he had written, and called upon him to acknowledge black intellectual equality. Jefferson truthfully replied: “I thank you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. 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 the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.
History’s tragic contradiction deliberately closed with a courtly, “I am, with great esteem, Sir, your most obedient servant.” Hitchens doesn’t give us a word of Jefferson’s letter. Instead we have: “But he never quite believed that black poets or Black scientists, from Phillis Wheatley to Benjamin Banneker, were able to produce anything worthwhile on their own, or unaided by superior example.”
What the first great republican thinker of modern times couldn’t foresee, precisely because none went before him, whose mistakes he could study, was that submission to necessity, contrary to his principles, slowly but surely distorted his ability to understand the evolution of southern slavery and the northern capitalism that ultimately destroyed the institution. He rejoiced at Banneker’s letter. But he was then Secretary of State in a government protecting slavery. Later, as President (1801-17), he couldn’t recognize Haiti, where Blacks killed or drove out their masters. And he, who had tried to stop slavery at the Alabama line, didn’t try to ban it from Louisiana when he bought it from Napoleon. By 1820 he further capitulated. Missouri had been carved out of the Louisiana Territory and sought statehood. Under the Missouri Compromise, it was admitted as a slave state, but slavery was barred north of it. Jefferson, in retirement, usually ignored politics. “But this momentous question, like a firebell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union … there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way … we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go … as the passage of slaves from one state to another, would not make a slave of a single human being … so their diffusion over a greater surface would … proportionately facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation.” Retired, his late 70s, with no feel for contemporary affairs, he saw the new attacks on slavery as a scheme by the Federalist enemies he defeated to make a comeback. He wanted slavery to end, but had no understanding re the mechanisms of economic evolution.
Socially isolated at Monticello, he read, in Greek for preference, and he wrote incessantly. In 1819-20 he took a razor to the 4 Gospels, removing all traces of supernaturalism, producing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It is so coherent that readers must have a King James Bible handy. That’s the only way to see how much he disposed of.
Defeated by necessity on slavery, his thinking was as strong as ever re religion. He and Madison, his protege, then ally and successor, had triumphed, first in Virginia, where they disestablished the episcopalianism they were born into. Then he convinced Madison to author the Bill of Rights. Madison had initially felt it would only prove a parchment barrier. Then, in 1802, President Jefferson publicly defined the first Amendment as building “a wall of separation between Church and State.”
The Virginians didn’t get everything they wanted. Once Madison was convinced of the need for the Bill of Rights, he wanted it to hold for the states as well as the national government. But, beyond Virginia, these would only enter the proposed new federal regime if they were allowed to keep their religious establishments and discriminations. (Application of the 1st Amendment to states only came in the 20th century via Supreme Court interpretation of the post-slavery 14th Amendment as enforcing it everywhere.) But Jefferson and Madison correctly felt that their spirit would triumph even in Federalist Massachusetts, the citadel of their pious Tory enemies, which indeed disestablished Congregationalism Church in 1833.
Jefferson died feeling that the Declaration, announcing the first popular based republic in modern times, and his “wall of separation between Church and State” were his inseparable legacies. Truly so. But Hitchens’ comments on this run from arbitrary to absurd:
“Having originally written that rights are derived ‘from that equal creation,’ he amended the thought to say that men were ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” thus perhaps attempting to forestall any conflict between Deists and Christians.”
Evidence for this? None. But surely his depiction of old Jefferson is his strangest notion:
“Jefferson more than once wrote to friends that he faced the approaching end without either hope or fear. This was as much to say, in the most unmistakable terms, that he was not a Christian. As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment if only because of the prudence he was compelled to observe during his political life.”
Again Hitchens doesn’t provide a speck of evidence for Jefferson the atheist. His Federalist enemies often accused him of atheism but Hitchens isn’t denouncing him for it. Too the contrary, he suggests it because he is an atheist who wants Jefferson to be such as well.
Hitchens invents worlds to suit himself. I ran into him after the then- leftist announced himself as an opponent of abortion. I asked what the response was: “I caught hell for it. So I’ve decided that it has to be legal under capitalism. But when we get socialism, it should be banned.” Whether we will ever see socialism here is, at the least, iffy-maybe. But a socialist regime surprising its supporters by outlawing abortion, ranks as one of the most fantastic ideas imaginable. Narcissism, ‘I want it, therefore it should be so,’ was and is the core of his character.
In addition to nonsense about oran-utans and black women, Jefferson also wrote that “Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victim to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest.” After we see enough such from him and other serious thinkers, we are supposed to learn a profound truth: The burden of proof is always on the maker of a positive statement. We are absolutely forbidden to talk about anything we can’t back up with evidence.
Nonsense like this is rare in Jefferson. He usually writes intelligently, indeed memorably, about things he knows. But unsubstantiated speculation is Hitchens’ core methodology. It helps to explain his decades-long career of crank political leaps like anti-abortionism.
As to the real Jefferson, although the retired president never joined the movement, in 1822, well past any need for political caution, he “confidently” expected “that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States.” He didn’t join because “I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its Votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and Confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus.”
You don’t need to read anyone’s book about Jefferson. Read him. With his faults, he was a gifted writer. Come to your own conclusions as to his proper place in history. Until then, have a happy 4th of July.
LENNI BRENNER is the editor of Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. He also edited 51 Documents: Zionist Collaboration with the Nazis. He can be reached at BrennerL21@aol.com.