“Contextualizing” Jefferson

The University of Virginia Board of Visitors has decided to add “context” to the statue of Thomas Jefferson near the University Rotunda. Their decision comes on the heels of a similar decision by a Washington D.C. task force to “remove, relocate or contextualize” the Jefferson Memorial in the nation’s capital. Removal and relocation of the Jefferson Memorial are unlikely. But if D.C. officials follow the approach of UVA’s Board of Visitors and attempt to “contextualize” Thomas Jefferson, they should do so in a manner emphasizing Jefferson’s outsized role in ending the institution of chattel slavery.

American slavery was not ended simply by force of arms. Slavery was abolished by way of debate, the exchange of ideas, and a vote by the people of the United States to adopt a Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In that debate, no one’s words and ideas were more important than Thomas Jefferson’s.

Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and the single most important paragraph on freedom in American history. “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.”

These words, radical in their time, embrace every member of the human family. They are as true as the morning sun, and yet have never been so stunningly and incontrovertibly declared as by the young Thomas Jefferson at the threshold of the American Revolution.

In the decades following the Revolution, it was slavery’s defenders who tried to erase or minimize Jefferson’s words so they could justify slavery. In perhaps the most reviled Supreme Court opinion of all time, Dred Scott, Chief Justice Roger Taney claimed that Jefferson’s words should not be taken seriously, and instead argued that from the country’s beginning, black men had “no rights that white men need respect.”

Many abolitionists knew that Taney had read the Constitution backwards. In fact, Jefferson’s words had been grafted into the American Constitution itself. The Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights declared that no person could be denied life, liberty, or property without first receiving due process of law. If that phrase sounds familiar, it’s because “life, liberty and property” was nothing less than a rewording of Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

As abolitionist Charles Sumner declared, the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause was the legal enshrinement of Jefferson’s self-evident truth. Blacks were undeniably persons—persons who had been wrongly denied the natural rights due every man.

Expressly rejecting Dred Scott, the new Republican Party embraced the application of Jefferson’s Declaration in the federal territories and made it foundational to their party platform. In 1860, when the country elected the Republican Abraham Lincoln, the southern states refused to accept defeat and announced their secession from the Union. And war came.

The Thirteenth Amendment was not a repudiation of the original Founding, but instead represented the fulfillment of America’s founding creed.

Although his political party had committed itself to allowing slavery in the states, Lincoln soon found himself moving the country toward Jefferson’s Declaration. At Gettysburg, Lincoln embraced Jefferson’s words and described America as a country “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That same year, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in rebel-held territory.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not, and constitutionally could not, put a permanent end to slavery. That would require an amendment to the Constitution.

In the early months of 1864, Congress debated the addition of a Thirteenth Amendment and the permanent abolition of slavery. Democrats denounced the abolition amendment as unconstitutional. They insisted that the American people had ratified an anti-black, pro-slavery constitution and that banning slavery betrayed the original vision of the Founders. Republicans rejected this Dred Scott-infused, white supremacist reading of the Constitution. Instead, Republicans insisted that Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to the Declaration of Independence and its inescapable declaration of equal rights represented the true foundation of the country and its Constitution.

It would take two rounds of voting to get it done, but on January 31, 1865, Congress passed an amendment declaring that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The language of the Thirteenth Amendment was copied from the 1787 Northwest Ordinance which declared “[t]here shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” When Democrats tried to argue that the United States was founded on slavery and white supremacy, Republicans simply pointed to the language of the Northwest Ordinance as proof that the country embraced abolition even before it embraced the Constitution. Even if the Constitution allowed individual southern states to institute slavery, one of the foundational laws of the American people embraced abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment was not a repudiation of the original Founding, but instead represented the fulfillment of America’s founding creed.

And, it just so happens, the language of the Northwest Ordinance came from the same pen that authored the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson. The words that inspired the abolitionist movement and the words that constitutionalized abolition both came from the extraordinary mind at Monticello.

During his life, Jefferson could not disenthrall himself from the institution of slavery. No doubt, those seeking to “contextualize” Jefferson want observers to know that the man who wrote the inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence could not bring himself to live those words in his personal life. But this sad truth must include its own contextualization. Jefferson’s words outlived the man and went on to inspire the movement that ended slavery and informed the very words of the abolition amendment itself. Those who gaze upon monuments dedicated to Thomas Jefferson must know that the works of this man did more to end slavery in America than any other single person in American history. That Jefferson himself was flawed makes that achievement all the more remarkable, and worth a visit to his memorial.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on September 18, 2020 at 10:33:59 am

Jefferson deserves praise for his idealistic vision of human possibilities and his statement "All men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence. But his opposition to slavery was not unique. Almost everyone in the eighteenth century saw slavery as an evil. The phrase, "life, liberty, and property," comes not from Jefferson, but from John Locke. Jefferson's anti-slavery credentials should be recognized along with the racist statements he expressed in his Notes on the State of Virginia, which helped popularize the idea of race that dominated the U.S. in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century (and beyond).

read full comment
Image of Alexander Ormond Boulton
Alexander Ormond Boulton
on September 18, 2020 at 11:22:52 am

I learned at a young age that the word words were influenced by one Amos, a largely unknown colleague of Benjamin Franklin and were part of an agreement to refrain from animal cruelty--sort of an eighteenth century woke moment.

That off my mind and the quality of my library in the open, i can comment on this more freely, Republicans such as George Mason proposed immediate abolition of slavery. The deep South was opposed to this because their concept of agriculture was limited to the role of being a mercantile colony--the outcome of the Conflict of 1861-65 thus deccided. And Mason also kept slaves until his death.

read full comment
Image of Earl Haehl
Earl Haehl
on September 18, 2020 at 22:30:39 pm

Do you happen to have a reference or link about your Amos anecdote? Always fun to learn more about those kind of historical details.

read full comment
Image of R2L
on September 18, 2020 at 16:24:51 pm

Professor Lash has made a worthy plea for "a truth universally acknowledged," that comprehending the content of a man's life is contingent on considering the context in which he acted. Yet, to appreciate context is to understand history, to know biography and to practice humility, alien subjects, now, for going onto three generations of mal-educated, self-absorbed, maladjusted minds wasted by K-16 education.

read full comment
Image of paladin
on September 18, 2020 at 22:29:08 pm

In 1776 Jefferson was 33, no longer a young man in the context of the times, but an experienced legislator and philosopher of law. Only two more years and he would have met the criteria established in Article II in 1787 to be President, except it happened that that "other Virginian" was even more unanimously revered. As I recall, he also asserted that his language in the DOI reflected the American Mind as it had developed over the preceding seven or so decades of colonial (near) self rule, including a certain "don't tread on me" outlook and providing real world evidence for the maxims presented by Locke even earlier (consent of the governed, etc.). I read not too long ago that until their revolutionary fervor took hold, most colonial land owners of substance (such as Washington) sought to expand their estates as gentlemen of repute and skill, aspiring to emulate the landed gentry in England. Only after their "rights as Englishmen" came into question did their orientation go in the revolutionary direction.

I am unhappy to see the (near?) certainty with which Thomas Jefferson is presumed to have fathered children by Sally Hemmings. Given the "context" it is possible, even probable, that he did so, but (to my current knowledge) the genetic evidence does not say he is clearly their parent, nor does historical knowledge of proximity by other relatives/ candidates (brother Randolph, nephew?, uncle?) preclude the possibility of their contribution to the Hemmings family. Until superior evidence is available, the state of ambiguity should be maintained for historical accuracy (i.e., our real understanding of the situation).

read full comment
Image of R2L
on September 21, 2020 at 14:28:06 pm

One might reasonably wonder if any of the descendants of people saved by Oskar Schindler condemn him for having been a member of the Nazi party. There appears to be a measure of unearned privilege in living in safe times where individual conscience is consistent with popular moral sentiments. It is a particularly annoying kind of arrogance that believes that history should turn its back on people because they had the misfortune of living in times of moral dilemmas, and are subject to the judgments of people who live comfortably without such burdens.

It may be the case that Schindler was in a position to save Jews, precisely because he was Nazi. It may be that Jefferson was in a position to influence the course of slavery precisely because he owned slaves, and therefore less likely to be dismissed as an abolitionist zealot. These are, at the very least possibilities. It may also be the case that in the late eighteenth century the issue of slavery was not as Manichean as it seems from the remove of two centuries. As noted previously, more than half of the members of the New York Manumission Society, a society obviously that disapproved of slavery, themselves owned slaves, and had to appoint a committee to explore how best to go about freeing them. People who do not at least recognize these issues would seem to lose a bit of the moral credibility that they can otherwise seek to claim for themselves, only because the difficult issues were resolved by imperfect people making tough choices a hundred and fifty years ago.

The post-modern view is that anyone who is a man of his time is a fallen man; that the only person worthy of consideration is the prodigy, the man in advance of his time. It seems reasonable to observe that people are shaped by their circumstances, and that it is unreasonable to denigrate historical figures for whom this is also true. It is unreasonable to assume that the only people worthy of remembrance are those whose moral and ethical attitudes were insensitive to the times and circumstances in which they lived. It is worth asking whether we should expect anything worthwhile to come of these morally arrogant condemnations, that seem intended not to change the world for the better, but to bolster the self-regard of the ones doing the condemning. If there were no moral dilemmas there would be no need for morality in the first place. To denigrate those from the past who did not perfectly conform to our contemporary, comfortable moral preferences, unchallenged by real-world contingencies, seems dismissive of the nature of culture, morality and character, all in pursuit of a cheap and gaseous self-regard.

read full comment
Image of z9z99
on September 21, 2020 at 18:09:18 pm

I'm standing on a three-legged stool right now, and I'm going to hold my breath until the New York Times, advocate for judging all historical figures and events by contemporary moral standards, renounces at least two of its Pulitzer Prizes which, according to today's moral standards AND the standards at the time of the Pulitzer awards, were immorally granted and morally offensive, one to its reporter Walter Duranty for his journalistic defense of Stalin and the lie that the Holodomor did not occur and the 2d Pulitzer for the NYT's unflagging promotion of the Trump-Russia collusion lie.

read full comment
Image of paladin
on September 22, 2020 at 07:41:56 am

I live sixty miles from Mr. Jefferson's house and visit it at least once every year. In a Commonwealth which has apparently lost its collective mind, visiting where the Great Man lived and died is a source of true solace. I ride the bus to the summit but always walk down, passing the cemetery where he is buried, and though no believer myself, I always look at his monument and say, "Help us. Please help us." Somehow that makes me feel better, too. Unfortunately, the Board of Visitors has become infected with the "woke" nonsense that has polluted Mr. Jefferson's town, Charlottesville, too. Help us, Mr. Jefferson, please help us.

read full comment
Image of James Wills
James Wills

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.