“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.