Jeff Jacoby meditates on the Declaration of Independence and on its glorious phrasing contrasted with the reality of chattel slavery.
He argues that charging the Founders with hypocrisy is simplistic hindsight and points out that the Founders themselves were aware of the contrast between the lofty language and the reality of the subjugation of the chattel slave. A nugget:
The Founders weren’t stupid. Of course they knew that the universal ideals embraced in the Declaration were not matched in reality across the colonies. The controversy over slavery was intense; but even more intense was the need for a united front against England. The urgent choice in 1776 was not between slavery or abolition. It was between hanging together, as Benjamin Franklin supposedly quipped in Philadelphia, or most assuredly hanging separately. They chose to hang together, and the confrontation over slavery was left for later.
But in that confrontation, the lofty ideal of equality enshrined in the Declaration — precisely because it was enshrined in the Declaration — imparted enormous moral authority to the abolitionists’ cause. Those who indict the Founders because their treatment of African slaves didn’t come up to the standard of “all men are created equal’’ should be asked: Would the Declaration of Independence have been improved if those words had been omitted? Would slavery have ended sooner had abolitionists not been able to invoke that “self-evident truth’’?
The men of 1776 did not create chattel slavery in the English-speaking colonies; it was part of the reality into which they were born. Slavery in the New World was long-established in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies when slaves first arrived in Virginia in 1619.* Even as many of the Founders held slaves, most of them knew that it was wrong. Jacoby refers to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia:
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.–But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one’s mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.
Jefferson’s wish for emancipation with the consent of the masters, of course, was not fulfilled. Only one American society managed to end slavery peacefully: Brazil in 1888. And in all countries racial and ethnic bigotries persist, even until and beyond today.
Without imputing moral equivalence, I make an analogy which I believe is valid from a sociological and economic point of view, if not from a moral one (and, as we consider the death, devastation, and human exploitation which accompanies what is now oh-so-politely referred to as “extraction,” I wonder whether a degree of moral equivalence also appertains):
Disentangling the 18th Century North and South American societies from slavery was, I think, comparable to disentangling modern societies from fossil fuels. Many do not want to do so; fossil fuels are the source of wealth for some and convenience for all. Many deny the dangers of the present course, not because the dangers are not apparent, but because they wish not to see them. And even those who want to change the present course are not sure how, even as they are certain it is necessary.
Ultimately, the United States was unable to end chattel slavery without war. Attempts to recreate slavery and subjugation of former slaves and descendants of former slaves under persisted overtly for a century following that war and covertly much longer, even to this day. The aftermath of chattel slavery greets every American with the dawn and walks with him and her in the street.
I do not wonder that the Founders failed to grapple with it.
*When I was wee bairn studying Virginia history in fourth grade in a Virginia public school, the text book called 1619 the “Red Letter Year,” for it saw
- the arrival of the first English women to the Virginia colony for marriage to the colonists,
- the first meeting of the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first elected legislature in the English speaking colonies, and the
- the arrival of the first Negro (probably indentured, not chattel) servants.
I wonder whether it’s taught the same way these days.
Aside: As a Virginian, I am obligated to point out that, in 1619, the Pilgrims had not yet set sail for the New World.