We had a bizarre commenter to our recent Louis Farrakhan post, who challenged us to prove that Jews were held in bondage in Egypt back in the day. As we had just thrown out our last Certificate of Bondage in a fit of spring cleaning (issued by Rameses himself, with his thumbprint), we demurred, and suggested she look to other sources, of which there is no shortage—but she demurred.
A Nation of Islam disciple herself, she claimed that black people—AND ONLY BLACK PEOPLE—met criteria for being Chosen. (No Jews need apply.) As there was no honest exchange of viewpoints, and as she grew more hostile and bigoted as we tried to draw her out, we had to show her the door (the front door, I assure you).
But I hope she’s still around to read Jeff Jacoby’s interesting piece on the meaning of slavery and liberty:
‘HOW IS it,’’ the great English man of letters Samuel Johnson taunted Americans 235 years ago, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?’’ His fellow Englishman Thomas Day remarked in 1776 with equal scorn: “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independency with the one hand and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.’’
That America’s founders were hypocrites, above all on the subject of race, is an enduring charge.
As it should be: each generation needs to come to terms with this.
But let the record show that the British Empire did not abolish slavery itself until 1807, long after Johnson’s snarky comment. Most of Europe (and its colonies abroad) followed suit around the same time. So the slave trade was not unique to America, but almost universal.
Are the Founders guilty as charged? There is no denying that the patriots who proclaimed it “self-evident’’ that “all men are created equal’’ tolerated black slavery. It is true that the Declaration of Independence, which so stirringly affirms that God endows every human being with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’’ was the work of a Virginia planter who owned 200 slaves.
So, yes, it is easy to damn Jefferson and the other Founders for not living up to their highest ideals. But if that is all it takes to be convicted of hypocrisy, how many of us would escape conviction? Surely what is more remarkable about Jefferson is not that he owned slaves, but that he acknowledged forthrightly and repeatedly that slavery was wrong. In his “Notes on the State of Virginia,’’ for instance, he characterized slave ownership as “the most unremitting despotism’’ — an outrage bound to provoke divine wrath. “Indeed,’’ Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.’’
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’’?
People similarly point out the depraved inhumanity in the Constitution of describing slaves as 3/5 of a human being. But they don’t recall or realize that discounting of human value was a compromise that favored the North. Representation in Congress would be based on population, and if slaves counted as one person, their numbers would have weighted the country toward the Southern way of thinking. Without gaining any rights or liberties, they would guaranteed a slave-holding nation in perpetuity.
Still, this was a very unsatisfactory position for a nation to be in—something Abraham Lincoln remarked on in 1863.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Less than a century after the Declaration, the nation was being tested on its rhetoric of equality. The very life of the nation depended on its passing that test (and on the lives of the men who died at Gettysburg and elsewhere that it might pass). To Lincoln, the Civil War was the unfinished business of the Revolution and the Founding.
And to Martin Luther King, business was still unfinished:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
Long-time readers will know this already, but I think our nation’s critics miss the mark when they cite slavery. By about a hundred years. No other nation went to war to abolish slavery, slaughtering 620,000 men in the process. Evil as slavery was (and still is), I’d rather live in Thomas Jefferson’s America than in Robert Byrd’s. The century of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the KKK—that is America’s unique shame.
I may be wrong, but I think we finally got it right in the last 45 years (almost 200 years too late).
Before she scuttled off back to the arms of Minister Farrakhan, I would have liked to hear what our Krazy Kommenter thought of that. I would also liked to have know what the Nation of Islam’s position is on centuries of the Arab (Muslim) slave trade—which is thought to have exceeded the American slave trade, and which is still going on.
Yes, I would have liked that very much.
Happy 4th of July, and God Bless America.