Thomas Jefferson wrote some of the most famous words in our nation’s history. They also are some of the least understood.
When Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal,” he followed that phrase with “and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Without this following phrase, which explains Jefferson’s spiritual meaning of equality, the belief that human beings are created by a Creator, it is difficult, if not impossible, to grasp how a man who owned slaves could have written such words, and the response, all too often, has been to simply label Jefferson and other Founding Fathers who owned slaves as hypocrites.
But history is not that simple. Jefferson did not believe that all men — and certainly not women — were, or should be, equal in a political or social sense. In fact, he designed his Plan for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, as a plan to create tax-supported public education in Virginia in 1779, for “all free children, male and female,” to have an opportunity to attend school for the first three years before, as he explained, the schools should “rake from the rubbish” those who could profit from further education.
Obviously, Jefferson’s plan was designed to create his view of a “Natural Aristocracy.” There should be equal opportunity for all children to be educated at public expense for three years and for males to be selected and supported beyond the third-grade level. This was a major blow to what Jefferson viewed as “the artificial aristocracy,” the idea that some were born to rule simply by the accident of birth. It was not, however, what people today mean when they speak of equality. Jefferson explained his plan as follows:
“Whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance; but the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating, at their own expence, those of their children whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked.”
And yet, Jefferson did mean what he said. George Mason said it more clearly in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that Jefferson used in creating the Declaration of Independence. “All men are by nature equally free and independent” and have “certain inherent rights.” Jefferson also used the word “men” to indicate a political meaning. It is true that the word “Man” or “Mankind” also was used to represent all human beings in a spiritual sense, but Jefferson was arguing that “Men” were those who had the rights and responsibilities of governing. There was no attempt to give women the right to vote at that time in spite of Abigail Adams’ advice to John Adams in 1776 to “remember the ladies” in thinking of new laws that would be written after declaring independence. And slaves were not considered to be part of those who had civil rights in society at that time.
Thus, he addressed the Declaration of Independence to George III because he was writing to attack divine right of monarchy, and he used a small portion of this document to remind Parliament that the Men, the British colonists in America, were, or should be, equal in making laws that they would agree to obey.
As Edmund Morgan wrote in The Birth of the Republic 1763-89, “As they prepared to cast off the authority of Parliament, Americans were genuinely eager to keep their grip on the past. They had ransacked English and colonial history for precedents to justify their constitutional positions, to show that they were still true to the traditions of Englishmen…”
If one views the Declaration in this way, it is easier to understand how Jefferson’s view of equality actually contained the specific political meanings of his time and place while embodying the larger spiritual meaning of equality as well. According to Edmund Morgan, Americans were on the verge of a discovery that “would turn the course of history.” Yet, in spite of this fact, the French charge d’ affairs in London in 1767 wrote that “the Americans did not aspire to independence, but simply to equality of rights with the mother country.”
By 1776, Jefferson as a man of the Enlightenment, was writing to use Reason to justify first and foremost the break from England. When viewed from today’s vantage point, after the Civil War and more than a half century after the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, many people, including many historians, have suggested that Jefferson and the Founding Fathers were hypocrites because they knew they did not believe that “all men are created equal.” It is true they did not believe that in the literal sense in which it is interpreted today, but did that make them hypocrites? Or did it make them men living in a different time and different place who were arguing for their freedom from the existing government and who based their arguments on Natural Rights?
The answer to this question determines how we view our own history as a nation and how we understand who we are today. There were major inequalities that existed in their world view … inequalities between tribal societies and more advanced nations, inequalities between an aristocratic society and one based on Natural Rights, and inequalities between men and women as well as between slaves and free men. Have we been living a lie for more than 200 years knowing the Founding Fathers were hypocrites, or have we been trying, as they tried in their time, to find a way to create “a more perfect union” as they stated in our Constitution.
Today, we hear loud calls for Americans to renounce any of our Founders who owned slaves, even though it was these same Founders who gave us the opportunity and the concept of creating “a more perfect union.”
Today, we see many of our cities being destroyed by people who claim they have the “true” meaning of equality and know how to cure inequality. These are people who have been told that this country has been living a lie. And they are quick to label anyone with a different view as a racist who is continuing to accept the lies of the Founding Fathers.
As one who taught U. S. history for 30 years, I have difficulty with this simplistic view of our history. I believe that this simplified view has overlooked the complexity of the world in which our country was created as well as the imperfect nature of the men and women who lived in that time and in every age since then and struggled to create “a more perfect union.”
George Santayana wrote in 1905 that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” We must, however, not only remember the past but seek to understand it.
Surely, we can get a better “grip on our past” without destroying all it has to teach us.
As our Declaration of Independence says, “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”
Blanche H. Brick is a retired professor of history at Blinn College in Bryan.