Questioning Thomas Jefferson
It doesn’t seem that long ago, but it has been a couple of years since I wrote a post, objecting to a Thomas Jefferson quote. A friend of mine liked the quote and published it on one of her online social networking accounts. To this day, she still has it up as one of the quotes she likes. The quote that bothered me is this:
“There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.”
The quote’s inherent concepts, implications, and effects still bother me. But it wasn’t until I was watching PBS’ “Moyers & Company” last night that several other feelings and ideas came to my attention and into more light, helping me better understand why I reflexively had such a strong negative response to it.
We Americans tend to glorify our “Founding Fathers,” probably like most nations do. Every nation probably would like to think their progenitors and male patriarchs were smarter and nobler than average. But in “the land of the free,” our Founding Fathers were probably as self-serving, self-preserving, and self-interested as the rest.
Last night, Bill Moyers delivered a candid, beautiful essay on Jefferson, The U.S. Constitution, and Independence Day. His intent was to give a more truthful recounting of the original U.S. Constitution’s provisions and intents.
“Welcome. Here comes the Fourth of July, number 236 since the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence and riders on horseback rushed it to the far corners of the thirteen new United States — where it was read aloud to cheering crowds. These days our celebration of the Fourth brings a welcome round of barbecue, camaraderie with friends and family, fireworks, flags, and unbeatable prices at the mall.
But perhaps, too, we will remember the Declaration of Independence itself, the product of what John Adams called Thomas Jefferson’s “happy talent for composition.” Take some time this week to read it — alone, to yourself, or aloud, with others, and tell me the words aren’t still capable of setting the mind ablaze. The founders surely knew that when they let these ideas loose in the world, they could never again be caged.
Yet from the beginning, these sentiments were also a thorn in our side, a reminder of the new nation’s divided soul. Opponents, who still sided with Britain, greeted it with sarcasm. How can you declare “All men are created equal,” without freeing your slaves? Jefferson himself was an aristocrat whose inheritance of 5000 acres and the slaves to work it, mocked his eloquent notion of equality. He acknowledged that slavery degraded master and slave alike, but would not give his own slaves their freedom. Their labor kept him financially afloat. Hundreds of slaves, forced like beasts of burden to toil from sunrise to sunset under threat of the lash, enabled him to thrive as a privileged gentleman, to pursue his intellectual interests, and to rise in politics. Even the children born to him by the slave Sally Hemings, remained slaves, as did their mother. Only an obscure provision in his will released his children after his death.
All the others — scores of slaves — were sold to pay off his debts. Yes, Thomas Jefferson possessed “a happy talent for composition” — but he employed it for cross purposes. Whatever he was thinking when he wrote “all men are created equal,” he also believed blacks were inferior to whites, inferior, he wrote, “to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” To read his argument today is to enter the pathology of white superiority that attended the birth of our nation.
So forcefully did he state the case, and so great was his standing among the slave-holding class, that after his death the black abolitionist David Walker would claim Jefferson’s argument had “injured us more, and has been as great a barrier to our emancipation as any thing that has ever been advanced against us,” for it had “…sunk deep into the hearts of millions of the whites, and never will be removed this side of eternity.”
So, the ideal of equality Jefferson proclaimed, he also betrayed. He got it right when he wrote about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As the core of our human aspirations. But he lived it wrong, denying to others the rights he claimed for himself. And that’s how Jefferson came to embody the oldest and longest war of all — the war between the self and the truth, between what we know and how we live.”
~ end of excerpt ~
After listening to Moyers’ commentary above, Jefferson’s quote of “There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people” is more unsettling. Jefferson was not only racist, believing whites were genetically superior to “blacks” and other minorities, but he was also sexist. He crafted the original U.S. Constitution to be the core legal instrument to define both slaves and all women as less valuable than Caucasian men. All of his eloquence with words could not hide the fact the original US Constitution was designed to promote enslavement of African-Americans and to deny equal rights to women. The original US Constitution was designed to promote the preservation and selling of slaves and other property in order to protect the wealth of the Caucasian privileged classes. Voting rights were narrowly and carefully limited so only white men would be able to determine the laws of the land. Native Americans, in most of our country’s founding documents, were completely devalued, defined as “savages,” supporting the core rationales for policies of not only theft of all Native American property, but even more horrific, the systematic, legally condoned, government-enforced, and militarily-enabled genocide of Native Americans.
One of Jefferson’s characteristics that bothers me the most is he clearly had a long-term, social and sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, and he denied the existence and nature of the relationship. As a result, he ended up treating and defining his own children as slaves and under-class citizens during his lifetime. He wasn’t supposed to fall in love with “that kind of inferior woman.” He wasn’t supposed to be in “that kind of sexual relationship.” So, to save his reputation, employment, and social standing, he repeatedly threw his significant other and their children under the bus. Two of his four children with Sally Hemings were freed when they came of age. The other two were not freed during his lifetime. They were only released from slavery after his death, through a provision in his will.
It’s an awful thing when someone mistreats a stranger. It must be a special kind of hell to mistreat your significant other or children. Although, it is disturbingly amazing the cruelties a human mind can justify when it is given enough cultural messages and convinces itself to treat others unequally.
If you take more than a cursory look at Jefferson, you’ll discover some interesting facts:
Not only did Jefferson regularly sleep with, have sexual relations with, and have children with his slave Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was also likely the half-sister of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, because Martha’s father, John Wayles, an attorney and slave trader, also had sexual relations and children with his slave Betty Hemings, Sally Hemings’ mother.
The hypocrisies, contradictions, and misrepresentations in Thomas Jefferson’s personal and public ethical gymnastics were multi-layered.
Why do these things bother me in present day?
As an advocate for LGBT individuals and their relationships, I’m troubled when LGBT individuals feel they need to hide their relationships in order to save their reputations, social contacts, and jobs.
There are still many people who have secret, loving relationships. These relationships sometimes remain secret because the individuals don’t want to lose their jobs or social standing. When significant others are hidden, they often are devalued or belittled. The two things almost always go hand in hand. The one often leads to the other. And there is no one on this planet who should be loved only in hiding. There is no significant other who should be treated as a member of an inferior social class.
The issues of “sexuality and love in the arts” have always been with us. Principles of equality and fairness continue to be present day challenges. It’s always been a good idea, and it continues to be a good idea, to treat people equally and fairly, even if you judge them to be “unequal” or “inferior” by your standards.