By Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe Columnist
July 4, 2010
‘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.
Examples are legion. At a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society rally in 1854, William Lloyd Garrison condemned the Constitution — which extolled “the blessings of liberty,’’ yet permitted slavery — as “a covenant with death, and an agreement with hell.’’ When a bill requiring public school students to recite parts of the Declaration of Independence was proposed in the New Jersey legislature in 2000, it was denounced as insulting. “You have nerve to ask my grandchildren to recite the Declaration,’’ one black lawmaker erupted angrily. “How dare you?’’
In 1975, in an essay marking the approach of the nation’s bicentennial, the eminent historian John Hope Franklin accused the Founders of “betraying the ideals to which they gave lip service.’’ Obviously, he wrote, “human bondage and human dignity were not as important to them as their own political and economic independence.’’
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’’?
Inveighing against slavery on Independence Day in 1852, Frederick Douglass famously asked: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?’’ It was a “sham,’’ he answered, “empty and heartless . . . revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy.’’ For after all, he demanded, “Are the great principles . . . embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?’’ That Declaration could have been written without those great principles. But at what cost to Douglass and all who fought against slavery?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’’ The Founders chose those words not to describe the nation in which they lived, but a better, more just nation; the nation America could become. Their words became the American creed, the taproot of the American dream — as worthy of celebrating today as they were in 1776.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.