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Racism and Rights: America’s Long, Complicated History

Many of America’s founders were slaveholders yet wrote eloquently about the rights of man. To understand Jefferson, Washington and the rest, we need to see them for what they are, not for what we wish they had been.

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Should we take these liberty-loving slaveholders seriously? How can Thomas Jefferson have written “all men are created equal,” and owned as many as 600 fellow human beings in the course of his life?

Eight of the first 12 presidents were slaveholders. All of them were advocates of the “rights of man,” and yet they bought other human beings at public auctions, tracked down escaped slaves, whipped and beat and broke the recalcitrant, at times sold enslaved children purely for the market, and were free — if they chose — to rape female slaves more or less at will. As John Adams put it when he heard the Sally Hemings story, it might not have been true with respect to Jefferson (it was), but there was no reason to believe that the exploitation of Africans and African-American enslaved people would magically stop at the boundary of sexual access. Sexual exploitation is implicit in slavery, as the current global pandemic of global sex trafficking proves.

The great constitutional convention of 1787 nearly broke down several times over the issue of slavery. Northerners among the 55 delegates rightly understood that crafting a constitution in the Age of Enlightenment that enshrined and perpetuated slavery was, among other things, an appalling hypocrisy. Southerners refused to accept any constitution that meddled with what they regarded as their property right in other human beings. The Southerners were so powerful — they held the process hostage — that they even induced the convention to adopt the infamous Three Fifths Clause that counted every five slaves as three for the purposes of apportionment and representation. 

Northerners rightly objected to the South’s insistence that their numbers in Congress should be augmented by counting enslaved people who could not vote, hold public office, or even testify in court against a white person. Northerners argued that if black people were property, then they should not have any effect on representation. But the Southerners held their ground. The Three Fifths Clause (a compromise that favored the South politically as well as economically) had a huge impact on electoral politics in the period up to the Civil War. Jefferson’s enemies fairly, if ungenerously, called him the “Negro President,” because he probably could not have been elected in 1800 without the political weight that the Three Fifths Clause gave Southern states. 

The Constitution of 1787 addresses slavery eight times, never by name. That alone tells you a great deal. If “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names,” as Confucius put it, why were the Founding Fathers unwilling to use the word "slave" in the national charter of the United States, since they were without question protecting and perpetuating slavery? The Constitution refers to slaves by way of three different euphemistic formulations: “other persons” (Article I, Section 2), “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit”  (Article I, Section 9), and a “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof” (Article IV, Section 2). As Abraham Lincoln put it half a century later, “Thus, the thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.”

Virtually all the people Jefferson respected most in the world were abolitionists: Dr. Joseph Priestley, the French philosopher Condorcet, Thomas Paine, Richard Price, Alexander Hamilton, Lafayette, Alexander von Humboldt, Dr. Benjamin Rush and John Adams, among many others. They all had to tiptoe around the problem of slavery in their communications with Jefferson, because it was understood that to confront Jefferson directly on the issue was to cause him to withdraw into Stoic silence, possibly forever. 

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson rightly confessed that “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. ... The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.” And, in a more apocalyptic tone, he asked, “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? 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.” Asked and answered. 

And yet Jefferson freed only a handful of slaves in the course of his lifetime and at the time of his death in 1826 (on the Fourth of July!). When in 1814 the young Virginia idealist Edward Coles tried to enlist Jefferson to press for an emancipation scheme that would have sent freed slaves west to take up homesteads and trades under careful white supervision, Jefferson not only refused to endorse the plan, but did his best to talk Coles out of it. Jefferson said he was too old to take on such a quixotic labor: “this, my dear Sir, is like bidding old Priam to buckle the armour of Hector ‘trementibus aevo humeris et inutile ferrum cingi.’ No. I have overlived the generation with which mutual labors and perils begat mutual confidence and influence. This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man.” 

People of my daughter’s generation (she is 25, a graduate of Columbia) would say, “What a bunch of crap.” This same “old man,” 71 at the time of this letter, still had enough gas in the tank to conceive, design and establish the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, thus anticipating Emerson’s famous dictum that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” Coles persisted without the help of the American statesman most closely associated with the principle that “all men are created equal.”

Jefferson gets all this attention because more than other Founders, he was the one who uttered all those high-minded bromides about the rights of man. The author of the Declaration of Independence is going to get special scrutiny. Although Madison, Monroe, Washington, Patrick Henry, George Mason, and all the Randolphs were slaveholders, Jefferson has become the poster child for the racism of the Founders and the unresolved race tensions that were one legacy of the Founding generation. 

There are still people, including scholars, who make the best case for Jefferson they can. They say he tried to push for immediate or gradual emancipation as a young Virginia legislator and got his fingers burned. They say he would have done more if political conditions had permitted it. He knew that if he went to the mat over slavery, his usefulness in other Enlightenment reforms in Virginia and America would be shattered. He wound up being one of the most quoted of the Founders in the anti-slavery debate, thanks to the better of his two passage on slavery in Notes on Virginia. They say he could not free his own slaves because he didn’t actually own them, given how deeply he was in debt most of his life. He treated his slaves better than other plantation owners. They say he had the “wolf by the ears”: he could neither hold on nor let go, as he famously put it in in a letter to John Holmes on April 22, 1820. These rationalizations all bear a germ of truth, but they seemed much more persuasive a generation ago than they do now.

So, if the Founding Fathers were hypocrites on the question of race and slavery, perhaps contemptible hypocrites, where does that leave us? Should we blast Washington and Jefferson off Mount Rushmore, pluck down the statues of all the perpetuators of slavery, refuse to quote their high-minded pronouncements any longer because we can see that they are tainted with the blood and sweat of enslaved women, men, and children? Should we simply regard Jefferson and Madison as bad men, whose fundamental sins are so grave that they leave no room for the rest of their achievements? 

These are hard questions. And there is no single right answer to them. Where you stand depends on where you sit. As a privileged white scholar, I can wrestle with these questions in the mahogany of my study, knowing that I have never been racially profiled, denied housing, pulled over by toxic cops, or beaten or shot for the crime of walking through a white neighborhood while black. My own response to this problem is something I have to think about virtually every day because I am a Jefferson scholar and race has overwhelmed the Sage of Monticello like a tsunami of pent-up moral indignation. Nevertheless, I have the luxury of looking at these issues with a certain historical detachment. I would not be able to say that if I were black.

My view (at least the one I hold at this time, this year, this week, but stay tuned, because we are all in a steep learning curve just now) is that we still urgently need the Jeffersonian ideals even if we now wish to condemn Jefferson the slaveholder. We need his preamble to the Declaration of Independence even if the man who put those words to paper was unequal to their universality:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. 

Condemn the man Jefferson if you like, but the plain truth is that nobody has ever said it better, more clearly, and with more confidence. Jefferson himself later wrote that his mission had been “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.” Virtually every revolutionary movement from 1776 until today has found its way back to these words — words that belong partly to Jefferson, but principally to the Enlightenment, whose greatest creation was the United States of America. Elizabeth Cady Stanton echoed Jefferson in her 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. Ho Chi Minh invoked the preamble in his long crusade to free Vietnam from foreign domination. The African-American activist David Walker challenged white Americans in 1829 to "See your Declaration Americans!!! Do you understand your own language?" More recently, Martin Luther King Jr., invoked Jefferson’s words in his famous I Have a Dream speech on the Washington Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. King framed his demands by way of a financial metaphor:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."


Dr. King then told white America, now we are bringing that promissory note back to the bank of American justice and this time you are going to honor the check. 

It was Abraham Lincoln who understood the promise and the limitations of Jefferson’s Declaration better than perhaps anyone in our history. In a letter to Henry L. Pierce, et al., on April 6, 1859, Lincoln wrote, “All honor to Jefferson — to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” 

Lincoln understood that the unique cast of Jefferson’s mind was to be able to see the universal and the eternal through the miasma of the present and the immediate. Lincoln understood, too, that the words “all men are created equal” were going to have a continuing revolutionary potency that the Founders might have found surprising, that the Founders might have found profoundly troubling; but it did not mater, because the Founders were dead and the Americans of 1858 had to interpret those words not only in their original, perhaps contingent, sense, but in the larger, more universal context of human aspiration. In the years before he was elected president, Lincoln thought hard about the Declaration of Independence (which he would famously invoke at Gettysburg), and tried to figure out how to think about the words “all men are created equal” as he approached the most difficult crisis in American history. 


His conclusion is a work of practical genius — just what one would expect from Lincoln, who had the most basic prose style of any president in American history, and who pursued his goals as a decidedly pragmatic idealist (much to the chagrin of the towering idealists of his age). Lincoln decided that it no longer mattered what precisely Jefferson and the Founders thought they heard in those words. What mattered now was how those words could advance the ideals of the American republic four score years after Jefferson sat down with a quill pen in breeches and buckled shoes in his boarding house on Market Street in Philadelphia. In a sense, Lincoln was endorsing Jefferson’s favorite principle that “the world belongs to the living not the dead.” Lincoln concluded that if the words “all men are created equal” mean anything then they must now mean everything, that no matter what Jefferson might say if he could be resurrected to parse his famous document, the United States could not go on unless we chose to read those words in the most inclusive and universal way possible. Slavery must end. 

Africans and African American men and women must now be seen as being fully covered by the words “all men.” The United States had taken a limited reading of Jefferson’s words as far as it could go — from Sally Hemings to the Dred Scott Decision March 6, 1857, in which Chief Justice Taney, writing for the majority, said African Americans were “of an inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” So constituted, said Lincoln, the United States could not continue. 

Lincoln saved the country. Lincoln saved the historical standing of Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln read Jefferson’s famous words back to him, without malice or righteousness, and said they were going to have to be embraced in their fullest, most aspirational, sense if we were going to be able to carry on as a nation. He did not discard Jefferson. He did not judge Jefferson. But he decided to embrace the universal human rights advocate rather than the racist, the great exemplar of the Enlightenment rather than the provincial Virginia slaveholder. 

The cultural revolution in America (1963-2020) that has forced a sober re-evaluation of what we thought we knew about, well, everything, has given voice to tens of thousands of individuals whose lives were lost or ignored in the previous historiographical paradigm. The list reads like something out of Whitman: women, African Americans, including enslaved people, Latinos, children, industrial workers, craftsmen and women, Native Americans, Creoles, people of mixed heritage, agricultural laborers, urban immigrants, labor unionists, subsistence farmers, and many others. Our understanding of American history is almost infinitely richer for this revolution, this widening of the lens, this embrace of “forgotten Americans.” The cultural revolution has also caused us all to think again about the triumphalist narrative that used to pass as Truth in American studies. This re-evaluation of the things we thought we knew, things we thought were settled and unambiguous, is painful, sometimes very painful, and at times the pendulum seems to swing too far too fast. But we are a dramatically better and more interesting people for seeking the truth rather than throwing up walls to protect us from a more mature understanding of our history and its cost.

Once you have looked through these new lenses, you can never think of Thomas Jefferson in quite the same way again. He emerges as a more complicated figure than we thought, more problematic, more troubling, more compromised. That does not (for me) negate his importance or his greatness, but it casts a permanent shadow over his life and achievement. Every time we now extoll his great achievements — Monticello, the University of Virginia, the Louisiana Purchase, the Library of Congress, his fabulously lucid and graceful letters, his collections of artifacts from the American West, some of them delivered to him by his hand-picked explorer and protégé Meriwether Lewis, his great book Notes on the State of Virginia, we must place an asterisk at the end of the sentence:

  • The University was built by enslaved people.*
  • Lewis and Clark were the harbingers of an imperial dynamic that would dispossess Native Americans of much of their culture and most of their land.*
Jefferson was able to write these graceful letters because enslaved people catered to his every need, from helping him bathe his feet in cool water in the morning, to emptying out his chamber pots so he could see himself as a cousin to Bach and the Minuet rather than Jonathan Swift and the Yahoos.We still need the Founding Fathers — and mothers, too, like Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, and Phillis Wheatley — but we need to try to see them for what they are, not for what we wish they had been.

For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book "Bring Out Your Dead: The Literature and History of Pandemics" is available at 

Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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