Thomas Jefferson has been a character of interest lately, with President Bill Clinton often alluding to the third president of the United States as his role model. In October, The Forerunner, ran Cleon Skousen’s article which documented some of the biblical principles which influenced young Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy.
As I peruse the pages of this paper each month and am led through the history of this illustrious nation, I find myself asking the same question each time: “Where is the mention of slaves and the intensities of slavery brought upon the minds of our country’s founders?” My silence is broken today, in similarity to the voice of that fiery abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison.
When the October issue of The Forerunner mentioned Thomas Jefferson in only flattering terms, I quickly took objection.
It has been documented numerous times that great American leaders, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, gained their beautifully architected plantations as well as regional prominence in society at the hands and backs of the slaves they repressed on their many properties. In fact, Thomas Jefferson is presently pointed in today’s history classes as a model of contradiction – on the one hand demanding the rights of man, on the other enslaving innocent humans in his obvious white supremacy. Even in letters to his intellectual associates in Europe, Jefferson reveals his sentiments by referring to blacks as lazy, slow, unable to reason, lacking in imagination and even spoke against their “unsightly appearance.”
Owning over 200 slaves, Thomas Jefferson never freed one of them – even upon his death – sighting legal reasons.
Furthermore, let us never so adore the constitution of the United States as to believe that “the language in the Constitution and the framers’ concept of natural law could be construed as condemning it (slavery),” as Ron Auvil states in his article “The elections of 1856 and 1992.” This is simply not true. This very document impugns itself by regarding slaves as three-fifths of one person for the purpose of apportioning taxes and representatives. The constitution also forbids congress to prohibit importation “of such persons as the several states shall think proper to admit.”
The constitution serves as a written testament to the pro-slavery sentiment the conventioneers were willing to adopt for a nation’s founding, albeit a faulted founding.
Let not this paper serve the opponents of orthodox Christianity as testament against us by ignoring the racism their forefathers placed upon our shoulders, thus encouraging us to ignore our own sins.
Jerry D. Jones
Response from The Forerunner:
So be it. Racism is a problem that has perplexed the human race since it began. The only answer to this problem is found in Christianity. This fact is attested to by the Christian faith of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Lyman Beecher and many other brave men and women who voiced their discontent rather than be silenced by the prevailing views of their peers.
Thomas Jefferson is to be included in this group. While it is true that Jefferson is portrayed in modern history classes as a white supremacist, a deist and a racist, this is, in fact, historical revisionism at its worst. Modern students of history ought to ignore their secular education and go straight to the facts. Students of a historical figure ought to research the character by reading the words of that man or woman themselves, not of secondary sources, as these often reflect the researcher’s bias on a particular issue.
Whenever The Forerunner highlights the character of a man or woman who has contributed to our nation’s Christian heritage, we are never implying that the person was without fault. We are neither attempting to prove that America is the best nation on earth; nor that our founding fathers were better than those of other nations. We are merely trying to unearth America’s Christian heritage which has been obscured by modern history textbooks.
What do modern educators have to gain by distorting the true character of Thomas Jefferson? If we read the words of Jefferson himself, we find that he was silenced even in his own day. At the time of the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson revealed his frustration with the other American delegates for ratifying a document that, in his mind, should have been passed without debate. He also records that his clause condemning slavery was censured by the committee:
“The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.“1
Jefferson’s anti-slavery clause originally appeared under the list of grievances to the king of Great Britain:
“He has waged cruel wars against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
In further research, we were unable to find Jefferson’s negative references to blacks. We found instead numerous quotes that tend to support the opposite view: “That all men are created equal.” To Jefferson, inferiority was something imposed on a people; it is only tyranny or the enslaving of a race or gender that brings repression.
For instance, on the subject of the treatment of Native American women by their men, Jefferson wrote:
“The women are submitted to unjust drudgery. This is the case with every barbarous people. With such, force is law. The stronger sex therefore imposes on the weaker. It is civilization alone which places women in the enjoyment of their natural equality.“2
Jefferson believed that if civilization were allowed to run its natural course, all races would achieve equality:
“Before we condemn the Indians of this continent as wanting genius, we must consider that letters have not yet been introduced among them. Were we to compare them in their present state with the Europeans North of the Alps, when the Roman arms and arts first crossed those mountains, the comparison would be unequal … How many good poets, how many able mathematicians, how many great inventors in arts or sciences had Europe North of the Alps then produced? And it was sixteen centuries after this before a Newton could be formed.“3
It is true that Jefferson remained an agrarian aristocrat all his life and that his estate owned slaves, but he was a man ahead of his time. He always believed that if the citizens of our country were enlightened, that people of all races, male and female, would be entrusted with the blessings of liberty without hindrance by the federal government.
1 The Autobiography of Thomas Jefferson. The text used here is from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. A.A. Lipscomb and A.E. Bergh (1903).
2 Notes on the State of Virginia. Norton edition, edited by William Peden (1954).