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Universal principles

On the election of the United States' first African-American president

Guest commentary

Barack Obama's inauguration opens another chapter in the history of race relations in the United States. He is very fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln, and seems his natural heir. Certainly the victory that Lincoln achieved over the South helped make the long and tortuous path to Obama possible. It is, however, worth remembering Jefferson's role in Lincoln's bold attempt to remake race relations in the United States. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address used Jefferson's iconic words in the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created equal" to help prepare the nation for the end of slavery and the incorporation of black people as full participants in American society. While many applauded the idea, others, then and now, were critical. "Surely," they said, "Jefferson didn't mean black people. He owned slaves." Over the years, as other relatively powerless people or disfavored groups have used that phrase to demand a share of the American dream, they, too, are often met with the answer, "Jefferson didn't mean you." While I would be among the last to deny the fun of trying to figure out what Jefferson meant in a given situation, wondering whether he believed "all men are created equal" in the way Lincoln meant it or we mean it, has always struck me as beside the point when considering claims for full inclusion in American life. Although it is the foundational document of America, as it established the break with Great Britain, the words of the Declaration are not law in the way the Constitution is law. They are a statement of universal principles written in soaring language. Like all great works of art, its meaning announces itself to each who reads it. "All men are created equal," therefore, can and will have meaning to people throughout the generations. I suspect Jefferson knew this.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED is Professor of Law at New York Law School, Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, for which she received a 2008 National Book Award.


Roger Boer's picture
Should Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers have given over power to the Slaves hundreds of years ago? Look at the mess Africa is in and how far South Africa has fallen in terms of quality of life for those new in power. It is appaling. Time to stop blaming slavery for the economic and cultural woes of an entire race.
Roger Boer (not verified)
TP's picture
I applaud Professor Gordon-Reed's well-reasoned and well-written (as usual) statements above. Would that some responding to her writings were as reasoned and as disciplined.
TP (not verified)
Jim Brooks's picture
As an admirer of Jefferson, I was revisiting the Monticello website. As an admirer of Professor Gordon-Reed, I navigated to this page and enjoyed her perspective on the question of what Jefferson meant in the Declaration and how the meaning changes from generation to generation while still proclaiming the same truths that define the best of the American character. Jefferson was generally an optimist, predisposed to believe in the triumph of intelligence over ignorance. What an appropriate contrast, then, between Professor Gordon-Reed's words and those of Roger Boer.
Jim Brooks (not verified)
Patricia's picture
I clearly understand that this is a “Thomas Jefferson Today” page and NOT Barack Obama or Abraham Lincoln page; however Ms Gordon-Reed brings out these subjects in her writings, in an attempt to tie them to Jefferson. Personally, I don’t see how we can compare Jefferson’s time with today’s time concerning slavery. I feel that most of us are so tired of the race card being played on every corner. Can’t we ever move past this and get over it? NO one today has ever been a slave and NO one today ever owned a slave. What I really want to comment on is Gordon-Reed’s reference to Obama and "his hero" Abe Lincoln. It seems that not only has Ms Gordon-Reed never picked up a true history book, but neither has Obama! Ms. Gordon-Reed states that Lincoln believed in equality of “all men” and that this is what he meant in the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln was one of the worst racist who ever walked. On many occasions, Lincoln proclaimed that he believed blacks were inferior to whites: "Negro equality? Fudge!" -- Abraham Lincoln, Fragments: Notes for Speeches, Sept. 1859 (Vol. III) "If I could save The Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it" -- Abraham Lincoln, in a letter to Horace Greeley "I am a little uneasy about the abolishment of slavery in this District [of Columbia]." -- Abraham Lincoln, 1862 "The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these [new] territories. We want them for the homes of free white people." -- Abraham Lincoln, October 16, 1854 "I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality; and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in the favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary." -- Abraham Lincoln, "Lincoln's Reply to Douglas, Ottawa, Illinois, August 21, 1858," in "Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy P. Basler (New York: Da Capo Press, 1990), p. 445 "I will say, then, that I am not nor have ever been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the black and white races---that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with White people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the White and black races which will ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the White race." -- Abraham Lincoln, "Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858, Charleston, Illinois," in "Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings" (New York: Library of America, 1989), p. 636, and in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 5, page 371 "Free them, and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this.... We cannot, then, make them equals." -- Abraham Lincoln, "Lincoln's Reply to Douglas," p. 444 "What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races." -- Abraham Lincoln, Spoken at Springfield, Illinois on July 17th, 1858; from Abraham Lincoln: Complete Works, 1894, Volume 1, page 273 "We know that some Southern men do free their slaves, go North and become tip-top abolitionists, while some Northern Men go South and become most cruel masters. When Southern people tell us that they are no more responsible for the origin of slavery than we are, I acknowledge the fact. When it is said the institution exists, and it is very difficult to get rid of in any satisfactory way, I can understand and appreciate the saying. I surely will not blame them for not doing what I should not know what to do as to the existing institution. My first impulse would possibly be to free all slaves and send them to Liberia to their own native land. But a moment's reflection would convince me that this would not be best for them. If they were all landed there in a day they would all perish in the next ten days, and there is not surplus money enough to carry them there in many times ten days. What then? Free them all and keep them among us as underlings. Is it quite certain that this would alter their conditions? Free them and make them politically and socially our equals? My own feelings will not admit of this, and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of whites will not. We cannot make them our equals. A system of gradual emancipation might well be adopted, and I will not undertake to judge our Southern friends for tardiness in this matter." -- Abraham Lincoln in speeches at Peoria, Illinois "I acknowledge the constitutional rights of the States, not grudgingly, but fairly and fully, and I will give them any legislation for reclaiming their fugitive slaves." -- Abraham Lincoln in speeches at Peoria, Illinois "The point the Republican party wanted to stress was to oppose making slave States out of the newly acquired territory, not abolishing slavery as it then existed. " -- Abraham Lincoln in a speech at Peoria, Illinois "I have no purpose directly or indirectly to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." Abraham Lincoln's Inaugural Address on the Capitol steps, 1861 "Do the people of the South really entertain fear that a Republican administration would directly or indirectly interfere with their slaves, or with them about their slaves? If they do, I wish to assure you as once a friend, and still, I hope, not an enemy, that there is no cause for such fears. The South would be in no more danger in this respect than it was in the days of Washington." -- Letter from Abraham Lincoln to A.H. Stephens, Public and Private Letters of Alexander Stephens, p. 150 "My paramount object, is to save the Union, and not either destroy or save slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing the slaves, I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing some and leaving others in slavery, I would do it. If I could save it by freeing all, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps save the Union." -- Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Horace Greeley "Judge Douglas has said to you that he has not been able to get an answer out of me to the question whether I am in favor of Negro citizenship. So far as I know, the Judge never asked me the question before. (applause from audience) He shall have no occasion to ever ask it again, for I tell him very frankly that I am not in favor of Negro citizenship. (renewed applause) If the state of Illinois has the power to grant Negroes citizenship, I shall be opposed to it. (cries of "here, here" and "good, good" from audience) That is all I have to say." -- Abraham Lincoln, Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 1857
Patricia (not verified)
Brett's picture
Jefferson thought the slave trade was an abomination and made this clear to Britain in the Declaration of Independence but that portion of his writing was removed by Congress. Jefferson was not happy with the changes. It is clear to me he believed "all men are created equal" - including blacks (I can't believe I have to write that). Jefferson, a very complex and dynamic person, was undoubtedly one of the most influential leaders in the founding of our country. I dare anyone to read of this man and form an opinion that he was not one of the catalysts in the Emancipation Proclamation. His actions helped pave the way for understanding the need to end slavery.
Brett (not verified)
Gabriel Lewis's picture
Thomas Jefferson goal was to set in motion to make all people of this country equal. The Declaration of Independence was the blue print for this course of action.
Gabriel Lewis (not verified)
Matthew Bollinger's picture
I just find it simply appauling that we still, to this day, put this much time and energy into continuing the race debate. The year is 2009, we all are brought up to recognize the reality in the statement "all men are created equal". The ill-educated minority that still see others as a color before anything else do not influence our children. When can society put it away for once and agree that we no longer see colors as we once did? The answer should be now. Let us instead focus on Jefferson's support of the hemp plant as a crucial part to a young U.S. economy. Why on Earth would such an intelligent and insighful man come to the conclusion that it is imperative to use hemp as a cornerstone import/export to our young economy?
Matthew Bollinger (not verified)
Pete's picture
To Brett- enlighten yourself and read "Notes on the State of Virginia," the only formal book ever written by Jefferson. You may be surprised when you realize that Jefferson argued, rather effectively too, that blacks were a sub-human race. The only question in his mind was whether they were seperated by distinct biological differences and were just a totally different race all together, or if their inequalities were a product of their "situation." I would also be curious as to where you read Jefferson was happy with the changes made in the Declaration because from what I've seen his feelings were disinteresed at best; The original charge against slavery used some of the most heated words of all the charges- I don't think he expected it to make the cut. It is, however, evident that his words lit the spark of the emancipation. But the original intent could not, and did not, include blacks. The fact that his words can be called upon from people like Douglass, and Lincoln essentially means Jefferson was wrong. Jefferson could never have lived up to his words during his time; there is no doubt that the words were greater than the man.
Pete (not verified)
Chantal's picture
Roger Boer? As in Boer War? Clearly, all the comments point to the problem of our human construction of racism. If Mr. Boer drew out his ideas a little more, I think he would agree that it is the racism that justified slavery that was and is the problem in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South Africa....and in North Africa, the United States, and the rest of the world, for that matter. All people have a fear and a suspicion of The Other, and Africa is no exception. Not just extreme cases like Rwanda. I've had a Yoruba man say to me, "Be careful of those Hausa. They are all teefs (thieves)" or a Hausa man say of the Yoruba: "You know, we had fire before they did. They are all ignorant people down there." Like a Frenchman telling me, after a night when drunken young Frenchmen went into a Gypsy Roma camp outside Montpellier and torched everything in sight, "Well, they deserved it. You know, they are all criminals, and the children are the worst." And so it goes. The economic selfishness and cruelty that arises from racism is a legacy that Africa and other areas of the world have to deal with every day. Our own economic "mess" right now is a familiar one to Africa. And to the fascinating exegeses from Patricia: we've read that Lincoln was a racist before. All the more remarkable that the Emancipation Proclamation ever came to be. The same question about Jefferson arises about Lincoln---were the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation just political moves brought on by crises? Just good words, not beliefs of their authors? Patricia seems to have decided on the answer. The question for me that Ms. Gordon-Reed and other scholars must have had to wrestle with is Jefferson's duality: Unlike Lincoln, Jefferson actually owned slaves and fathered slave children. Did Jefferson's writings on slavery in Notes on Virginia come to his mind to justify the cruelty of his ownership of slaves and of his long relationship with Sally Hemings, or did he separate his writing and thinking from his own life and write from a purely abstract view, using typical "Enlightenment" techniques of inquiry, treating slavery as just another topic of scientific inquiry? Maybe both, no? Did he cringe with guilt when he thought about his relationship with Sally or punish his slaves? or did he ever give it a second thought? noblesse oblige? How did he and his guests sit around a lavish dinner in Monticello, grown, harvested, prepared and served by slaves, and openly discuss the inferioriority of the African race and the question of sending the Africans back to Africa? Did they think they were like the Greek and Roman upper classes, and so justify slavery as a part of history, just a part of life? So Jefferson could justify cruelty to slaves because there had been slaves in all of history? Or did he write to try to convince himself? I like to think that the Thomas Jefferson of today, unbound by the 18th century plantation life and social mores, would be involved in using nanotechnology research to solve problems of pollution and power sources, would have gathered funds for the recent launch of the Kepler to Cygnus, and would use his Enlightenment ideals and his faith in rationality to study the origins of racism, the problem of racism, and would be meeting with other intellectuals to try to find a way to eradicate racism from the human condition.
Chantal (not verified)
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