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Universal principles

Annette Gordon-Reed

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.

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