New Jersey state senators who condemn the Declaration of Independence contradict themselves. They would bar the words of the Declaration from the schools, because they believe the men who wrote it were hypocrites and racists. The authors of the Declaration said "all men are created equal" but, we are told, they only meant white men.
A bill that would require schoolchildren to recite the key part of the Declaration was tabled on Monday after 90 minutes of heated debate. "It is clear that African-Americans were not included in that phrase," said Sen. Wayne Bryant. "It's another way of being exclusionary and insensitive . . . How dare you? You are now on notice that this is offensive to my community."
Heartfelt words, no doubt. But Sen. Bryant is wrong. If he and his colleagues would condemn the Founders for hypocrisy on the question of race, then they find themselves in agreement with the Declaration of Independence. So they ought to be happy for their children to know what it says.
What did Thomas Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries really think about the rights of black people? What should we tell our children about them?
True, Jefferson did not liberate his slaves. But he did propose a gradual emancipation law in Virginia in 1779. And as president in 1807, Jefferson was actively campaigned for abolition of the slave trade.
In fact, Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence included a passionate condemnation of slavery, on the explicit basis of the slaves' humanity:
[The King of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people . . . captivating and carrying them into slavery . . . . Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has [suppressed] every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce . . ."
And consider this, one of Jefferson's most famous and important statements, taken from his Notes on the State of Virginia:
For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature. . . . And 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.
In light of these facts, can we doubt that Thomas Jefferson truly believed all men, regardless of color, to be equal in their natures, and slavery to be a terrible wrong? Jefferson may not have lived up to these beliefs, but he was not a hypocrite.
And do not forget the other Founders, some of whom, like George Washington, liberated their slaves, and many others of whom, like Benjamin Franklin, never held slaves. To a man, these Founders condemned slavery in no uncertain terms. "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of [slavery]," Washington wrote. Franklin called slavery "an atrocious debasement of human nature." And James Madison said that "We have seen the mere distinction in color. . . a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man."
Could the Founders' generation have done more to eradicate slavery? No doubt about it. But this is mitigated by two important facts. First, that the Founders brought into the world the principles that make war on slavery, indeed, the only principles that are effective in making war on slavery. They laid down, for the first time in history, the rights of every human being as the standard by which every government and every law should be judged. They risked their lives for that principle.
Second, the principles they articulated stand as a challenge to every generation, including our own. When Abraham Lincoln led the nation through a Civil War that extinguished slavery, he did so by appealing to America's founding principles. It is not clear that this generation is capable of meeting the challenge.
It is a difficult task to achieve a system of government that treats all of its citizens as equal before the law. Before we cast stones at the people who made this system possible, we should examine our own success in it. It is indeed a sign of the times that the New Jersey State Senate cannot agree on this