Every few years since college, around the Fourth of July, I have given some attention to Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. About a decade ago, I started giving similar attention to Frederick Douglass and his "What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?" speech about which I wrote a year ago.
This year, more than others, it seems timely and appropriate to contrast Jefferson and Douglass' thinking about the Fourth of July, imaging them conversing, confronting, reconciling their convictions and contributions to American history. Much is made of Jefferson and John Adams reconciling and dying the same day July 4, 1826, when Douglass would have been about 8 years old. To understand America’s racial history it may be more important to try to understand what Jefferson and Douglass, icons of their respective eras, contributed to two Fourths of July — one in 1776 and then in 1852.
Jefferson, of course, is best known for writing "all men are created equal endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights" while enslaving several hundred people whom he had inherited from his father and his in-laws. He depended on those enslaved people to build and maintain Monticello while he was educating himself, doing scientific experiments, legislating, engaging in international diplomacy, writing "Notes on the State of Virginia," designing a university, and serving as the third president of the U.S.
Jefferson was quite busy and accomplished a great deal and should certainly be grateful, if not obligated, to the contributions of enslaved people.
Jefferson, it appears, opposed slavery even as he benefited and depended on it. The first draft of the Declaration of Independence criticized King George III for allowing slavery but the drafting committee deleted the paragraph to satisfy South Carolina. Jefferson advocated for improving the living and education conditions of enslaved people, as well as the gradual emancipation of them. He wanted to prohibit slavery in new territories, and advocated for in re-colonizing enslaved people to the West Indies or Africa because whites and slaves were "two distinct nations."
Douglass was a staunch opponent of re-colonization, believing that he was an American and was not relocating anywhere.
So, Jefferson, a man of great intellect and political imagination, did not find a way to outlaw slavery nor free his own enslaved people. Jefferson wrote that maintaining slavery was like holding "a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."
Jefferson is responsible for the legal and cultural conditions that enslaved millions of people of African descent, including Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery and bought his freedom. He become an international citizen leading the cause of abolition.
Douglass became a world-class author and orator, a newspaper editor and a national government official. He may be Jefferson’s equal in his diplomatic skills and international travels.
On July 5, 1852, Douglass delivered an address that was more than courteous to our founders, describing them as great men, statesmen, patriots and heroes and said that they should be remembered for the good they did. He referred to the Declaration in saying they "staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" on the cause of their country and then in a phrase, which I believe is the best answer of how America has struggled with our racial history for 250 years, he added: "In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests."
Douglass nailed it: We almost always pick individual rights over social justice.
Douglass’ description of the legacy of the Fourth of July to American slaves is painful to read and should have disturbed Jefferson saying, the Fourth is:
"A day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages."
Douglass concludes with irony and the observation on American hypocrisy saying: “I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. . . the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I begin, with hope, while drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions."
Jefferson and Douglass were both revolutionaries in demanding that government be directed "by the consent of the governed." Jefferson wrote that we should never go 20 years without a rebellion so that "the part that is wrong will be discontinued." When asked what advice he would give younger blacks to gain their freedom, Douglass responded "agitate, agitate, agitate."
2020 is not the time to remove and reduce attention to our political ancestors who do not meet modern day standards of acceptability. Rather, it is the time to imagine how our founders would have reconciled with their political descendants to embrace corrective decisions and actions.
Douglass’ thoughts and life would have given Jefferson the insight and courage to do what he knew was right. We can each do that now.