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Throwing Thomas Jefferson Under the Bus: The Denial of Racial Equality

Thomas Jefferson, 1801.
Thomas Jefferson, 1801.

One of the largest obstacles in the justification of slavery was none other than Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver himself. Though Jefferson owned upwards of 600 slaves throughout his lifetime, he was also a vocal advocate of gradual emancipation. He called slavery an “execrable commerce,” an “assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberties.” 1From a deleted section of the Declaration of Independence, as quoted in Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (Macmillan, 2012).

The Declaration of Independence claimed that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While written by one of Virginia’s largest slaveowners, this was a sentiment that needed to be explained, especially by those enslavers who, unlike Jefferson, paid no hollow lip service to the manumission of their slaves.

Like Jefferson, they certainly could have lamented the necessary evil of slavery, casting always a winking eye toward a utopian future devoid of human chattel – but ultimately, they did not. As we’ll see, three of the most prominent Southerners: John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and Alexander Stephens, referenced Thomas Jefferson in three differing ways to draw the same conclusion: slavery was not only the proper position for African Americans, but also essential to a functional society.

Alexander Stephens

In his pitch to sell the new Confederate constitution to the Southern people, Alexander Stephens, the new nation’s vice-president, explained an important difference between the two documents. While the United States Constitution was ambiguous about slavery and white supremacy, the Confederate counterpart was not. “Its foundations are laid,” Stephen spoke famously, “its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Alexander Stephens, 1860.
Alexander Stephens, 1860.

In his speech, Stephens quoted Thomas Jefferson, as many were wont to do. Stephens, however, was not grabbing a Jefferson quote to prove his point, but was taking the founding father to task for “fundamentally wrong” ideas. Stephens doubted that when Jefferson said that slavery was the “rock upon which the old Union would split,” he fully comprehended how true that was. 2I cannot for the life of me source the actual quote. Curiously, abolitionist Wendell Phillips also pulled this Jefferson quote for a speech made two months before Stephens’ – “Disunion,” given on January 20, 1861. “Jefferson died foreseeing that his was the rock on which we should split.” Both are probably paraphrasings.

Stephens insisted that had Jefferson known, had all the founders understood that slavery was not about to face its extinction, ideas such as equality would never have entered into the creation of the Union.

According to Stephens, Jefferson and “most of the leading statesmen” entertained the idea that “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically.” This, along with the belief that slavery would “pass away” was, by Stephens’ assertion, wrong. “They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races,” Stephens continued. “This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it – when the ‘storm came and the wind blew, it fell.'” 3A paraphrasing of Matthew 7:27.

Jefferson, in Stephens’ accounting, was simply wrong. All men were not created equal, and the Confederate Constitution recognized that. 4Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” Savannah Republican, as reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War (National Publishing Company, 1886), 717-729. Stephens believed himself to have a fine grasp of both the United States and Confederate Constitutions, as well as upon Thomas Jefferson. The Confederacy’s President, Jefferson Davis, however, might have disagreed.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis, 1850.
Jefferson Davis, 1850.

While Stephens took Thomas Jefferson at his word and found him in error, Davis took Jefferson’s words and redefined them for his own purposes. As there was no denying that Thomas Jefferson actually said that all men were created equal, Davis argued in his Farewell Speech to the Senate that the founding father didn’t mean all men, but only “the men of the political community.” Though Jefferson said that, “there was no divine right to rule; that no man inherited the right to govern,” what was meant was that “all stations were equally within the grasp of each member of the body-politic.”

The Constitution, Davis held, rendered his version of Jefferson “more palpable” as it “made for that very class of persons as property; they were not put upon the footing of equality with white men – not even upon that of paupers and convicts….” This was a very commonly held view among patriotic enslavers, though many Constitutional abolitionists heartily disagreed. 5Jefferson Davis, “On Retiring from the Senate” January 21, 1861. As appearing in the Congressional Glob, 36th Congress, 2nd Session, 487. 6For instance, anti-slavery Constitutionalists argued that since the Constitution never mentioned the word “slave,” and referred to slaves as “persons held in service,” that they were indeed included in the “all men are created equal” idea. Contrary to Davis’ insistence, the United States Constitution did not actually classify slaves as property.

John C. Calhoun

Both Stephens and Davis were well versed in the orators of the South, including John C. Calhoun. Both had much in common with Calhoun. For instance, Stephens and Calhoun held that slavery was critical for civilization. 7John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good” speech, Works of John C. Calhoun, Vol. II 625-633. Stephens, for his part, expresses this in the Cornerstone Speech. Davis and Calhoun shared the view that the Union was created by the sovereignty of the states, and that the federal government was strictly limited. Likewise, both believed that the slave states needed equal representation to the free states. Where all three diverged was Thomas Jefferson’s words on equality. 8 William J. Cooper, Jefferson Davis, American (Vintage, 2000) 210.

John C. Calhoun, 1855.
John C. Calhoun, 1855.

Calhoun argued that this sentiment expressed by Jefferson were based upon the philosophers John Locke and Algernon Sydney – which Calhoun called a “hypothetical truism.” He conceded that this equality might be held if there was no government, when each man is his own master, but that even “the worst form of government is better than anarchy.” He did not agree with Jefferson that all were born with liberty and equality, but instead claimed that “they are high prizes to be won.” He called the idea of all men being equal as “the most dangerous of all political errors,” claiming that it had done “more to retard the cause of liberty and civilization, and is doing more at present, than all other causes combined.”

On the surface, this seems to be in agreement with Stephens’ view point that Thomas Jefferson was simply wrong. But where Stephens decreed that Jefferson was joined in his error by “most of the leading statesmen,” Calhoun laid the blame squarely on Jefferson and Jefferson alone. This idea of equality “began to germinate and produce its poisonous fruits,” Calhoun railed.

“It has a strong hold on the mind of Mr. Jefferson,” he continued, “which caused him to take an utterly false view of the subordinate relation of the black to the white race in the South; and to hold, in consequence, that the latter, though utterly unqualified to possess liberty, were as fully entitled to both liberty and equality as the former; and that to deprive them of it was unjust and immoral.” 9John C. Calhoun, “Speech on Oregon Bill, June 27, 1848” as printed in Speeches of John C. Calhoun Delivered in the House of Representatives Vol. 4 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1883) 511-512.

To Calhoun’s mind it was only Jefferson who was the anomaly. Stephens cast his net much wider. And Davis considered Jefferson to simply be misunderstood. But no matter how they got there, all arrived at the same conclusion.

Epilogue

John C. Calhoun:
“I hold that in the present state of civiliza­tion, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good – a positive good.” 10John C. Calhoun, “Slavery a Positive Good” speech, Works of John C. Calhoun, Vol. II 625-633.

Jefferson Davis:
“African Slavery, as it exists in the United States, was a moral, a social and a political blessing.” 11Jefferson Davis, “October 2, 1857”, The Papers of Jefferson Davis: 1856-1860 ed. Lynda Lasswell Crist (Louisiana State University Press, 1989) 147.

Alexander Stephens:
“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” 12Alexander Stephens, “Cornerstone Speech,” Savannah Republican, as reprinted in Henry Cleveland, Alexander H. Stephens, in Public and Private: With Letters and Speeches, before, during, and since the War (National Publishing Company, 1886), 717-729.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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