The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let be with Caesar. Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 2.
On previous Independence Days this blog spent some time parsing the Declaration of Independence, although it omitted saying much about the bill of particulars cataloging the abuses for which King George III was accused. A reader suggested that on subsequent occasions it should describe the relationship of those allegations with provisions in the Constitution. Many commitments got in the way of doing the kind of job of it one would wish. For now, that part of the project must wait until Constitution Day in September. Nevertheless, there are a few observations to make on this Fourth of July.
There is a lot of political division occurring in our country these days. The magnitude of it is probably somewhat overblown by over-the-top rhetoric of the journalist class and the social media so pervasive on the Internet. One effect that’s raising the hackles across the political spectrum is a re-evaluation and promulgation of a revisionist version of the founding of the United States.
Two of the most prominent victims of historical revisionism that nevertheless should be honored on this day are founders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There is a contrary view by some, mostly academics seeking publicity, and others seeing a chance to make a few bucks off the notoriety. We all know who the usual suspects are. Their general thesis seems to be that regardless of all of the virtues and lasting accomplishments of these two founders, all are eclipsed by the fact that these men once owned slaves. They and the nation are tainted by that original sin. The only way their descendants and heirs can expiate it, is to throw Washington and Jefferson, as well as the other Founders, and their monuments on the ash heap of history. Or so they say.
Now, without getting into a philosophical or theological discussion, it is this writer’s view that the concept of original sin is a metaphor or allegory — that the original primitive audience of the Old Testament could understand — for the obvious characteristic that human nature and its evolution are imperfect, not necessarily evil, and all men must strive to make things better. (Lest anyone call for a revival of the Inquisition and lighting the faggots deduce otherwise from this statement, Darwinian evolution, together with its refinements, is not inconsistent with Christianity, or other faiths.)
That same Old Testament, as well as the scriptures of other religions and philosophies, condoned human slavery. It existed, without serious question, in almost all civilizations and societies; it still does in a few places. Until the 18th Century, Western Civilization had been no exception. That era, of course, was the Age of the Enlightenment.
Professor Allen C. Guelzo, a Senior Research Scholar at Princeton University, has opined thus.
“Washington’s and Jefferson’s time was also the Age of Enlightenment, when the classical hierarchies of the physical and political worlds were overthrown, to be replaced by the natural laws of gravity and the natural rights of ‘Nature and Nature’s God,’ as the Declaration of Independence put it. Labor ceased to be a badge of subservience, and commerce became admirable. As commerce and labor gave people a greater sense of control over their lives for the first time in human history, slavery came to be seen as repugnant and immoral.
“In 1797, the expatriate painter Benjamin West dined with Rufus King, the American diplomatic envoy to Great Britain. West astounded King with a comment George III made when he learned that Washington had voluntarily surrendered his commission as general-in-chief of the Continental Army at the close of the Revolution, a voluntary submission of military power to civilian rule. ‘That act,’ said the king, placed Washington in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age.”
Thomas Jefferson’s lasting fame is principally as the author of the Declaration of Independence. The preamble “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” is known to almost every American. The contours of the meaning of equality and “unalienable rights” has been in dispute since 1776. The tensions between individual liberty and rights has been the basis of division and conflict throughout American political history.
Jack N. Rakove, Emeritus Professor of History at Stanford University writes “In the cosmopolitan range of his interests, the tension between his aristocratic lifestyle and his egalitarian commitments, and most important, the manifest contradiction between the stirring language of the Declaration and his life as a Virginia slaveholder, Jefferson remains the most compelling figure of the American founding generation—but also the most troubling.”
It shouldn’t be. The sanctimonious condemnation of those in the past who do not live up to present moral standards is misplaced. Jefferson was a product of the centuries-long intellectual evolution that began with the Renaissance that proceeded to the Enlightenment. Certainly, his being a slaveholder was a transgression against our modern sensibilities and moral standards, but he must be judged in the context of his time. Jefferson’s achievements, not only in the Declaration (in which the input of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin was significant), but in his subsequent careers, public and private, outshine by miles the ex post facto flaw of his slaveholding.
As an earlier Renaissance author put it “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Let it not be so for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.