April 15, 2011
I was furiously scribbling notes as author James Swanson lectured last night at the Lincoln Cottage. He was speaking about his wonderful new book, Bloody Crimes: The he Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincolns Corpse. The room was filled with listeners paying rapt attention as the sun set over the home where Abraham Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. Last night was the anniversary of Lincolns assassination in 1865. One year ago, I was at the Newseum, also taking notes as James Swanson lectured on his earlier book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincolns Killer.
It should be clear I am a great admirer of this writers work. But in his lecture, Swanson offered an observation that stunned me as much as if he had fired John Wilkes Booths bulldog derringer above our heads:
He said: I regard Thomas Jefferson as the biggest hypocrite in American History.
What a terrible statement. And worse, the audience members nodded their approval of this stunning statement. From the Obama stickers proudly displayed on most of the newer luxury cars in the parking lot, I knew this was a pretty liberal crowd.
My first response to James Swanson, this serious Lincoln scholar is that Abraham Lincoln didnt think that. Lincoln said this:
All honor to Jeffersonto the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, where it continues to stand as a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of reappearing tyranny and oppression.
If the Great Emancipator thought that, it might be worthwhile to know why. Young Thomas Jefferson was distraught when fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress cut out of his draft of the Declaration of Independence a stinging indictment of King George III. The king had repeatedly vetoed colonial attempts to end the African Slave Trade. Jefferson told Franklin his draft had been mutilated.
Jefferson didnt stop there. As a congressman, he offered an amendment that would have banned slavery from all U.S. territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. That bill failed by just one vote. Heaven itself was silent in that awful moment, Jefferson later wrote in anguish.
It wasnt a total loss, however, The Northwest Ordinance did pass Congress and it did contain a ban on slavery north of the Ohio River. But the failed Jefferson measure was far more extensive than even this great charter of freedom.
Jeffersons only book, Notes on Virginia, was published while he served as our ambassador in France. In it, Jefferson denounces slavery as tyranny, as a school for tyranny that corrupts the slaveholder as much as it debases the slave. Jefferson argues powerfully that slavery is morally wrongand tells us he trembles for his country when he reflects that God is just and His justice cannot sleep forever. [It should be candidly admitted that Jefferson also introduces some of the worst language on racial differences in this book. Decades later, black inventor and author Benjamin Banneker took Jefferson to task for these writings, and rightly so.]
Still, in the Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson tells us, almost as an aside, that Northerners though they have few slaves among them, are great carriers of slaves to others.
Lincoln surely had read those words. They are chilling. Jefferson does not morally condemn his northern countrymen, but we should all know what his terrible words mean.
William Wilberforce campaigned for twenty years to get rid of the Slave TradeJefferson called it that execrable trafficin the British Empire. Jefferson fully supported his efforts.
The film Amazing Grace shows Wilberforce standing on the dcck of the slave ship Madagascar. He tells Londoners that this ship left West Africa with six hundred slaves and arrived in the British West Indies seven weeks later with only two hundred slaves surviving.
The worst Southern plantation in the bondsmans two hundred fifty years of unrequited toil could not have written such a record of horror. Novelist Patrick OBrien has his famous Captain Jack Aubrey respond to teasing from his best friend Stephen Maturin that Lucky Jack is getting fat. You know I cant swim here, Stephen, these are slave waters.
What does that mean? It means the slave traders regularly threw overboard living and dead Africans—and the sharks gathered.
This is what they call the horrors of the Middle Passage. Those were not Southerners manning those slave ships. They were Yankees from New England.
Reading those words, Lincoln would have known they were true. This is doubtless why, Lincoln, almost alone among Northern men, never plays the Pharisee. He is not self-righteous in his opposition to slavery.
Jefferson the President urged Congress to move early to ban the Slave Trade. In one of the unfortunate compromises necessary to gain ratification of the Constitution, Congress had to wait twenty years from adoption to ban the African Slave Trade.
President Jefferson in December 1806 called upon Congress in his State of the Union Message to act and act soon. Dont wait until January 1, 1808, he pleaded. Pass the ban now so that slave ships will not even start for America if they know they will arrive after the cutoff date.
Jefferson denounced the Slave Trade as a violation of the human rights of unoffending Africans. That is the strongest anti-slavery language used by any president prior to Abraham Lincoln.
And it inspired both Lincoln and the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass honored Jefferson and powerfully quoted him, saying one hour of American slavery was worse than all the ages of British oppressions.
Yes, it is true that Jefferson failed to free the nearly two hundred human beings he held in slavery throughout his long life. Monticello was deeply in debt and Jefferson was unable to extricate himselfas the Great Washington had donefrom the serpents coils.
When I took our many FRC interns to Monticello for years, I would stand on Mr. Jeffersons lawn and make the point that George Will was wrong. Thomas Jefferson lived as free men ought to live, Will famously wrote. No, I would say, John Adams lived as free men ought to live. He never freed his slaves because he never had any.
Still, I honor Jeffersons memory as the man who powerfully taught us all why slavery was wrong, and who banned the African Slave Trade.
My question to James Swanson and to those pleasant folks chatting over wine and cheese at Lincoln Cottage is this:
If Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite for denying two hundred human beings their inalienable right to liberty, what are we when every day in America we deny three thousand human beings unborn children—their right to Life?