Liberty Matters

Eicholz, Jefferson, and the Declaration of Independence

"Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free . . ."
Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1786
Eicholz titles his essay, "Understanding Jefferson: Slavery, Race, and the Declaration of Independence." Understanding Jefferson, the chief draftsman of the Declaration, should help us understand the meaning of the text that best encapsulates the American political way of life. Moreover, it should also help us make sense of how race and slavery shaped the birth of the new American nation. Disputing historians today who seek to "judge," i.e., condemn, rather than "understand," i.e., makes sense of, the past, Eicholz argues that by examining the Declaration in light of two others penned by Jefferson (before and after), historians would have a better grasp of the meaning of the Declaration and perhaps a greater appreciation for Jefferson's achievement in articulating why American colonists decided to separate from Great Britain and become their own nation.
Specifically, Eicholz seeks to do this by highlighting the "inconsistencies," "contradictions," "tensions," and "aporias" in the thought of Jefferson. This is quite different from the almost universal approach to understanding Jefferson, and the slaveholding founders generally, which focuses on the inconsistencies of thought and practice. As Samuel Johnson's quipped, "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" Eicholz argues that what has undermined current attempts to interpret the past is the increasing seduction of academic minds-especially the "New Historians"-by a view of history as the product of structural rather than individual causes, the "strong systemic operation of social forces" that obviate any need to consider the reasons any great figure of history (like Jefferson) offered to justify a particular course of action. Given that the most famous and authoritative justification for American action was the Declaration of Independence, Eicholz thinks that situating Jefferson's drafting of the Declaration within the context of two other documents he wrote provides a more reliable interpretation of the Declaration.
Jefferson's other two documents, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America" (1774) and Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), bear close readings in their own right, but Eicholz's main purpose is to show that the Declaration, and therefore Jefferson, survive the current scrutiny of those who portray the document and especially the man as unworthy of respect in our wizened times. By considering the three documents in chronological order, Eicholz seeks to show how the specific historical context of each document's production helps shed light on their respective meanings. In particular, he argues that in approaching them this way, the Declaration still stands as a presentation of timeless truths that ought to guide later generations of Americans (not to mention other nations) as they pursue the protection of their rights within a constitutional system of self-government.
Eicholz quotes Joyce Appleby to good effect: "Jefferson also made the expansion of human liberty a realistic national goal." First, Jefferson was responsible for articulating American liberty in a way that the citizens of the diverse American colonies could unite philosophically. When the Declaration of Independence states that it is "one people" who are establishing their political independence, that oneness represents a common or "national" understanding of the grounds for their independence, which is another way of saying a common understanding of justice. Given that the slavery controversy would eventually drive an ostensibly United States of America to civil war, antebellum history confirmed Aristotle's observation that opposing definitions of justice produced factions and eventually revolutions or civil wars.[1]
Second, for the goal of liberty and independence to be a "realistic" one on American soil, the War for Independence had to be prosecuted in a manner that accommodated the specific circumstances of each American colony. The most challenging situation was the antecedent existence of slavery. Put simply, American freedom required independence; American independence required union; and American union required compromise, especially over slavery. Understanding the American founding in this way, Eicholz argues that the concessions made to slavery can be understood as compromises with an institution that contradicted the professed grounds of American independence, and not affirmations of the peculiar institution. Responding to the British resistance against American independence required, as the Declaration argued, prudence. This meant in their attempt to free themselves of British tyranny, Americans did not believe they could also free their slaves at the same time. This would make an already audacious enterprise even more difficult to succeed. While some enslaved black Americans did achieve their freedom by virtue of fighting on behalf of American independence, manumission of American slaves by colonial legislative authority never became a general policy during the Revolutionary War.[2] The federal nature of the American union complicated the effort to make freedom a universal, practical reality during both the war and the constitution-making of the states and federal union of the early American republic.
However, for historians who take a "critical" turn in their analysis of the past, historical context becomes simply "composed of deeply structured relationships of thought to power." Here the mind is not truly free to evaluate ideas or arguments for their truth or falsity but simply expresses where a person sits in the existing hierarchy of society. Eicholz identifies the "Marxist varieties" of this interpretation of history-to wit, one is either a member of the bourgeoisie or proletariat, either oppressor or oppressed. Where Eicholz thinks context includes a consideration of the intentions of a political actor as he writes for specific audiences, and sometimes multiple audiences simultaneously, the New Historians go big and make context the sum and substance of the dominant mindset of a particular age or era. As the Communist Manifesto asserts, "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class."
Ibram Kendi has popularized this under the rubric of race. As quoted by Eicholz, Kendi argues that both American revolutionary overtures to British tyranny and reticence to emancipate their own slaves "were in their political and economic self-interest." However, Kendi cannot explain how emancipation occurred in any of the American colonies-turned-states. If Eicholz is correct that Americans in the 1770s and '80s "felt the accusation of hypocrisy poignantly," then the charge of systemic injustice or racism becomes complicated by the fact that many white Americans saw the gap between their profession and practice and tried to align their practices more consistently with their noblest professions.
For example, enslaved blacks sued for their freedom by appealing to the Massachusetts Constitution-in particular, its declaration of rights, which states, "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights." A white judge interpreted a constitution written by white men as abolishing slavery and therefore ruled in favor of the black plaintiffs. Chief Justice Gray of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court argued as follows:
[A] different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind . . . And upon this ground our Constitution of Government . . . sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal-and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property-and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves.[3]
Gray concluded that "the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual slavery of a rational creature." That ruling in 1783 not only freed Quack Walker, and Mum Bett in a parallel case, but also effectively abolished slavery as an institution in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.[4]
Bringing Ben Franklin into the discussion highlights the extent to which Americans, even those of the ostensibly oppressive class, apparently were free to question the status quo and express that questioning as a reflection of their "troubled conscience" and not seek their liberty and independence as a mere desire to secure their white privilege as Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Nikole Hannah-Jones et al now claim. In fact, the widespread condemnation of slavery despite only sporadic manumission of slaves was generally attributed to a fear of retribution by the justly aggrieved former slaves. Jefferson made this explicit in an 1820 letter to John Holmes, where he pictured the predicament of white enslavement of black people as a case of holding a "wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go."[5] He went on to explain that emancipation for the enslaved had been trumped by the concern of white masters for their self-preservation: "Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." During the Missouri crisis, Jefferson put the question frankly to John Adams: "Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger?"[6] Today's abolitionists simply cannot fathom how a slaveowner could believe that slavery is wrong and yet not immediately free his slaves. They perceive no personal, social, economic, or political obstacles to doing the right thing.
Eicholz argues that inconsistencies in the thought of a historical figure, like Jefferson, indicate greater freedom of thought and reason than those who see only domineering economic or "ideational and cultural" systems that leave little room for "tensions" within a person's thoughts. He asks, "How do individuals ever stand outside a system into which they are born?" This echoes Leo Strauss's observation that "the mere fact that we can raise the question of the worth of the ideals of our society show that there is something in man that is not altogether enslaved to his society."[7] Rejecting the reductionist view of historical development, Eicholz believes that a closer examination of apparent inconsistencies in the reasoning of public figures like Jefferson reflect different intentions and audiences at different times in history, and can provide a more accurate account, in Jefferson's case, of the role that race and slavery played at the founding of the American constitutional republic.
I would like to have seen clearer examples of Jefferson's inconsistencies as a thinker, especially regarding slavery. On my reading, not only the three texts written by Jefferson that Eicholz cites but many others display a remarkable consistency regarding Jefferson's affirmation of the injustice of slavery. Even in the Notes on the State of Virginia, where Jefferson suggests that blacks might be "inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination," he adds that his tentative conclusion "must be hazarded with great diffidence."[8] Moreover, on the fundamental question of the natural right of every person to be ruled only by his consent, Jefferson never equivocated. Reflecting on the "doubts he expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to . . . [black people] by nature," he confessed his observations were parochial to slaveholding Virginia, "where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so."[9] More importantly, he hastened to add that "whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others." Although he freed very few of the enslaved at Monticello, on the central claim by the Declaration, "that all men are created equal" in their rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," Jefferson never wavered in principle.[10]
[1] See Aristotle, Politics, Book 5, Sec. 1305a.
[2] See for example Douglas R. Egerton, Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009) and John U. Rees, 'They Were Good Soldiers': African-Americans Serving in the Continental Army, 1775-1783 (From Reason to Revolution) (Warwick, UK: Helion and Company, 2019).
[3] See "The Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison: Note by Chief Justice Gray," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society (April 1874), 294; (accessed July 2, 2021).
[4] See Arthur Zilversmit, "Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts," The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct. 1968), 614-24.
[5] Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes (April 22, 1820), in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed.
Paul Leicester Ford, 12 vols. (New York and London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1904-5), 12:159, (accessed July 2, 2021).
[6] "From Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 22 January 1821," Founders Online, National Archives, (accessed July 2, 2021). Cf. Thomas Merrill, "The Later Jefferson and the Problem of Natural Rights" in The Political Thought of the Civil War, ed. Alan Levine, Thomas W. Merrill, and James R. Stoner, Jr. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2018), 27-47.
[7] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1953).
[8] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, "Queries 14 and 18," in The Founders' Constitution, ed. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner, 5 vols. (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2001), 1:536.
[9] Thomas Jefferson to Henri Gregoire (February 25, 1809), (accessed July 2, 2021).
[10] "Slaves Who Gained Freedom," Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, (accessed July 2, 2021).