Liberty Matters

How White Was Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence?


Thomas Jefferson belongs to a small group of philosophers, including René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and Karl Marx, whose names have posthumously been turned into "isms" intended to describe worldviews that included, but also went beyond, their own ideas. Jeffersonianism is the dialectical result of what he himself did and wrote, and what has been made of his life and writings by many other thinkers. Among these, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Black intellectuals were often the first to express now-familiar assumptions about Jefferson. For instance, a long tradition of writers including William Hamilton, David Walker, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, and James McCune Smith were on the forefront of crafting today's view of Jefferson as the contradictory personification of both America's greatest sin and America's greatest promise. From early on, this tradition drew attention to Jefferson's interracial family with Sally Hemings. And beginning with Lemuel Haynes's Liberty Further Extended (1776), the tradition was influential in shaping what has come down to us as the Jeffersonian Enlightenment, offering what has today become the leading interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. By placing transformative rational constraints on Jefferson's laissez-faire empiricism, or so I argue in my new book, writers in this tradition decisively influenced the hermeneutics of what became known as the "principles" of the Declaration of Independence. Thus, when we interpret the universalism of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence today, we necessarily do so through the lens of a prominent tradition of Black writing - or to appropriate the title of Merrill D. Peterson's classic study The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960), what we see now was originally, to a significant extent, the Jefferson image in the early African American mind.
With this argument, as became much clearer to me when I read Hans Eicholz's illuminating essay, I am not following the influential scholarly trend that he identifies as the "new histories of slavery and race." Whereas I would see the history of the Enlightenment as a complex process of transformation and change, in which ideas have been continually appropriated and reappropriated in diverse and unpredictable directions, in the "new histories" it has become the default assumption that Enlightenment concepts such as universal reason, liberty, equality, natural rights, etc., primarily served one major purpose: to hide and "normalize" the oppressive particularities of a White identity, or of a transhistorical whiteness, behind the smokescreen of what looks like a universalist language.
This view of things is not altogether new. At bottom, it is a racialized update on the formula long familiar, for instance, from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), according to which we live in an impersonal but all-powerful system that seems intent on punishing less, but is, in truth, only intent on punishing better. In this sense, the "new histories of slavery and race" go back to a longstanding critique of the liberal Enlightenment, coming from both the radical left and radical right in early to mid-twentieth-century European philosophy. From these overlapping perspectives, the American Declaration of Independence has now come to be read as a prime example of a masked but all-pervasive White identity. And if Frederick Douglass was right in describing the Declaration's "saving principles" as the "ringbolt" of US history (Douglass 2016, 53), it may be worthwhile to inquire further into the thesis of the Declaration's hidden whiteness as a key to today's understanding of the American past.
Like any other historical approach, of course, the "new histories of slavery and race" include less, and more, sophisticated examples, and what Eicholz fittingly describes as the "masterful synthesis" achieved by Tyler Stovall's erudite White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (2021) is an obvious instance of the latter, intellectually inspiring class. Thus, Stovall's thesis that the modern coexistence of freedom and racism is not paradoxical, but forms a logically consistent whole if viewed through whiteness, shows itself open to the concession that, nevertheless, "the histories of both race and freedom are replete with paradoxes," not least concerning the perspectives of Black Patriots on the "paradox" of revolutionary liberty and slavery or concerning Jefferson's own insight into his contradictory position (Stovall 2021, 18, 116, 118, 132-133). However, it is important to point out with Eicholz that the discussion of the Declaration of Independence in terms of a transhistorical whiteness misses crucial aspects of both Jefferson's philosophy and the Declaration's history.
What Eicholz plausibly holds against the streamlining of the Declaration's language of liberty with an oppressive whiteness in the "new histories" is that this approach unduly freezes historical time and agency. On the premise of the supposedly clandestine maneuvers with which a collective White identity ceaselessly seeks to mask its true nature, the approach refuses to take seriously the limited perspectives, contingent motivations, and imagined futures of historical individuals. This programmatic neglect often leads to a radical flattening of source criticism. In the case of the long and complicated history of the Declaration of Independence, whose drafting process went through several stages, such simplifications have caused serious misunderstandings. "It is impossible to know for sure whether Jefferson meant to include his enslaved laborers (and women) in his "all Men." Was he merely emphasizing the equality of White Americans and the English?", insinuates Ibram Kendi in a book that serves as Eicholz's second example (Kendi, 104). Not only is it indeed possible to know for sure, but it has been known for a long time whom Jefferson meant to include. In the "original Rough draught" of the Declaration, preserved in his handwriting, one of the few capitalized words, including "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA," was "MEN" (source). In an oft-discussed passage that to Jefferson's chagrin was eventually removed by Congress, "MEN" referred to the men, women, and children who were the victims of the Atlantic slave trade. It is rare that a historical intention can be reconstructed with as much certainty as concerning this point in Jefferson's Declaration.
How "White," then, was Jefferson's Declaration of Independence? The answer should probably be: Not very. As a declaration of national independence from Britain, the document was obviously not concerned with the liberty and independence of all people (or peoples) of European descent that tend to be lumped together under the category of whiteness in today's "new histories." And while the Declaration's long second phrase beginning with "We hold these truths to be self-evident" remained epistemologically vague, it turned out to be precisely its flexible combination of subjective opinion and universal inclusiveness that could be transformed into the normative basis of a fundamental human equality, first and foremost, by the tradition of Black intellectuals to whom I alluded in the beginning.
As Eicholz reminds us in his analysis of Jefferson's changing priorities in the 1770s and 1780s, it is misleading to interpret the Declaration as if by 1776 he had already written his only book, Notes on the States of Virginia (1781-1785). Jefferson became more directly invested in what was evolving into a modern concept of race in the decade following the Declaration. In his efforts to design an American perspective on a world at war, he fatefully conjured into existence separate "white" and "black" nations (Onuf 2007, 205-237). At least two major aspects of Notes on Virginia are worth mentioning here that cannot be understood through the lens of the "new histories." Jefferson's experiential concept of whiteness emerged, not in a binary opposition to blackness, but in a triangular constellation: It was part of a war effort to distinguish a new national identity from groups he had by then come to regard as external (European) and internal (Black) enemies (Onuf 2000, 147-188, Taylor 2014). This specifically American (or even Virginian) whiteness did not hide itself behind a universalist screen but to the contrary emphasized the "odious peculiarities" of White Virginia slaveholders including their culturally ingrained racism, or in Jefferson's words, their "deep rooted prejudices," of which he chose to give a personal performance in the text (Jefferson 1982, 162-163, 138-143). Jefferson's subjectivist racism is not only disturbing today, but already alarmed several of his correspondents, including the astronomer Benjamin Banneker, as mentioned by Eicholz, or the historian David Ramsay. Unlike in the grand narrative told by the "new histories," however, Jefferson's racism could not be separated from his acute awareness of his own intellectual and moral limitations, or in other words, from his self-conscious failures to inhabit a position associated with universal reason. Moreover, unlike that of later thinkers, Jefferson's racism never functioned in his argument as an attempted justification of slavery, but "only" of what he hoped would be quasi-national separation or what he called "expatriation."
In North Carolina on the day following the elections on November 8, 1898, a text went on record that identified itself, in contradistinction to the original of 1776, as a "White Declaration of Independence." It was part of the horrific eruption of anti-Black mob violence that became known as the Wilmington Race Riot, fictionalized in Charles Chesnutt's magnum opus, The Marrow of Tradition (1901). Far from developing a universalist argument, the "White Declaration of Independence" consisted in a set of resolutions by white supremacists inside and outside the Democratic party, elaborating on the theme "that we will no longer be ruled, and will never again be ruled by men of African origin" (Chesnutt 2012, 276-278). The "White Declaration" actively sought to suppress Black voting and minimize Black employment. Moreover, it helped encourage the violent overthrow of the municipal Fusion government, in what Chesnutt described in the novel as a "coup d'état" (Chesnutt 2012, 146).
From today's perspective, it is of vital importance to come to terms with this history. At present, however, the "new histories of slavery and race" may not have the sufficient analytical tools for this project. Interpreting Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in 1776 as driven by the same whiteness that motivated the "White Declaration of Independence" in 1898 has a paradoxical effect: While this method of levelling historical differences has been unable to provide new critical insights into Jefferson's Declaration, it inadvertently tends to upgrade the intellectual prestige, and downplay the brutally aggressive character, of the "White Declaration," ultimately making it impossible to get a sense of the existential threat posed by such a statement. Although the stark simplifications made by the "new histories" may perhaps be seen as a laudable effort to finally get some order into the mess that is history, they risk eliminating the very stuff of which history is made especially if, in the final analysis, historical difference and complexity are themselves coming under suspicion of being on the wrong side of a given political divide. Historical approaches organized too tightly by timeless binaries may thus not be doing enough to strengthen our ability to learn from the complex legacies of the American past for what will hopefully become a better future.
Chesnutt, Charles W., The Marrow of Tradition. A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Werner Sollors (New York: Norton, 2012).
Douglass, Frederick, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" a speech delivered in Rochester, New York on July 5, 1852 and published as a pamphlet (Rochester, 1852), The Essential Douglass: Selected Writings & Speeches, ed. with introd. Nicholas Buccola (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2016), 50-71.
Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979).
Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016).
Onuf, Peter S., Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000).
---, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007).
Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).
Peterson, Merrill D., The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960).
Stovall, Tyler, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
Taylor, Alan, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (New York: Norton, 2014).