WASHINGTON, December 1, 2016 – At the University of Virginia, its founding father, Thomas Jefferson, is under attack by some students and faculty.
After the November presidential election, university president Theresa Sullivan wrote a letter in which she quoted Jefferson in expressing the hope that students from the University would help our republic.
“By coincidence, on this exact day 191 years ago, Nov. 9, 1825, in the first year of classes at the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend that U.VA students ‘are not of ordinary significance only; they are exactly the persons who are to succeed to the government of our country, and to rule its future enmities, its friendships and fortunes.’ I encourage today’s U.VA students to embrace that responsibility.”
Almost immediately, a response was drafted by Noelle Brand, an assistant professor of psychology, which declared that Thomas Jefferson “was deeply involved in the racist history of this university” and noted that,
“We would like for our administration to understand that although some members of this community may have come to this university because of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, others of us came here in spite of it. For many of us, the inclusion of Jefferson quotations in these e-mails undermines the message of unity, equality, and civility that you are attempting to convey.”
Approximately 500 students and faculty signed the letter, with more adding their names later. President Sullivan responded that,
“Quoting Jefferson (or any historical figure) does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from the university.”
Sullivan acknowledged “the university’s complicated Jeffersonian legacy.” She pointed out that,
“Today’s leaders are women and men, members of all racial and ethnic groups, members of the LGBTQ community and adherents of all religious traditions. All of them belong to today’s University of Virginia whose founders most influential and quoted words were ‘all men are created equal.’ Those words were inherently contradictory in an era of slavery, but because of their power they became the fundamental expression of a more genuine equality today.”
What President Sullivan’s critics are doing is applying the hard won Civil Rights and politically correct standards of 2016 to 1787, finding our ancestors seriously deficient by today’s standards. Those founders are being found guilty of what the Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the sin of contemporaneity,” or applying the standards of our own time to those who have come before.
It is possible to look at the colonial period from both the vantage point of the period which preceded it as well as the period which has followed. This is instructive when considering the question of slavery.
Slavery played an important part in many ancient civilizations. Indeed, most people of the ancient world regarded slavery as a natural condition of life, one which could befall anyone at any time and which had nothing to do with race. It has existed almost universally through history among peoples of every level of material culture from nomadic pastoralists in Asia, to the hunting societies of North American Indians and sea people such as the Norsemen.
The legal codes of Sumer provide documentary evidence that slavery existed there as early as the 4th millennium B.C. Interesting to note is that the Sumerian symbol for slave in cuneiform writing suggests “foreign.”
When the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in 1787, not a single nation had made slavery illegal. As they looked back through history, the framers saw slavery as an accepted and acceptable institution. It was not until 1792 that Denmark became the first Western nation to abolish the slave trade.
In 1807, the British Parliament passed a bill outlawing the slave trade abolishing slavery in the British colonies between 1834 and 1840. France freed the slaves in its colonies in 1848. Spain ended slavery in Puerto Rico in 1873 and in Cuba in 1886. Brazil abolished slavery in 1888.
The respected British historian of classical slavery, Moses L. Finley, writes,
“The cities in which individual freedom reached its highest expression, most obviously Athens, were cities in which chattel slavery flourished.”
The same is true of Ancient Rome. Plutarch notes that on a single day in the year 167 B.C., 150,000 slaves were sold in a single market.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition was also one which accepted the legitimacy of slavery. The Old Testament regulates the relationship between master and slave in great detail. In Leviticus (XXV: 39-55), God instructs the Children of Israel to enslave the heathen and their progeny forever, but to employ poor Jews as servants only, and to free them and their children on the year of Jubilee.
There is no departure from this approach to slavery in the New Testament. St. Paul urges slaves to obey their masters with full hearts and without obfuscation.
What is historically unique is not that slavery was the accepted way of the world in 1787, but that so many of the leading men of the American colonies of that day wanted to eliminate it, and pressed vigorously to do so.
Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were ardent abolitionists. John Jay, who would become the first Chief Justice, was president of the New York Anti-Slavery Society. Rufus King and Governor Morris were in the forefront of opposition to slavery.
One of the great debates at the Constitutional Convention related to the African slave trade. George Mason of Virginia made an eloquent plea for making it illegal. He said: “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country.”
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, one of the principal charges made by Thomas Jefferson against King George III and his predecessors was that they would not allow the American colonies to outlaw the importation of slaves. When Jefferson was first elected to the Virginia legislature at the age of twenty-five, his first political act was to begin the elimination of slavery.
Though unsuccessful, he tried to further encourage the emancipation process by writing into the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” In his draft of a constitution for Virginia, he provided that all slaves would be emancipated in that state by 1800, and that any child born in Virginia after 1801, would be born free.
This, however, was not adopted.
In Jefferson’s draft, instructions to the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress of 1774, published as “A Summary View of the Rights of British America,” Jefferson charged the British crown with having prevented the colonies from abolishing slavery in the interest of avarice and greed:
“The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire of these colonies, where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated efforts to effect this by prohibition, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his Majesty’s negative.”
Thomas Jefferson and the other framers of the Constitution were imperfect men and it is not difficult to discover their personal flaws. But these imperfect men did an extraordinary thing in creating a new nation, which now has the world’s oldest continuous form of government. Prof. Forrest McDonald points out that,
“The framers were guided by principles but not by formulas. They understood that no form or system of government is universally desirable or workable; instead,,if government is to be viable, it must be made to conform to human nature and to the genius of the people, to their customs, morals, habits, institutions, aspirations. The framers did just that, and thereby used old materials to create a new order for the ages.”
While the majority of framers of the Constitution were opposed to slavery, a small minority supported it and if it were outlawed the union never would have come into being. Thus, they compromised. What they did do was outlaw the slave trade as of 1808 and Congress, in 1787, outlawed slavery in the new territories by passing the Northwest Ordinance.
It was, we must remember, the framers of the Constitution who were the first duly constituted authority in the Western world to act decisively against slavery.
One wonders how much of this history is known by those who wrote and signed the letter calling upon University of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan to stop quoting Thomas Jefferson? To her credit. President Sullivan understands the distinction between intrinsic principle and historical personality. To hold leaders of the past to the standards of the present time is to be guilty of missing the larger message of our history.
Thomas Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers set in place a system of government which permitted growth and change. While they may not have shared the views of today, neither did Socrates, Plato, Dante or Shakespeare.
Shall we only be able to quote those from the 20th and 21st centuries who share the standards we only ourselves came to accept a very short time ago? This would be “contemporaneity” gone mad.
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