I have to write several paragraphs on Jefferson's statement that all men are created equal when he had slaves. I just need to get started.What do you think Jefferson meant by his statement about...

I have to write several paragraphs on Jefferson's statement that all men are created equal when he had slaves. I just need to get started.

What do you think Jefferson meant by his statement about the wolf? How could he write “All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, and yet still have slaves

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geosc's profile pic

geosc | College Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted on

About Jefferson's saying all men are created equal: Jefferson was writing the Declaration because the government was passing laws that treated British-American citizens differently from British citizens "at Home," and the courts were treating them differently too.  Thus Jefferson was appealing for equality under the law for both groups ofcitizens, the Britishcitizens at home and the Britishcitizens in America.  Slaves were not citizens.

I refer you to two resources that will help you answer your question.  Ask your school's librarian if they can be borrowed or photocopied from a near-by university library.

Armitage, David. 2007.  "The World in the Declaration of Independence," pages 25-62 in The Declaration of Independence: A Global History. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press.

Sheldon, Garrett Ward. 2002. "The Political Theory of the Declaration of Independence" in Scott Douglas Gerber, ed., The Declaration of Independence: Origins and Impact. Washington: CQ Press, 14-28.

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dbello | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

'We have the wolf by the ears and can neither hold him nor safely let him go'...Thomas Jefferson

The statement reflects the complexity between Jefferson the idea and Jefferson the man. It is just too simple to dismiss Jefferson as a hypocritical slaveowner with regard to the Declaration of Independence. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson is clearly conflicted with the slavery issue. Jefferson suggested that he believed that blacks were inferior to whites, however he was unsure as to why that was. Jefferson understood that slaves did not have the benefit of enlightenment philosophy which is why he never commits to any specific answer on the subject. As for the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson believed in the single creation of humanity, natural law, and that human rights applied to slaves; unfortunately Jefferson's enlightened ideology was bound by the flaws inherent of human reality.

akannan's profile pic

Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

In the final analysis, your question and analysis of the topic reflects how gut wrenching the issue of slavery was to America.  I think that in writing your paper, you might want to spend some time in analyzing Jefferson's ideas as presented in The Declaration of Independence.  This might involve examining the arguments made for and about political freedom, the right to be politically active agents in one's life, and how autonomy is vital to the full recognition to human beings.  This would be able to approach the wolf statement quite nicely, in that the issue of slavery struck at the very heart of American ideas and promises, but whose reality caused a great deal of distress in many.  It was nearly impossible to reconcile the reality of slavery with the promises of freedom, as the author of the statement on American freedom struggled with it, himself.

scarletpimpernel's profile pic

scarletpimpernel | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

You can also focus on the different connotations of the phrases "created equal" and "treated equally."  Most humans would agree that we are all "created equal," but at the same time they would disagree that all humans are treated equally--if they were, we would not have the problems in the world that we have now or the ones that our Founding Fathers struggled with in the 1700s.

Jefferson was quite candid with his belief that slaves should be treated equally, but he simply did not know how to ensure that that would happen.  As the previous responders noted, it is quite easy to state the truth and an ideal; it is quite another thing to act upon that truth.  You will have to decide if Jefferson was a hypocrite in penning those words or if he was trapped by the circumstances of his day.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Also consider what the definition of "men" was in the late 18th century.  In the 1860's it was necessary to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing blacks citizenship and due process, declaring them legally equal.  Even then few people in America really thought of freed slaves as their equal.

In Jefferson's time, and certainly among slave owners and the elite of America, slaves were not viewed as human as much as they were viewed as chattel - property, animals with a purpose.  While Jefferson was conflicted personally, in his love life and otherwise, writing all men are created equal did not mean he was considering slave males as equals at that time.  It just wasn't socially possible.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

I think you can connect the wolf statement to your other question.

When Jefferson said that slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears, he was basically saying that it was a bad thing, but that once you had done it, there was no way to let go.

This can connect to what he says in the Declaration.  He believes that all men are created equal.  This makes slavery wrong.  You can argue that he realizes that slavery is wrong.  At the same time, he is going to allow it to continue because he thinks there is no way to safely end it.

So you could say that his attitude is that it is a bad thing, but it is already there.  We can't safely end it, so we have to keep with it, even though it's wrong.

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