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Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and wrote "all men are...

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jamestopping14 | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

Posted July 19, 2011 at 1:48 PM via web

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Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and wrote "all men are created equal", but owned slaves all his life. Explain this apparent inconsistency.

Thomas Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence and wrote "all men are created equal", but owned slaves all his life. Explain this apparent inconsistency.

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

Posted July 19, 2011 at 1:57 PM (Answer #2)

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This is one of the most debated elements about the formation of the Constitution.  In that light, there are many ways to approach this.  On one hand, I think that an argument could be made that Jefferson really, truly believed in the divisions of the public and the private.  While his private life might have been one where slaves were owned, his public realm featured the call to abolish slavery and the call for universal equality.  Jefferson was wise enough to understand that the two realms are different in every individual, something that was stressed during the Enlightenment Era of thought that Jefferson himself followed and to which he contributed.  This inconsistency is therefore allowed in the division of the public and private.  Another way to explain it was that Jefferson simply did not understand the implication of owning slaves while professing all men are equal.  The issue of racial relations and racial identity was so misunderstood at the time of Jefferson's writing that perhaps it was a setting where he did not understand that he could not own slaves while writing that they were not privy to equality.  The lack of racial understanding is what fed the inconsistency.  The simple other answer is that Jefferson knew what was being done was wrong, and did it anyway because in the time of the framers' it simply did not matter if there was a violation of this nature with one's writing and philosophy.  It is here where there has to be a "de-glorification" of the framers' time and more sober view of political reality of the time period.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted July 19, 2011 at 2:06 PM (Answer #3)

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This is only an inconsistency if you see black people as the equals of white people.  They have to be "men" just like the white men so that they can be part of those who are "created equal."

Hardly any white people in America at the time that Jefferson wrote those words would have believed that blacks and whites were equal.  They would have felt that it was "self-evident" that the men who were created equal were adult white men.  It would have been just as absurd to think blacks were created equal to whites as to think that women or children should be given rights equal to those of men.

The inconsistency in Jefferson's words and actions are only apparent to us today.  In his day, they would not have been seen as inconsistent.

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