The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” in what is perhaps the most famous sentence in American political literature. How could Thomas Jefferson, who penned those immortal words, believe so passionately in personal liberty and at the same time be the owner almost a hundred slaves?
The title “Jefferson’s pillow” refers to one of Thomas Jefferson’s earliest childhood memories—that of being carried on a pillow by a slave. Roger Wilkins employs this image to show that from his birth to his death, Jefferson had built his life, his fame, and his fortune on the backs of slaves. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson is best known for elaborating the moral ideals of the new nation, and yet, as Wilkins points out, no other founder depended more heavily upon the disenfranchised blacks around him. The slaves that he acquired upon the death of his father-in-law gave him the leisure time to study, reflect, and write.
As a black man, Wilkins sought to find out how Jefferson and the other founding fathers, the intellectual elite of the colonies, could possibly hold these two contradictory ideas of slavery and freedom in their minds. In pursuit of an answer, he also explores the lives of George Washington and George Mason. He concludes that, in effect, these men were “slaves” of their time, because they were the inheritors of a slave-based society that was an integral part of their culture and moral fiber. They simply could not fathom a society without slaves.
The life of George Mason, author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, forerunner of the Declaration of Independence, is a case in point. Mason was an upper-class Virginia aristocrat and a major Virginia slave owner who had inherited his wealth from his father. The continuance of his lifestyle and social class depended almost entirely on the subordination and denial of the most basic rights of a whole race of people. Yet Mason would write that “all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights . . .” How could he possibly believe this, given the fact that 40 percent of the inhabitants of the Virginia colony were in bondage?
Part of the answer to the paradox lies within the philosophical roots of the American Revolution—the political writings of the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). The origin of Jefferson’s immortal phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is found in the second of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690). It is here that Locke asserts the theory of the natural rights of individuals. “Natural laws” can be deduced from those moral values that Locke believed existed even before being formally expressed by any government or political system. However, where Jefferson spoke of the “pursuit of happiness,” Locke spoke of “property” as being one of the basic, unalienable rights of human beings. American colonists were asserting these rights as Englishmen living in America who were petitioning their king for a redress of their grievances; Wilkins points out that their intent was not meant to include slaves, who were considered merely to be property under English Common Law.
This being said, it was not the case that Jefferson and others were completely unaware, given the proliferation of slavery in the colonies, of the contradictory nature of his words. In an early draft of the Declaration, Jefferson did address the slavery issue, placing the blame for its continued existence squarely upon the king of England. Wilkins points out the utter absurdity of this paragraph, as it seems to be an attempt to shift the blame away from the colonies and onto the English government. Although it was deleted from the final draft because Southern slave masters would not even think of giving their slaves any measure of freedom, it illustrates that in his own mind, Jefferson was apparently wrestling with the reconciliation of slavery and freedom.
When the War for Independence began, George Washington was determined to keep blacks out of the fighting, even though it was a black man, Crispus Attucks, who became the first American colonist to give his life for independence during the Boston Massacre in 1770. Washington made it clear that blacks were not to enlist, but the tremendous shortage of available manpower eventually forced him to make use of every able-bodied American, white or black. The fact is...
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