The Declaration of Independence Questions and Answers
by Thomas Jefferson

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Compare Crevecoeur, Equiano and Jefferson's comments on slavery. Include why you think Creveceur could write that America was the most perfect society in the world despite what he saw of slavery and why Jefferson could doubt the equality of blacks compare to whites despite his comments on the equality of "all men" in The Declaration of Independence.

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Olaudah Equiano's description of the effects of slavery is one of the clearest refutations, from his time as well as any other, of the notion of racial inferiority. Of the enslaved people of African descent, Equiano rhetorically asks:

Might it [their alleged inferiority] not, naturally, be ascribed to their situation? When they come among Europeans, they are ignorant of their language, religion, manners, and customs. Are any pains taken to teach them these? Are they treated as men? Does not slavery itself depress the mind, and extinguish all its fire, and every noble sentiment?

The horrifying experience of being transported on a slave ship, described in detail by Equiano, is obviously relevant to the issue. From today's perspective, we can see that people treated this way would have to have experienced long-term PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), which, recent research has shown, can be passed from mother to child and hence is a disorder that can be inherited through succeeding generations.

Crevecoeur and Jefferson did not have the benefits of modern science to aid them in understanding this problem, but they had, or should have had, common sense. Still, Crevecoeur's time in America was spent principally in New York. Though this was at a time when slavery still existed in the northern colonies, there were comparatively few enslaved people in New York state, and Crevecoeur would have had limited ability to see the mass effects of an entrenched system. It was also during and soon after the Revolution that gradual abolition laws were passed in the northern states. In his rapture to describe the enormous and genuine improvement for people of European descent he observed in the New World, the fact of slavery was unfortunately considered relatively unimportant to him.

Thomas Jefferson, of course, did not have the excuse of not being able to witness the full extent of slavery's effects, since he was a practitioner himself. The best we can say of him is that (if amateur psychologizing may be forgiven) his own sense of guilt probably made him rationalize the existence of the institution through the claim that black people were inferior to whites. Jefferson knew that slavery was wrong. Yet he could not bring himself to accept the possibility of a society in which people both black and white would live in freedom together.

There is no definitive answer to how he could reconcile this with his statement that all men are created equal. Various attempts have been made to "defend" Jefferson by claiming that he somehow did not believe black people were "men," but to say this is to discredit totally anything positive about Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration. It's false that Jefferson could have believed this anyway, since in his passage on the slave-trade that was excised from the document, he explicitly referred to the enslaved people as men (and in capital letters).

Like many otherwise great men in history, Jefferson, unfortunately, was duplicitous and hypocritical on various issues. He condemned both slavery and "miscegenation" but was a practitioner of both. As a member of Washington's first-term administration he made underhanded efforts to subvert Washington's foreign policy goals because of his (Jefferson's) unrelenting support for the French Revolution, even after the Revolution had turned violent. (See the book, The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution by Conor Cruise O'Brien.) He claimed to believe in limited government but took an enormous governmental step in the Louisiana Purchase, adding a huge land mass to the United States and in effect altering the destiny of the country. This last fact is perhaps the best demonstration of Jefferson's greatness in spite of his self-contradiction.

The passage on slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia should, however, be looked at not only as an exercise in rationalization, but in ambivalence as well. At several points he seems to backtrack, and the infamous statement about racial inferiority is one that he "advances as a suspicion." [Italics added] Jefferson's legacy was one of paradox and incompletion, and it wasn't until 35 years after his death, with the outbreak of Civil War, that the central problem of America over which Jefferson had agonized would begin to be solved.

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