There is a theory that if you pick up a calf at its birth and then every day thereafter, eventually you can pick up a bull. It’s a nice idea, but I can personally testify that it is not true. I cannot believe that I haven’t found time to write a new blog post in the past two months! But I realize now that while the calf was growing and I have been struggling with it daily, more and more of my former life was slipping away.
Becoming modestly known is such an odd phenomenon that I wish more people could experience it. As with picking up that growing bull, the weight of it creeps up gradually, so it’s hard for me to pinpoint now precisely when my personal life disappeared, when my legal career shrank to almost nothing, and when my next FUN book was put aside. Apparently my blogging stopped in May, and by now even my podcasting is taking a beating as I have less time to prepare for interviews. What has largely taken over my life is a combination of correspondences with readers and listeners – sometimes responding takes most of my day – and lots of work on a project related to The Fun of Living Together that has captured my heart. But I’m coming up for air a bit now. Perhaps I’ll never be able to pick up that bull, but I seem at last to be learning to ride it!
Thomas Jefferson hated slavery. It was a highly personal issue for him, since before he was thirty-one he inherited almost three hundred human beings. He couldn’t legally free them in the Colony of Virginia, but he didn’t want lifelong responsibility for them. He thought at first that he might persuade the Virginia House of Burgesses to allow slaveholders to free their slaves, but he learned when he arrived at the Continental Congress in June of 1775 that freeing slaves who looked so different from their masters was going to be a difficult trick.
Slavery may be the oldest human institution. It has existed over millennia, everywhere on earth, but nearly always the slaves have resembled their masters. It has therefore generally been easy to free them and let them blend into the larger society. But black slaves were already being freed in the north, and what Jefferson found in Philadelphia was a desperate underclass of newly-freed slaves, hungry and despised and clinging to the edge of the larger white society without hope of ever entering it. He was horrified! He realized then that the worst British sin had been the introduction to this continent of an aberrant form of slavery where masters and slaves looked so different from one another that we might never be able to end it. He was so upset about this discovery that the first draft of our Declaration of Independence was full of what John Adams wryly referred to as “Jefferson’s philippic against the slave trade.”
It is difficult for us to imagine now what was in the mind of a 33-year-old about to risk his life and his family’s lives by provoking a war with the world’s greatest power over the principle of personal freedom. Reading his letters at the time, you never see him waver; but you do see how much the slavery problem troubled him. He thought that for his countrymen to be claiming their own freedom while giving no thought to the slaves among them was almost to render absurd their claim, so part of that original philippic – and almost all of what remains of it now – lies right there near the top of the document. Delegates to the Congress may not have understood the full import of what they were signing, but in fact it was a heartfelt cry that no matter what the cost and no matter what effort might be required, the only possible outcome of this struggle must be a continent where slaves, too, were free.
Let’s look at the import of Jefferson’s words:
We hold these truths to be self-evident,
(He wrote at first that these truths are “sacred and undeniable,” but this was one Congressional edit that improved the document.)
that all men are created equal,
(“All men” included slaves, and of course it also included women. But how radical this thought was at a time when most people believed that the upper classes were born to dominate those with lower status!)
that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,
(The concept of rights given by God was not new, but “the divine right of kings” to rule was usually the most important of these rights. That individual rights might come first was a revolutionary concept.)
that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
(The universal usage at that time was “life, liberty, and property.” But Jefferson clearly meant to deny slaveholders the right to claim people as their property, and instead he decreed that slaves, too, have an equal right to freedom and a chance at happiness.)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These were the breathtakingly radical words of a young man who never in the end was able to perfect the world that he inherited, but at least he could envision that more perfect world. His dream in turn became Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. It still beckons to us today.
photo credit: iki-photos <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/22229390@N06/2669305164″>même pas peur</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>