Despite evidence of men who believed “all men were equal,” and that to treat men otherwise would damage our nation, some believe the founders had no intentions of slave inclusion in equality. Thurgood Marshall’s bitterness is evident, “The self-evident truths and the unalienable right were intended, however, to apply only to white men” (Grutter v Bollinger).
Historian Dr. Eric Pullin, recently stated his belief that Jefferson didn’t include blacks in “all men are created equal.” The evidence he claims is found in the Notes on the State of Virginia. Yet, as I reread his commentary to Marbois, I find many things, but not irrefutable evidence of his claim. I find his observations claiming that African slaves are of a different physicality and form from that of the white race; he makes a claim that slaves have a disagreeable odor; a claim that slaves love and think differently. Jefferson clearly believes that slaves are inferior in both body and mind to whites, but nowhere can I find that these differences make him an alien to the unalienable rights.
In letter XVIII, Jefferson states his concerns as to the consequences to citizens who, through the abuse of slavery, trample on others’ rights, “…[it] transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part and the amor patriae of the other."
In Jefferson’s early writings, he has yet to reconcile the inferiorities of the black race to the white race, but in his clear statements concerning the destruction of slaveholders’ morals because they are slaveholders, one must assume these dire consequences are only because of a great injustice to men who are equal. Furthermore, the actions are worthy of consequences that Jefferson predicts will come in God’s rebuke: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just…,” and “The almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."
In Jefferson’s letter to black innovator Benjamin Banneker, he is open and hopeful for the proof that “our black brethren," are endowed with talents equal to “those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa & America."
The harsh assessment of black slave’s capabilities in this degraded existence was difficult to digest until I remembered a comment from a woman, in Lesvos Greece, who was at the forefront of the 2015 refugee crisis. After caring for the immediate needs of Middle Eastern refuges arriving by boat, she helped load them on a bus to Mytilini harbor where they would cross the Aegean Sea to Athens. She dealt with Syrians and Iraqis, but “The most difficult people were the Afghanis, because they’ve been denied an education for so many years under the oppression of the Taliban.” Her understanding of oppression enabled her to be more patient with a people who had been denied their natural rights. Were not the oppressive conditions of slavery comparable to life under the Taliban?
Later in Jefferson’s life he came to recognize, that the inferiority he observed and wrote about, may have been caused by servitude. How free could a slave’s mind be when his body was in shackles? Can an imprisoned body possess a mind free to grow, explore, and learn? In an 1809 letter to the French humanitarian Henri Gregoire, he expresses regret for his previous judgment of the African race, “My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so."
Further evidence of the founder’s better intentions resides in Section 9 of the constitution. Migration and importation, though not stated directly, refers to the slave trade. “…[it] shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight…” (US Constitution). In just 21 years following 1787, the constitution would abolish the slave trade with the intention of closing the curtains on slavery. But fate had a different course, and the invention of the cotton gin, revived what was once thought, a dying agriculture need for slaves.
Attorney, judge, professor, St. George Tucker had a clear vision of the injustice of slavery. He was motivated by his understanding of the law and justice, and the imbalance, the stigma, slavery brought to our nation. A staunch abolitionist, he wrote a pamphlet in 1796 calling for emancipation based on what he deemed was an egregious offence ten thousand times worse than our complaint against England. His allusions to Biblical phrases and teachings, his inclusion of references to the Father of Mercies, God of Hosts, and Author of Righteousness; demonstrates his devotion to the principles of God. A true lover of God, would be a lover of all mankind, and an advocate for all men’s freedom. Thus he had the courage, the compulsion to speak boldly against the civil liberty we were denying blacks, which affected the civil liberty of all men. We would forever be a blinded and handicapped nation if we could not pluck the beam out of our own eyes while we could “espy a moat” (A Dissertation on Slavery), in the other.