Monday, June 24, 2019

Jefferson and Lincoln on Equality and Slavery as the Tragic Flaw of our Founding

Though one can easily find fault with Jefferson and some of his writings, it is very important to understand that for him the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” was a universal moral assertion. Jefferson felt that nature was the work of a God who was “Nature’s God,” the Architect, the Creator, the First Cause. Human beings were in this sense created equal. They are also equal he felt in that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” which include “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Indeed, it was to secure these rights associated with the moral assertion of universal equality that “Governments are instituted amongst men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Declaration of Independence is argued in the manner of Euclidean geometry. It is also significant to note in this context that, unlike Locke, Jefferson did not include the right to property (which at the time would have included slaves) in his first principles or axioms.

More specifically, Jefferson felt that we all share equally a common humanity in that we have a capacity for, and possess, a moral sense (Padover 1943, 1032–34). In a letter to his young friend Peter Carr, Jefferson wrote:
He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are a thousand who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature, as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality.... The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or his arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree.... It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed in some degree, to the guidance of reason; butit is a small stock which is required for this; even a less one that what we call Common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules. (Peterson 1977, 424)
Jefferson’s respect for the moral agency of others was indeed an affirmation of his own humanity, a self-affirmation. Concerning women he wrote, “It is civilization alone which replaces women in the enjoyment of their natural equity. That first teaches us to subdue the selfish passions, and to respect those rights in others that we respect in ourselves” (Jefferson [1785] 1972, 60). Jefferson was opposed to religious, political, and social tyranny; thus, equality for him was also a matter of self-assertion. His method of dealing with the will to power of human beings was to invert it to a will to resist the despotism and tyranny of others. In a letter to the physician Benjamin Rush he wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of men” (Bartlett 1968, 472).

Thomas Jefferson
A universal moral sense or conscience was for Jefferson a basis of our common humanity and natural equality. It was what made persons capable of determining their own form of government by consent. This equality was for Jefferson universal and, yes, it included women, American Indians (Jefferson [1785] 1972, 227), and blacks (Jefferson [1785] 1972, 142). It was a matter of both self-affirmation and self-assertion, and this can help us understand his great concern for religious freedom, public education, and the injustice of slavery.

Slavery was the tragic flaw in the founding of American government. Jefferson was a slaveholder and this cannot be dismissed as only a concession to the society in which he lived. It was in his own self-interest and it allowed him to live an aristocratic lifestyle. He thus contributed to this tragedy. Yet, he understood the moral bankruptcy of slavery, its moral incompatibility with democratic government, and the need for its eventual abolition.

Jefferson felt that slavery could not be immediately abolished without the threat of great violence because of past injustices to blacks and the deeply held prejudices of whites. He had unsuccessfully recommended laws which would have achieved gradual but total emancipation, colonization of gradually emancipated slaves, and exclusion of slavery from all Western Territories (see also Jefferson [1785] 1972, 214). His diatribe against the king for allowing slavery to become established in the colonies was omitted from the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. At the time of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, he described the threat of the slavery issue to the Union as a “firebell in the night,” and he wrote, “we have a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in the one scale, and self-preservation in the other” (Peterson 1977, 568). More than thirty years earlier he had written, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever...” (Jefferson [1785] 1972, 163).

Jefferson’s proposal to abolish slavery after 1800 in all territories and future territories was defeated in committee by one vote. Concerning this he later commented: “Thus we see the fate of millions of unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment” (Kenyon 1980). Jefferson understood the moral dimensions of freedom and he put them forth in stating the ideals of a new nation. In practice, the Civil War with the loss of over 600,000 lives and several constitutional amendments were necessary to both preserve the Union and make universal equality as a principle and as the basis of the democratic process something toward a reality.

Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln never wavered in his assertion that slavery was morally wrong and he opposed its extension into the territories. He also opposed resolving the issue of slavery in the territories, as Senator Douglas had proposed, by making it a matter of local popular sovereignty. Yet, he initially fought,and probably could not have otherwise won, the Civil War on the issue of national sovereignty and preservation of the Union. To preserve the Union, Lincoln needed both public opinion and the slaveholding border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Lincoln tried to uphold both the ideal in the Declaration of Independence of “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” and the rule of law in the Constitution of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”Lincoln realized, however, that public opinion was needed to bring the ideals of universal equality into practice in a democratic republic.

Complete Essay with references from my book, Moral and Political Philosophy.

James Ruthereford, M.D.