From a Founding Father, An Imperfect Vision of America

By Benjamin Schwarz

4 July 1994 LOS ANGELES TIMES

484px-ThomasJeffersonStateRoomPortraitThe United States, fashioned after the dreams of its founders, was the first self-conscious nation in history. It is a nation possessed by an idea of what it ought to be, and that idea is what we celebrate on July 4.

But if the Fourth is our most sacred national day, it is also the holiday about which we are most ambivalent. While we are enraptured by the American idea, we have always been haunted by the chasm between our ideals and our deeds. Possessed by a dream, we have for 200 years yearned for America, in Martin Luther King’s words, “to live out the true meaning of its creed.”

This ambivalence is epitomized in the curious way in which America reveres and reviles its inventor. Ten days before his death and the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, in a fit of self-congratulation, wrote that the declaration would be “the signal arousing men to burst the chains and to secure the blessings of self-government. All eyes are opening to the rights of man . . . . The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs or a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately.”

Today it is impossible to read Jefferson’s lines without irony. While we applaud ourselves when America’s vision of liberty and human rights is apparently embraced from Chile to China, and while we believe that America’s ideals have led naturally to the multiculturalism and ethnic diversity we celebrate, we quail at the man who defined those ideals.

Enlightened schoolchildren now see Jefferson in a most ambivalent light. He was a sincere and dedicated foe of the slave trade who bought and sold people whenever he found it personally necessary. He believed that all men were entitled to life and liberty, yet he tracked down and punished slaves who claimed these rights by running away. He was convinced that slavery was morally and politically wrong, but wrote a slave code for his state and opposed a national attempt to limit the further expansion of the institution. He believed one hour of slavery to be worse than ages of British oppression, yet he was able to discuss slave “breeding,” as if he were speaking of dogs or horses. He knew slavery to be a stain on America, but he refused to lift a finger to wash it clean; for while he believed in the rights of man, he also believed in the right to property, and for him, when the two conflicted, property took precedence.

The radiance of Jefferson’s vision of America as “an empire of liberty”–a vision that we have inherited–is stained by racism. Jefferson’s apologists are fond of quoting his statement about black men and women, that “nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free . . . ” But they fail to quote his concluding clause: “. . . nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.”

Jefferson hated slavery because he knew it to be wrong, but he also hated it because it brought black people to America. Jefferson was convinced that blacks were alien, inferior and dangerous, and his vision for America–a vision better explained by psychologists than historians–required that blacks be not only emancipated but extirpated. Advocating a program of ethnic cleansing, Jefferson was determined that blacks must be removed “beyond the reach of mixture.”

Knowing this, many now declare Jefferson’s ideas, those that defined this country, to be hypocritical and therefore meaningless. Others dismiss Jefferson’s foibles, saying that it is absurd to hold him to current standards. But most of us know that those very standards are rooted in Jefferson’s ideals. Just as we have trouble separating the ideals from the man, so our national agony has been trying to reconcile our egalitarian dream with the sordid reality from which it comes.

To know Jefferson is to know America’s tragedy. But it is also to know what we must do. For two centuries, America’s assignment has been to live up to Jefferson’s ideals, not his prejudices and neuroses. Abiding by those ideals, the American people, Jefferson prophesied, would “go on, puzzled and prospering beyond example in the history of man.”

It was not revealed to him, however, that sharing this puzzlement and, to a lesser degree, this prosperity, would be 20 million black citizens of these United States. His failure to foresee this salient fact of our history has enormously complicated the Jeffersonian heritage of freedom and equality, majority rule and minority rights. For the ideals and aspirations that Jefferson gave imperishable expression in the Declaration of Independence must be applied, not in the all-white society of Jefferson’s vision but in the multiracial society of our America.

Jefferson, our nation’s creator, believed this impossible. To be true to his ideals, we must prove him wrong.

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