The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson
A new portrait of the founding father challenges the long-held perception of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder
“There are slaves across human history,” the Fox News host continued. “I get that. It’s a terrible history we should talk about but we should not feel guilty or ashamed of our leaders when we go and visit the people who brought us the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. You leave feeling that way.”
“And then you get kids coming through thinking Thomas Jefferson was a bad guy,” he remarked. “We get accused of wanting to ‘whitewash’ or not talk about that. We will talk about that. We know that. That’s a real deal. But making it about America being an evil place is when we get into the realm of a cultural revolution.”
With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal” (THE LADIES ARE SCREWED)—Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: “From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”
That was the way it was interpreted by some of those who read it at the time as well. Massachusetts freed its slaves on the strength of the Declaration of Independence, weaving Jefferson’s language into the state constitution of 1780. The meaning of “all men” sounded equally clear, and so disturbing to the authors of the constitutions of six Southern states that they emended Jefferson’s wording. “All freemen,” they wrote in their founding documents, “are equal.” The authors of those state constitutions knew what Jefferson meant, and could not accept it. The Continental Congress ultimately struck the passage because South Carolina and Georgia, crying out for more slaves, would not abide shutting down the market.
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.
— Preamble, Declaration of Independence, 1776