On Thomas Jefferson and Historical Evolution

I would like the readers of “Mary Elizabeth Sings” to know my thoughts regarding Thomas Jefferson, as well as my understanding of historical evolution. Below are the comments I made late last evening (slightly edited), July 16, 2012, on the educational blog of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Get Schooled,”  in response to another poster’s statements to me regarding Jefferson:

Another poster’s excerpted comments to Mary Elizabeth:

“Jefferson’s ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal’ was hypocrisy in itself. The phrase ‘all men’ meant exclusively white men. It did not even include white women!”

“You have firm convictions for whatever reason that don’t allow for a critical scrutinizing of him beyond (his) mere words.” ====================================================

My response to the above comments:

“I am old enough to remember when the word phrase and word,  ‘all men’ and ‘mankind,’ connoted all of humanity (men and women). And I was born as late as 1942. Certainly, when our Founding Fathers (for all had approved the words in the Declaration of Independence) used the words, ‘all men,’ in 1776, they meant for those words to connote the generic meaning of ‘all humanity.’

To understand anyone in history – with wisdom – one has to understand how history evolves over time. One has to understand that ‘reality’ is not even totally the same from one generation to the next generation, so that certainly ‘reality’ will evolve, and also the meanings of terminology will evolve, from one century to the next century. We see only shallow images of others if we cannot imagine historical evolution in our minds and souls, instead of simply through facts stored in our minds. One of the reasons I wanted to share Saul Padover’s insights regarding Jefferson was that his book, ‘Jefferson,’ was published in 1942, the year I was born. Padover was a well-respected historian who received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago and he was a professor of history at the University of California and at the New School for Social Research in NYC. He had written six books on Jefferson among his 30 published books. His writings, of course, will reflect how people thought in 1942, not today, regarding African-Americans (referred to as Negroes then), before the Civil Rights movement. Padover wrote that Jefferson did not ‘see’ slaves with the same eyes as most of the people of his (Jefferson’s) era.  Jefferson wanted the slaves freed and he felt that they must be freed; he simply felt that it was best for this emancipation process (from an unjust system that had taken years to unfold) to happen over some limited time, perhaps accomplished as soon as the generation after his own. I might have had another view, regarding emancipation’s timing, had I lived in Jefferson’s era. I do not know, for certain. I do know that I thought that desegregation of the races should happen immediately in the South in my era, but I do not have to be in lockstep thinking with Jefferson’s thinking to appreciate his substantial value to America and to her destiny.

In South Georgia during the Jim Crow Era when I was a teenager, most Southerners thought that black people were less ‘human’ than white people (a product of unenlightened thinking). However, I never ‘saw’ black people with those eyes. I think that I, like Jefferson, have had an understanding of history as it unfolds. I do not have to agree with everything that Jefferson believed to see that he was the most dynamic force, of our nation’s founding era, to insist upon a nation based on egalitarian concepts. I would urge you to reread my third post to you on Jefferson yesterday, in which I quoted from an old Encyclopedia Brittanica, published in 1958, because that book states well (see final paragraph) Jefferson’s impact, especially over time in America, on freedom established for every person – black, white, and all others, as well as for all men and women. Jefferson knew what impact, centuries from his own era, his words and his policies, which he established in Virginia and in America as its third president, would have on human beings, centuries from his particular time in history, related to egalitarianism. Evidently, others, too, have recognized Jefferson’s lasting value to America, and that is why he, as well as Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and now Martin Luther King, Jr., are immortalized with their own monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

It is sad, to me, that we feel sometimes that we must be in one camp or the other regarding Jefferson, instead of simply trying to see the man in full, with all of his complexity, and as a product of his era in history. I have no problem in scrutinizing Jefferson, or any other historical figure, but I would not make a major shift of my thinking, regarding him, simply on the basis of one or two posts on a public blog, but only by deep study over time, weighing especially original sources and understanding those sources in historical context. That takes more time and effort than I have to give this evening.

Let me close with sharing with you the statement that Jefferson had written to be placed in the original Declaration of Independence, but he was forced to delete that statement because the representatives from South Carolina and Georgia (who wanted to keep slavery in the new nation for financial reasons) insisted that his paragraph, below, be removed before they would sign the Declaration of Independence. Again, Jefferson is more complex in his thinking than your words show you presently understand.

‘From Mr. Jefferson’s Original Draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson had written: ‘He (King George III) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him; captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of Infidel Powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.’

‘From Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Minutes of Debates in 1776, on the Declaration of Independence,’ published with the Madison Papers:

‘The clause, too, (above) reprobating the enslaving of the inhabitants of Africa was struck out, in compliance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren, also, I believe, felt a little tender under those censures; for, though their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.’ ”

===================================================

On July 22, 2012, I posted the following regarding Thomas Jefferson’s views of the U. S. Constitution on another journalist’s blog from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

“About the immutability of the U.S. Constitution from Thomas Jefferson’s perspective, from pages 378 – 379 of Saul K. Padover’s book, entitled ‘Jefferson,’ published in 1942 by Konecky & Konecky by special arrangement with Harcourt, Brace & Company. Padover received a doctorate degree in history from the University of Chicago and was a Professor of History at the University of California and at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was the author of 30 books, six of which were about Jefferson:

———————————————————-

“Thus Jefferson accepted the inevitable. Ultimately the growth of American industrialization led to the ruin of the agricultural South. Even in Jefferson’s lifetime Congress passed a tariff which hit him and his fellow agrarians hard. Jefferson had to pay three times the prewar prices for shirtings, for example.

“Jefferson’s change of position on the subject of industrialization illustrates a basic quality of his mind, that of flexibility. He viewed the world as mutable. In his eyes nothing was permanent and nothing was rigidly fixed. Men changed, institutions changed, ideas changed. There was constant growth, and constant decay. The life cycle applied to nature as well as to institutions. Even the Constitution of the United States, which was the bulwark of American freedom, was not immutable. At the age of seventy-three Jefferson said that the Constitution was not ‘too sacred to be touched’ but was a human institution that should be revised periodically when needed:

“(Jefferson): ‘Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. . . .I know. . . that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. . . .As. . . new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors. . . .Each generation. . . has. . .a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness. . . .a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years should be provided by the constitution.’

“His (Jefferson’s) conclusion in the matter of laws and institutions was that they were perpetually subject to change for the benefit of humanity. ‘Nothing then,’ he told Major John Cartwright in 1824, ‘is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.’

(Note: The above information from Padover’s book was footnoted to reference, ‘Notices, Letters, etc. Respecting the Library Manuscripts of Thomas Jefferson,’ typescript, Library of Congress, 1898, vol. 7, page 359.)”


I posted the following words on AJC columnist Jay Bookman’s blog on August 14, 2016:

“This afternoon I am completing a book by historian John Ferling, with whom I had the opportunity to have a brief dialogue at the Atlanta History Center about a year or year and a half ago.  The name of the book is “Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800.”

Here are Ferling’s words regarding Jefferson’s “party platform of sorts”:  (Adams ran as a Federalist; Jefferson as a democratic Republican.)

“In addition, alone among the candidates, Jefferson wrote numerous letters in which he spelled out his convictions, producing a party platform of sorts. ‘I am for preserving to the States the powers not yielded by them to the Union,’ and for preventing the further encroachment of the executive branch on the rightful powers of Congress, he wrote. ‘I am for a government rigorously frugal and simple,’ and for retiring the national debt, eliminating a standing army and relying on the militia to safeguard internal security, and keeping the navy small, lest it drag the nation into ‘eternal wars.’  He continued: ‘I am for free commerce with all nations; political connections with none,’ adding that he wished to remain out of the warfare that had ravaged Europe for most of the past decade. ‘I am for freedom of religion, and . . .for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the constitution to silence . . .our citizens.’ ” (page 140, paperback edition, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press)

———————————————————————-

Those were the words of Jefferson, himself.  But please remember that Jefferson was fully aware of the evolution of humankind over time, and wrote in a letter to a friend, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

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