Thursday, January 3, 2013

The distinction between creation and birth: Did Jefferson's calculated choice of words first aid revolution, then emancipation?

Thomas Jefferson’s calculated crafting of the Declaration of Independence brought his skills as a lawyer fully into play when he wrote that “All men are created equal,” according to Stuart Smith III, Germanna Community College assistant professor of history.

 Smith’s “The Historical Context of the Declaration of Independence,” published in the Florida Conference of Historians Annals, Volume 19, April 2012 contends that Jefferson chose his words very carefully in an attempt to balance ideals and political pragmatism.

 This month, the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Smith talked about the founders’ struggle to deal with the issue of slavery 90 years before Lincoln did.

 Smith said Jefferson made a subtle but crucial adjustment to words written months before by George Mason:

“That all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights… among which are the Enjoyment of Life and Liberty, with the Means of acquiring and possessing Property, and pursueing and obtaining Happiness and Safety.”

-- George Mason. Virginia Declaration of Rights, May, 1776.

 Instead of writing that all men are born equal, Smith noted, Jefferson substituted created.

 Smith said that Jefferson, as a lawyer, was making an important distinction, “that God created man equally but circumstances on the Earth created the subsequent inequality.” 

 “It was not a justification of slavery, but a recognition that man had created/instituted the evil practice to which Jefferson, despite being a practitioner, abhorred,” Smith said.  “Jefferson knew that slavery was an offense against man and God; this is why he wanted it ended. Jefferson's villain in the drama would be King George III, whom he blamed for instituting the slave trade.

“But when ‘submitting the facts to a candid world’ regarding the colonies being abused by a tyrannical king, Jefferson chose to draw that distinction between ‘created’ and 'born' equal," Smith said. "I believe he did this to show the inequity of the practice and to hint at an inevitable course that would include all people in his phrase.”

1 comment:

Brian Patrick O'Malley said...

In 1740, aftermath of the 1739 Stono Rebellion by Central African slaves, South Carolina outlawed the importation of African slaves and the trade in Indian slaves. The home government, mindful of the profits of the Royal Africa Company, voided the ban on African slave imports.

Ironically, Thomas Jefferson's blaming King George III for the slave trade was removed in deference to the sensibilities of South Carolina slaveholders, the history of South Carolina lends some credence to efforts to blame the slave trade on Britain.