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.”
Thus begins the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The words, as amended by John Adams and James Madison, are those of Thomas Jefferson, who drew heavily on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights of June 12, 1776, which begins with the words: “That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” Both Jefferson and Mason drew heavily on the seventeenth-century English philosoper, John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. (Whereas, Jefferson has, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, Locke has “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property”.)
I do not know when I first became familiar with these ringing words of the Declaration of Independence, but they certainly forced their way onto my attention when I read them on one of the original Dunlap versions of the Declaration on one of the interior walls of the Old State House in Boston, Massachussetts, on my very first day in America in the July of 2004. That I was reading from the very document that would have been read from to the people of Boston from this very building I found very moving.
Fifteen days later, on my last full day in America, I found myself again reading Thomas Jefferson’s words, this time those from his Notes on the State of Virginia, which I came across on Panel Three of the Four Panels inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” I had no doubt that the words were a reference to slavery.
As everyone knows, Jefferson was himself himself a slave owner, as indeed was George Mason, who once called it a “slow Poison” that “is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People”, and that other George, George Washington himself.
That men who found slavery morally abhorrent were themselves slave owners is one of the many contradictions in America’s early history that Kenneth C. Davis explores in his latest book, A Nation Rising. Commenting the fact that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Robert E. Lee were all slave owners–albeit, in the eyes of their admirers, “enlightened owners, who treated their slaves well and sought to emancipate some”–he writes: “Washington, his admirers love to note, wouldn’t sell his slaves because he didn’t want to break up families. He treated them well. He emancipated his slaves in his will. But in an earlier time, Washington had offered rewards for the return of runaways. And when he took slaves to New York to serve him as president, they certainly were not free to leave. As for Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence was totally dependent upon slave labor to operate his plantation, profitably or not. He also contemplated emancipation of his slaves, but was too much in debt to do so at his death. Robert E. Lee was said to be morally opposed to slavery, yet he and the other Lees of Virginia were entrenched members of Virginia’s slave aristocracy.
“These men owned human beings. All the niceties about their feelings and intentions cannot ameliorate the fact. They had the power of life and death over other human beings, people they could buy and sell at will. And, like many slaveholders, they knew slavery was wrong and an offense to the ideals for which they had fought.”