When Jefferson Said Equal He MEANT Equal

by Donnie Casto II – Staff Writer

Without evidence, false ideas can easily manipulate mainstream discussions and views. Recently it has become fashionable to proclaim that slavery is America’s original sin. A 2003 National Geographic article titled “21st Century Slaves” estimated that there are currently 27 million men, women, and children enslaved. That is more than the total number of slaves taken during the peak of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Historical records of the Founders prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the institution of slavery was opposed by many of them. The institution of slavery has been a human sin, not just an American one. The New York Times’ 1619 series assumes that everything significant about America descends from the advent of slavery in Virginia.

“The goal of the 1619 Project,” the paper explains, “is to reframe American history.” NYT contributor Nikole Hannah-Jones’ assertion of the series is that the Founders were oblivious, effortless, and partial to slavery. Miss Hannah-Jones asserts in her writing: “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country.”

The preamble of our Declaration conveys the notion that all human beings, from every time and in every place have a God-given right to these blessings.   Nowhere in the document did Jefferson ever specifically state that “men” was meant to be limited to only white males, or even limited only to white male land owners of English descent. The use of the term, men, was a common 18th century term for people, as other documents of that time indicate.  In earlier American society, the terms men or mankind was an acceptable term for both males and females of all races, prior to the onset of political correctness. Instead of trying to reframe or reshape American history, let’s look back at the historical record of 1619 that the New York Times published about our Founders collective guilt on slavery.

The first Africans arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619. Although there are multiple New York Times 1619 pieces referring to these Africans as ‘slaves’, there is no supporting historical or legal evidence to verify the status of these Africans. Decades later in 1651, an African resident known in documents as Antonio, later named Anthony Johnson, attained legal ownership “for life” over another African in Virginia, named John Casor. This specific legal case was the first time that a court of law recognized the institution of slavery in the colony of Virginia.

Miss Hannah-Jones’ article left that out, but she again stated, “The white men who drafted the Declaration did not believe it to be true for the thousands of blacks in their midst.” The drafters of the Declaration of Independence were Robert Livingston, John Adams, Roger Sherman, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. In the issue of transparency and fairness, let’s examine the five committee members who wrote the Declaration and see if Miss Hannah-Jones’s claims hold true:

Robert Livingston – Livingston had more enlightened views regarding African-Americans than many of his contemporaries. As a member of the state’s Council of Revision in 1785, he helped to veto a bill passed by the legislature that provided for gradual abolition but barred blacks from voting and holding office. “Freed slaves”, he wrote, could not “be deprived of those essential rights without shocking the principle of equal liberty” fundamental to New York’s new constitution. “Rendering power permanent and hereditary in the hands of persons who deduce their origins from white ancestors only,” he proclaimed, would lay the foundation for a “malignant… aristocracy.”

John Adams – Adams and his famous cousin Samuel, (not the beer guy) were vocal abolitionist throughout their personal and political careers. John and his son John Quincy were the only two of the first twelve American Presidents to never own another human being as property.

Roger Sherman – Sherman drafted a law abolishing slavery in Connecticut, Sherman never owned any slaves.

Benjamin Franklin – Franklin in his early life owned a few slaves. As a young man, he carried advertisements for the sale of slaves in his newspaper. He eventually came to recognize the evil of the practice and freed his slaves and became a staunch abolitionist for the remainder of his life. Franklin also served as president of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. In February of 1790 three months before his death, Franklin presented Congress with a formal abolition petition that declared: “Mankind are all formed by the same almighty being, alike objects of his care, and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness.”

Before getting to the last committee member, Thomas Jefferson, it is worth mentioning the following Founders and members of Revolutionary War America that never owned another human being as property and were vocally outspoken personally and politically against the institution of slavery:

George Clymer, William Ellery, Elbridge Gerry, Samuel Huntington, Thomas McKean, Robert Treat Paine,

 Roger Sherman, Charles Thomson, George Walton, William Williams, James Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Paine, Marquis de Lafayette, and Gouverneur Morris. None of these men who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor ever owned another human being as property.

Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson was the chief draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State in Washington’s administration, and a ardent champion of religious liberty and freedom. He made the news with Monticello acknowledging his fathering six of Sally Hemmings children. This now proven story was notable news during Jefferson’s first term as President. A 2017 Washington Post article written by Britni Danielle alleges that “Jefferson raped Hemmings.”. There has been no substantiated facts or evidence from either Jefferson or Hemmings or their contemporaries of that time that their sexual relationship was nonconsensual.

While articles written by Miss Danielle and others like to solely smear Jefferson as a hypocrite, he was more of a paradox and walking contradiction. Jefferson, like Washington, Madison, and Monroe, inherited and owned slaves, yet was vocally opposed to it. Under Virginia law at the time, slaves were considered ‘property,’ and they were expressly subject to the claims of creditors. Jefferson died deeply in debt and the writers at the NYT and WP either willfully or conveniently left out the rest of the story regarding Jefferson’s work in abolishing slavery during his lifetime.

Jefferson co-sponsored a bill that unilaterally would’ve ended slavery. It failed. In 1778 he drafted a bill prohibiting importing slaves into Virginia that failed. In 1784 he wrote the first draft of a bill banning slavery from the Northwest Territory that failed by one vote.

Jefferson also penned the most vocal attack on the institution of slavery in a redacted portion of the Declaration that was removed due to pressure from South Carolina, Georgia, and some Northern delegates actively involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. This portion of the Declaration stated:

“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & 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 & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

Most Americans, as well as the 1619 Project, are probably unaware of these original redacted words. In that original draft, Jefferson also referred to slaves as “men,” indicating the enslaved were human beings and not mere property, although legally, these human beings were at the time. To the contrary, Jefferson saw them also as the rightful recipients of divinely authored nature rights. Thus, even human beings living in sub-Saharan Africa in the 18th century had been endowed with the same God-given inalienable rights as any Englishman according to Jefferson.

What happened to their rights? They had been denied by the British Crown, reasoned Jefferson.

There is also a direct political-philosophical link between the 13th Amendment of our Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance, signed on July 13, 1787. The Ordinance was a document clearly ahead of its time. It formally forbade the presence of the institution of slavery in what had been the Northwest Territory. Today the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  The Northwest Ordinance greatly influenced the U.S. Constitution. Here is what was said in Article 6 of that document (Northwest Ordinance):

“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

The person responsible for writing the draft of the Northwest Ordinance was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The founder was accused of racism and rape of the woman who bore six of his children. Jefferson from the 1770’s to his death advocated gradual emancipation for all slaves in the newly formed United States.  

Believing that the institution and practice of slavery was wrong (was easy). Deciding what to do with millions of human beings from another continent without any historical preparation for living as free citizens in the United States, where they were 20 percent of the population was another matter.

Their rejection of slavery was made clear by Washington, Jefferson, and many of their contemporaries. The question of what to do to remedy it continued to baffle them. That question would remain for more than half a century and with some demanding reparations for these issues. It appears to remain so today. What exactly must we do to remedy the sin of slavery in America while completely ignoring the institution thriving in parts of Africa and the Middle East today.

Following the abolition of slavery in America its leaders placed pressure on other countries to terminate the practice. The 1619 Project will never admit that “all men are created equal” helped topple slavery in the United States. Based on an objective analysis of our Founders as well as the Declaration committee’s positions on slavery, it should illustrate that America’s founding fathers were not only more progressive, but exhibited a moral disposition absent in most places then as well as today where the institution of slavery still thrives in contrast to the criticism at the New York Times.