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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Jefferson, 1619, and 1776

We know that Jefferson lived far downstream of 1619. His livelihood and self-image depended squarely on his status as a slaveholder. In his well-known 1820 letter to John Holmes, Jefferson almost makes Silverstein’s either/or argument for him, saying about the predicament of Southern slaveholders such as himself: “Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Though many of us would like to think that 1776 weighs on the justice side of this scale, it is not clear whether Jefferson would agree. According to the author of the Declaration, 1776’s promise of “self-government and happiness” for himself and those like him was under threat during the Missouri crisis by devotees of the “abstract principle” dictating the geographic restriction of slavery.
Contrary to Jefferson’s proud claim on his tombstone, there were many joint authors of the Declaration of Independence. It was adopted (after alteration) by the entire Continental Congress and largely expressed what Thomas Paine had called the American “common sense” and what Jefferson would later call “the American mind.” The more one reads of the public documents, pamphlets, sermons, and letters of the decades preceding and the years immediately following the Declaration of Independence, the more one realizes that Jefferson was really more stenographer than author. Jefferson was an original thinker, but the later accusation that he had plagiarized the Declaration contained more than a grain of truth.
The candidacy of 1776 as a meaningful and valuable constituent of American identity cannot, then, be buried along with Jefferson himself. The ideas of 1776 that were expressed in the Declaration—natural human rights, limited government by consent, the right of revolution—were shared equally by Jefferson and countless other individuals at his time, many of whom were not as clearly implicated by association with the evils really and symbolically unleashed in 1619. These ideas are something apart from any of the individuals at the time who espoused them.