All Men Were Created Equal

David Schraub, in recent thread of comments has been contending that due to the existence of Black chattel slavery in the colonial states, the statement in Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin’s little letter to King George ratified by the Continental Congress was “hypocrisy”. I disagree. He writes:

I think it is perfectly reasonable to question whether Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder and likely rapist (sexual relations with a slave = rape under almost any definition of the term) views on “all men are created equal” might be held with at least a skeptical eye, no? I think that when the subject came to Black people, the majority of the founders were operating in bad faith.

Huh? I think, at the very least our problem stems from a disagreement of what hypocrisy really means.

Via google, a quick definition:


  • an expression of agreement that is not supported by real conviction
  • insincerity by virtue of pretending to have qualities or beliefs that you do not really have

So it seems that we must at the very least come to an understanding that our founders, in making the statement that “all men are created equal” were actually intentionally promoting ideals which they thought were false, and not just operating in a cultural climate which is not thoroughly modern.

If a person enters a building, is searched and gives an oath that he intends no harm. But it is later discovered that he had a contracted a deadly virus but the symptoms were not apparent to him or his peers at the time, is he operating “in bad faith”? I don’t think so. Bad faith requires full knowledge of and deceiptful intentions. Adams and Jefferson had a long feud and disagreement over Jefferson’s opinion on slavery. Does that mean Adam’s was “not acting in bad faith” while Jefferson was. Or was Jefferson’s belief, common at the time, that the American Black’s were an “inferior race”. An excerpt culled from Jefferson’s memoirs via this web site (from 1785):

I am safe in affirming, that the proofs of genius given by the Indians of North America place them on a level with whites in the same uncultivated state. The North of Europe furnishes subjects enough for comparison with them, and for a proof of their equality. I have seen some thousands myself, and conversed much with them, and have found in them a masculine, sound understanding. I have had much information from men who had lived among them, and whose veracity and good sense were so far known to me, as to establish a reliance on their information. They have all agreed in bearing witness in favor of the genius of this people. As to their bodily strength, their manners rendering it disgraceful to labor, those muscles employed in labor will be weaker with them, than with the European laborer; but those which are exerted in the chase, and those faculties which are employed in the tracing an enemy or a wild beast, in contriving ambuscades for him, and in carrying them through their execution, are much stronger than with us, because they are more exercised. I believe the Indian, then, to be, in body and mind, equal to the white man. I have supposed the black man, in his present state, might not be so; but it would be hazardous to affirm, that, equally cultivated for a few generations, he would not become so.

Mr Schraub to contend hypocrisy must also contend that such statements as the above, was a pretense. A sham, put on to justify an unjust institution. I think Mr Schraub must demonstrate, to support his claim of bad faith, that bad faith was actually in play. That is, that the founders said one thing, while believing another. Those same founders, Adams and Jefferson in particular where profligate letter writers. Surely such evidence, if it is to be found, would be found therin. Have at it.

11 Responses to All Men Were Created Equal

  1. From “Notes on the State of Virginia”:

    “They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by
    the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection….

    Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me,
    that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous….The Indians, with no advantages…will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”

    Was this supposed to be a challenge? Although to be honest, I think that hypocrisy is, at a basic level, saying one thing and doing another. E.g., saying “all men are created equal” and owning slaves. I don’t really think I need to get beyond that, but Jefferson is an easy target.

  2. David,
    To me it seems you argue my point well. Jefferson did not it seems consider the Black a man, hence did not consider the statement AMICE hypocritical. To demonstrate that he was being hypocritical you need to show that he felt that they were not an inferior species but acted contrary to his beliefs nonetheless. You need to demonstrate that Jefferson operated in bad faith, that is believing one thing and stating another. You have demonstrated the opposite.

    Of course, for the other of the two co-authors (or at least co-committee members drawing it up) of that document you have a far more difficult case to prove, i.e., bad faith. Especially in the case of Adams, given that Adams for much of his life in correponence disagreed with Jefferson on this very point and repeatedly argued the point with him. Which also tends to actually prove my point. Why would you suspect that Adams, certainly as perceptive if not more so than you or I and who actually dined and met with Jefferson, did not accuse his debating partner of hypocrisy or bad faith?

    I don’t think you might consder that making the statement AMICE while owning pets or computers to be in bad faith. That is because you don’t (rightly I concur) think that either pets nor computers are fully human. What you need to demonstrate is that Jefferson thought the Black man was considered “man”, yet he persisted in holding to his statement AMICE at the same time. Today we recognize Mr Jefferson’s error, however this does not means Jefferson was a hypocrite, but just a holder of beliefs which we now feel are incorrect.

  3. So basically, your defense of Jefferson boils down to: He didn’t think Blacks were fully human. Gosh, I recant: clearly Jefferson was a God amongst men.

    Incidentally, I don’t see that claim made anywhere in the quote I give (where is it clear that Jefferson views Blacks as non-human, rather than inferior specimens of human?), but you understand why I find that a slightly uncompelling defense of Jefferson’s morality. At best, you’re showing that he was inadvertantly hypocritical (as you said yourself, few people view themselves as doing wrong [like being hypocritical] so it matters very little that JEFFERSON though he was being consistent when we can observe that he isn’t. And more importantly for the spark point for this debate, any Black person AT THE TIME could see it too. Perhaps Jefferson should have polled his many, many slaves as to whether they were human. I’ll even spot him one and ask my computer if it’s human (so far, no answer)). By my lights, you’re just making him even more immoral. Thinking Blacks aren’t human is not “just… [a] belief[] which we now feel [is] incorrect.” The sun revolving around the earth is a view we now think is incorrect. Thinking Blacks are subhuman is evil. There’s no other way to describe it. And since I my impression is that you believe in transcendent morality, I don’t think you can describe else either.

  4. David,
    One further point, it seems to me that there is nothing in the actual Declaration that is objectionable (racially speaking) if memory serves. I’m not sure how that plays into your thesis that the AMICE is a hypocritical statement made by the founders. If the founders at that time, had in mind something akin to the Articles of Confederation I’m not sure if that document is racially suspect either.

  5. David,
    I think you’re misunderstanding me. I’m not defending what Jefferson thought about the Blacks as being right, correct or defensible. I just don’t think it was hypocrisy. Hypocrisy involves intentional inconsistency. You call it hypocrisy and bad faith. You’re using the wrong word. But Jefferson’s belief was a cultural misapprehension common to a whole culture, that of the patrician southern colonial colonies. The topic of the “humanity” of the Black was also a hotly debated topic among the elite in that day and age, but it is a settled question now. In that point, I would think that Adam’s viewpoint might be more apt. He would argue hotly, passionately, and indeed probably angrily with Jefferson over the issue of slavery. I don’t think Adams viewpoint on the morality of that belief was far from yours. But yet he, called Jefferson a friend (and didn’t dismiss him as an evil hypocritical villain). Why do you think that was the case? Was Adams wrong in that? or perhaps we can learn from him?

    For example, I happen to think aborting a fetus because it is diagnosed with Down’s is evil. You, I suspect, might disagree and think it’s permissable. For the sake of this illustration let’s imagine you do. Let’s also suppose that in two centuries is an accepted fact that I am right and you are wrong in this case (say based on it being part of the long proven and well established “evils of eugenics”). Does that make you a hypocrite if you were to claim you belong to a culture which values human life and celebrates the spirit of man? I don’t think you are necessarily a hypocrite (although you are still wrong). Are you evil? Does any of the other good you might do then become devalued? Or more to the point, should those 2 centuries from now view you as an evil man because of that belief?

    I believe in transcendent morality, but I also believe that I am not your judge. We are all broken and live sinful lives. We sometimes do good too. Jefferson, a genius in any time, did good and sinned as well. He had insights that penetrated beyond the spirit of the age. He had other ideas which did not. Thinking AMICE is rank hypocrisy in any age because it’s author was flawed is just frankly odd. If that is being taught in the Black community, I think that’s a mistake. Do you ignore Rouseau because he was a weird reculsive jerk? Do you check out the personal foibles of all the writers you read before you judge their ideas? Of course not.

    The good Jefferson put in motion with his transcendent rhetoric, ultimately cleaving through his particular provincial and dated biases and views, I would argue that he not be judged as “evil” for not anticipating cultural change in advance.

  6. Sigh.

    It’s all very fashionable to go after the founders these days. Oh yes, anyone who lived some time ago and doesn’t live up to our oh-so-enlightened modern standards is to be judged a hypocrite or words. Dead White Males, beware!

    The ancient Greeks owned slaves, but many of them lived in democratic states. Are they to be written off too?

    To me the bottom line is that everyone must be judged by the standards of their own time. Leave the founders alone. They were way ahead of their time and left us a country of which we can be proud.

  7. Tom: You’re right. I’m being so unfair to Jefferson. It’s only a product of our fleeting modern sensibility that says racism is wrong. How silly of me.

    Mark: I do not wish to ignore Jefferson or his good works. But in the context of race, Jefferson was bad. In the context of, perhaps, rhetoric or federalism or some other issue, Jefferson was good. Morality isn’t something I have to pin wholesale on somebody–Rousseau can have useful things to offer and not be perfect (But that doesn’t mean we should not criticize the imperfections). But for Black people, the good Jefferson did was very ironic because it was expressed while simultanously being denied to them by Jefferson and the nation he founded.

    The issue about “judging our ancestors” is a difficult one, but we have to be careful not to prove too little or too much. On the one hand, it is important that we can judge them: I’d be outraged if someone told me I couldn’t say “Hitler was wrong” because he died 40 years before I was born (or if you prefer, the Spanish Inquisitors born well before Jefferson). On the other hand, it seems unfair to judge someone evil for conduct he had no way of knowing was bad. “Ignorance of the (moral) law is no excuse,” but that maxim presupposes that the subject could have been expected to know the rule. So, to help navigate those trecharous waters, I propose three factors that can be evaluated in assigning moral culpability:

    1) Was there debate on the topic that the subject heard or reasonably could have been expected to hear?

    2) Could the subject have or reasonably been expected to consult or interact with the theoretical victims of the moral wrong, so that they could explain their side?

    3) How close was the act in question to conduct that was unambigiously considered wrong at the time?

    For Jefferson, the answer is “yes” to both of the first two questions. And rape was definitely an unambigious wrong in 1776, so that’s helps meet the 3rd. So I think it is fair to accuse him of “reckless moral negligence”, if you will.

    But the broader point is that The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are “we the people” documents. They represent the stated ideals of a NATION, not the founders. There is a clear tension between a nation founded on AMICE and a constituion which explicitly protects the slave trade. AMICE remains hypocrisy as long as we live in a society where AMICE isn’t true and we pretend like it is.

    I’m curious what you think of the following analogy:

    Slavery/Jim Crow: Black Americans :: 9/11 : Americans generally

    The tragedy is still remembered because the harm and concurrent ideology is still being fought. Surely, you don’t think that America should start finding more positive ways to remember September 11th, rather than this whole “war on terror/occupation of Iraq” thing (talk about negativity!)?

  8. David,
    Via your criteria, in my example above, as:

    1. You are aware of debates re’ abortion specifically regarding Downs Syndrom (and other “medical/eugenic reasons for termination of pregancy).
    2. You can interview a Downs person to inquire whether he might feel that being aborted might have been a better choice than life for his personal state, or ask perhaps his opinion on the issue in general.
    3. And eugenics, as a Jew, I’d think a particularly sensitive subject which I will thus argue is viewed unambigiously as evil in our time.

    So then, are you therefore well adjudged as guilty of “reckless moral negligence?” or “being thus evil” as regards this issue.

    And, I thought the particular thrust of this post was that the founders (particularly Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin as the principle authors of the Declaration) were being hypocritical in their writing “all men are created equal.” I still maintain that bad faith/hypocrisy has not been demostrated. Your widening of this appreciation to the modern person who might make that claim, such as Tom and myself, is perhaps another topic for discussion.

    I will undertake to respond to your analogy after work tonight re 9/11 and our response (in your morning, as I’m 12-13 hours ahead of you).

  9. David,
    One other thought. I strikes me strange that a student of American race relations you are unfamiliar with the discussions that took place between Adams and Jefferson in particular. I mention Adams/Jefferson because both of them were some of the most brilliant thinkers of their day. If their discourse survived it might be the best example of its kind from that period.

    Is “diversity” of thought in colleges these days so poor that you don’t even attempt to understand what/how anyone who disagrees with you might be thinking or the origin and basis for their ideas? How then might you really effect change without the ability to discourse with any opposition save by repeating the reasoning by which you have arrived at your position? I would have thought you would need to understand both cultures and how they interact to understand how to effect change.

  10. I’m only “evil” if I’m wrong, Mark :-). But I think the relavent agent to be interviewed for my abortion views is a fetus, not a person with Downs–the impossibility of which makes 2 impossible. And I don’t think that aborting a fetus diagnosed with Downs is an example of eugenics, because the purpose isn’t to improve the genetic pool. Incidentally, I don’t think a fetus has less right to be born if it has Down’s system than if it is healthy, so I’m confused about this example–I’m just not convinced a fetus has the right to be born.

    I am reasonably aware of the argument between Jefferson and Adams (did I come off as completely clueless that they had a dispute on the matter?). And I don’t know what makes you think I haven’t read theorists who disagree with me on race (or the veiled swipe in the type of diversity I receive at college). I’ve only taken one course specifically on race (foundations of blakc political thought), in which we read authors with views as diverse as Fredrick Douglass and WEB Du Bois, who I agree with to varying extents, to Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, both of whom I disagree with (Booker would be very close to ure beliefs), to Arthur de Gobineau (sp?), whom I find repulsive. We discussed in that class the roots of the “color-blind” approach to race (heavily influenced by Social Darwinism, and American Individualism, and legitimized among Blacks by Booker T). I haven’t read much of ANYONE before Douglass outside of my Intro to Political Philosophy class (Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx). And of course, I keep my eye on new commentary on the field, so I can hardly escape hearing what my philosophical opponents argue on the topic of race. My background may not be rooted in the elder voices, but I definitely resent being told that I don’t examine a plurality of perspecitves on the field.

  11. David,
    On the first, I didn’t say you are “evil” if you are wrong, that’s your position. Just that, you would be judged evil in 200 years if the proposed events transpired. Which I felt was analogous to judging Jefferon’s racial stance as “evil”. And I didn’t of course know whether your opinion on Down’s as sufficient “reason” for abortion a position you hold. But I was claiming that on #2 a person who had been such a fetus might qualify. Of course the reason to abort such a fetus is essentially eugenics, it’s so “my child” is not possessed of “inferior” genetic stock. It’s the moral judgement of “children of a lesser God” assigned to Downs to which I object. The point is, given the suppositions above is the judgement of “evil” or “reckless moral negligence” right or allowable? When we judge a man as unrighteous based on standards of our time, is that correct if he would be judged righteous in his own.

    As to your studies, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be offensive. I apologize. All I’m trying to say is that your discussions seems to show a habit of mind, i.e., Jefferson = evil, wherein you are not trying to understand from whence the other person’s ideas originate and how he (in this case Jefferson) thinks. Having decided he is wrong, you seem uninterested in the arguments he marshalls in defending his position on what they are based, and so on. You just assume based on your apphrension of the conclusion that they are “evil”. All I’m saying is that if you wanted to convince someone to change, first you have to understand that person stands, his motivations, and so on. And as I said, it seems that actually the Jefferson/Adams dialog might be more logical, coherent, end edifying than say Messr Gobineau for example.

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