Happy Birthday, Thomas

April 11, 1993|By JACK FRUCHTMAN Jr.

The 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth Tuesday will mark a moment of appropriate commemoration and sober reflection, and it should, but mainly because of the truths, not the myths, of the man and what they mean to us today.

Most Americans know Jefferson as the principal writer of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. They are familiar with the beautiful memorial dedicated to him in Washington in 1943 at a moment when half the world struggled fervently against tyranny.

On the other hand, Americans are less likely to want to remember that Jefferson was a slave-owner, who fathered several slave children. While he could write, and no doubt believe, that all men possessed "certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he also participated in the deprivation of rights and liberties to an entire race of people.

These two experiences -- as liberal thinker and as slave-owner -- reflect not only the internal contradictions in his life, but ours as well.

We, too, live with conflict in complicated times. Americans, especially in recent years with the fall of communism, consistently suggest that other countries imitate our dedication to freedom, equality, and toleration. And yet, we face not only intense decay and disintegration in our urban areas, but we may also confront the prospect of continued tempestuous unrest. Our cities could again become engulfed in racial and economic disorder as we witnessed a year ago in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere.

The lesson here is that we can learn from Jefferson and his contradictions: He respected those who were different from himself.

All, no matter what their condition in life, were human beings, who possessed a moral sense to distinguish right from wrong. "The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm," he once said. While he understood that there were variations among human beings, from the white European and red Native American to the black African, he believed that all human beings were basically the same in intellectual, moral and social potential.

This was particularly true of the American Indians who could be observed in their native habitats, in their use of language and in their relics dug from the ground. Their historical experience was different from, not inferior to, the white people of Western civilization. In 1785, he wrote that "I believe the Indian, then, in body and in mind, equal to the white man."

The African-American slave, who had not been allowed to develop to his greatest potential, presented Jefferson with greater difficulty. Unlike their Native American counterparts, there were no "native" societies to observe, no relics brought from afar, and no language but those of their masters. Still, blacks had the same moral sense as all other people, and he knew they had not developed their talent to the fullest potential. He especially condemned the slave trade, which he knew was more inhuman and cruel than slavery itself. Congress deleted from the Declaration a passage condemning the practice.

Slavery was unfortunately legal in Jefferson's native Virginia, and he was bound by the law. Although he wrote draft constitutions for Virginia prohibiting it, he was stuck with it. It was nearly impossible for a slave-owner to free his slaves in Virginia. Not only did freedmen have to leave the state entirely, but they also had to have enough money to care for themselves.

Still, Jefferson longed for the time when he would see their "moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends."

Jefferson tried best to resolve the contradictions in his life by freeing his slaves after his death. Since all human beings were moral creatures subject to the laws of nature and nature's God, white people, Native Americans and African-American slaves alike possessed rights, even if they all were unable to exercise them at a particular time. Rights were not reserved for the most talented: "Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others."

If we think of nothing else in our memory of Jefferson at 250, it ought to be this: His life and his principles demonstrate that no matter how complicated society is, we can resolve our contemporary tensions and contradictions.

Jack Fruchtman Jr. teaches politics at Towson State University.

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