U.S. History, First Semester, first day of class
We start with documents, the stuff of history. We have foundational documents. One is the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson. It starts out, We the People…..
Let’s ask who the people are? Who did Jefferson mean by ‘the people’? I watched CNN’s special on Ruth Bader Ginsburg and noticed she did the same thing, started with just who “we” was.
In Jefferson’s day, slave holders included the slaves in ‘our people’. You’ve so often heard people say that their Black maid was ‘part of the family.’ We Liberals sneered at that, rightly so considering how those people treated Black people, including ‘the help’, but those of the White Southern tradition meant it. Just as you would not let your child drive the car, you wouldn’t let your maid sleep in your bed. To them, that was a line just as obvious as the age requirement for driving. They were still ‘part of the family.’ When Jefferson wrote those lines, we the people, he probably assumed those lines that were not crossed.
In Jefferson’s case, we have an excellent study of how finely tuned those ‘family’ relationships were. His slave girl, Sally Hemings, was a part of the family in a number of ways, including as a wife, perhaps a surrogate wife and not a legal wife, a mistress, if you will, but definitely a part of the family. In that sense, the fact that Sally was Jefferson’s deceased wife’s half-sister gives us plenty to think about. Would someone consider that incest? How about the fact that Sally was about 15 when Jefferson began his sexual relationship with her. He maintained a modicum of separation but did build a stairway from his bedroom to hers. Nowadays, even a term like mistress is sounding very dated but think about the term commonly used then, concubine. A lot of women were concubines and glad to be so because a man who could support you and your/their children was hard to find. The well-off man could afford a wife and a mistress. Many fewer women now need to put themselves in that role and that is due to the way the country and society have changed.
But away from the details of what appears to us today as hypocrisy of the highest order, let’s go to similar lines drawn in Jefferson’s mind when he wrote ‘we the people.’ Only property owning White males could vote. No one imagined the hoi polloi voting. Jefferson wasn’t worried about that, although only a few years later, a populist movement elected Andrew Jackson. Times changed fast back then, too. We’ve seen how rapidly deep-seated norms, values and even laws can change when over the last decade we went from tentative steps to protect homosexuals from outright violence to protecting them from outright discrimination to giving them equal rights in everything including marriage. The only thing retarding change in Jefferson’s time were slow communication and slow transportation, not people’s minds.
Here is an excellent example of how words matter: Justice Taney carried in him all the assumptions the Founding Fathers made when he wrote the decision in the Dred Scott case:
““In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument…They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
Here we see the blind acceptance of what conservatives call time-honored values: Blacks are inferior. period. But when Jefferson penned those words, Taney and his ilk were already having to defend themselves. It took another 150 years to overcome these violations of the Constitution and what some call moral law or human rights, but those words did the trick and Taney’s did not. Always, conservatives loose.
So we’re back to ‘the people’. Let’s look at what happened to a few of Jefferson’s people. Sally Hemmings had four children, all by Jefferson as far as we can tell (one for sure). If you are counting White men, you can see that Heming’s kids would be very light in color. What we call passing (for White) was very common in those days, so anyone tracing their ancestry in this country back more than a few generations is no doubt part Black. My wife has always said that White people would be surprised if some device, like a black light (no pun intended) could be applied to reveal who was part Black. Well, now we have it: Ancestry.com. Cheap.
Did Jefferson foresee “his children”, unacknowledged as they were except in covert ways, slipping across the color line? After all, everyone knew them. What he missed was the rapid growth of cities and transportation to the cities. One of his children moved to Ohio; moving that far away put them out of the range of people who knew they were Black. They forged a new consciousness and no doubt within a generation or two “forgot” they were Black and had once been slaves. For those people who pride themselves on being logical and asserting, “Well, they were White!” you might ask them if they are sure of their own racial background and, if they are White, suggest that the chances are pretty good they are part Black. Most will take it in stride but some will react strongly, so strong is the detrimental effects of being Black even today. And here I must confess to not having read a major work on Jefferson and his brood, so I am guessing about what happened to them. I have Annette Gordon-Reed’s book on my shelf but have not read it.
That feeds into the American narrative Jefferson was getting at, the idea that each person can create and recreate himself rather than being defined by an oppressive social order. When I lived in Dothan, AL., an hour’s drive from Montgomery, the bus boycott was going on. I was riding the public buses in Dothan and paid no attention to where I sat. Where I got on the bus, it was packed with Black women (domestics) and I plopped down wherever. To this day some of the younger ones still laugh, I would imagine, about the boy from the North who sat wherever. Until one day a White girl my age got on the bus and set everyone straight in the most snarling, vicious manner. It did not occur to me to jump up and declaim, “That’s not right!” And here this was being challenged a short ways away. Someone (Rosa Parks, to start with) had the guts to recognize it was wrong. But I accepted the fact that some Americans, including elderly working women, simply did not have the same rights I did. Who was I to complain to? In fact, who was I to complain period? By my last two years of high school, the Civil Rights Movement was heaving into view, into our consciousness, and buoyed up by the heroics of people like Parks and the Freedom Riders, we began to find our feet on the moral side of it.
How did we get from a slave holder molesting his teenage slave girl to Oprah Winfrey? The Abolitionist movement was starting even in Jefferson’s time, in England. Great Britain was the elephant in the room in slave trading. Its fleet carried slaves and its navy protected that fleet. Jefferson took advantage of the war between Great Britain and France to acquire a huge chunk of what became the U.S.A. Within short order, the aforesaid Andrew Jackson had pushed Native Americans off their land and the South opened up. That South extended into Texas, which was shortly added to the U.S. after the Americans settling as immigrants in Texas aka Northern New Spain rebelled against the newly minted nation of Mexico’s outlawing of slavery. Between the time Jefferson penned the Declaration and his death in 1826, the cotton gin revolutionized not only the economy, making the South one of the richest areas in the world, but revolutionized the large slave population as King Cotton swallowed hundreds of thousands sold South, away from the Upper South whose tobacco empire had declined and into the maw of new lands opened up away from the coastal areas which had been the traditional home of large numbers of Africans. This terrible uprooting loosened some of the bonds of custom between slave and slave holder as investors demanded production, creating a true hell of total exploitation.
A pundit, the former United States Attorney for the EasternDistrict of Michigan, Barbara McQuade, said on MSNBC tonight, 3/29/19, that A.G. Barr works for the people, not the administration. What is missing is just what I am getting at in the beginning of this essay: just who are the people? What did Jefferson mean by “the people?” If he didn’t mean the slaves or the propertyless or women, then why should Barr think “the people” means anything other than old Republican White men like himself?