While officially embarking on my quest to document some of Thomas Jefferson’s renowned complexities of character, belief and/or behavior, I got side-tracked. Chances are good that we’re heading back to George Washington Avenue for a brief stay. Hope nobody minds…but before we get there…
Jefferson sought to combine the philosophy of politics with the actual practice of it, becoming the thinker who leads, the ‘philosopher-king’, a concept introduced by Plato in his dialogue Republic, (which, btw, means ‘political system’). Herein appears a first Jeffersonian contradiction for, though absorbing these teachings while learning philosophy in college, he himself wanted no part of any kind of monarchical government. Not then. Not ever. His abhorrence to such a system was expressed adamantly in a letter written by Jefferson in 1817, where he vowed, “I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (While ‘tyranny over the mind’ may not necessarily exist in a king-ruling-over-his subjects society, in every member of that society, still…I’m zeroing in on Jefferson’s passion for freedom in its entirety.)
This absolute refuting of power of one individual over another leads us, of course, to the most glaring of all contradictions, not only of Thomas Jefferson but of many of our founding fathers. How could it be that the man who penned those immortal words declaring all men equal, with the right to liberty, owned and continued to own slaves? How could that be? If all men were created equal, why is it that some were declared to be ‘property’? Where was the equality in that?
For some reason, in the struggle to grow up and live my own life, this gargantuan ethical paradox never quite impacted me. I should have been sledge-hammered in the face by it! But somehow, though I always knew about Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of our slaves, and though I always knew repugnance that such a condition even existed in our country, I somehow never connected the dots. In my convoluted thinking, (which I attribute to, perhaps, puberty, the opposite sex, peer pressure, etc., which just plain disorients a young person!) slaves were somehow already here, they came with the territory, and no Americans were at fault. (Back in the day, I don’t recall the educational system alluding in any way to American responsibility in perpetuating the practice of keeping slaves). Talk about illusion….
Between the years of 1600 and 1860, approximately half a million African slaves were forcibly brought to [what ultimately became] our shores by European traders. (Note: The overall number of enslaved Africans to be imported to the Americas was in the area of 15 million, with the majority being delivered to South and Central America, and the West Indies.) By the start of the Civil War, that half-million count had burgeoned into four million, the bulk of whom lived and worked in the South. And thousands of these were brought into our country illegally. Slave importation was banned in 1808, but for some fifty years, smuggling continued, and it is estimated that some 200,000 Africans were yet delivered to America’s shores.
Though the lands to become the United States of America saw the arrival of her first slaves in 1619, this cultural abomination had been in existence since ancient times. Everything has its roots. For the purposes of this series of articles, however, we’ll begin in the 1500’s, when Portugal and Spain first brought enslaved Africans to the New World,to replace Native Americans in the gold mines of Central America. From there the phenomenon spread.
Though barely touching the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of this mammoth topic, already I have alternately been in tears, nausea, and near shock. This is too huge. Slavery is part of our history. Not only the blood of Revolutionary patriots but the suffering of, the injustice done to multitudes of African slaves brought us to where we are today.