Jefferson on equality race and slavery in the declaration and notes on virginia
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Jefferson on Equality, Race, and Slavery (in the Declaration and “Notes on Virginia” Taking Our Heroes/Icons Off the Pedestal Possible Flaws 1.) Personal scandal (affairs, plagiarism, corruption) Franklin, FDR, JFK, MLK Jr. 2.) Reprehensible ideas (Wagner, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh)

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Jefferson on equality race and slavery in the declaration and notes on virginia l.jpg

Jefferson on Equality, Race, and Slavery (in the Declaration and “Notes on Virginia”


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Taking Our Heroes/Icons Off the Pedestal

  • Possible Flaws1.) Personal scandal (affairs, plagiarism, corruption)Franklin, FDR, JFK, MLK Jr.

  • 2.) Reprehensible ideas (Wagner, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh)

  • 3.) Backward/outdated ideas (practically every historical figure) – although you can always find those ahead of their time


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Off the Pedestal cont’d

  • What’s the impact?

  • ---make us feel better about ourselves—or does it encourage bad behavior?--make their accomplishments even more impressive?

  • ---does it increase cynicism?---undercut support for the good ideas they represent?

  • When/how to do it?

  • --What age/grade level?---Build ‘em up, then tear ‘em down?---Tear ‘em down as you build ‘em up?---Just build ‘em up?



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Digression #1: Political Science and Political Theory American Political Culture

  • If you love Plato, Jefferson, Locke, Tocqueville, Mill, Marx, A. Smith, you’ll love political theory (Drs. Miller and McKnight)

  • Philosophy and history are OK, too

  • Political theory tends to emphasize normative issues and qualitative methods; political science is more empirical and quantitative


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Political Theory cont’d American Political Culture

  • Writing about “The Canon”

  • Four views:

  • --Continuing debate about timeless issues

  • --Understanding the influence of historical and social context on canon works

  • --Using canon (which everyone’s read) to introduce new ideas

  • --Canon is an abitrary construction, too confining


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Background on Notes on Virginia American Political Culture

  • “I had always made it a practice whenever an opportunity occurred of obtaining any information of our country…to commit it to writing. These memoranda were on loose papers, bundled up without order…I thought this a good occasion to embody their substance, which I did in the order of Marbois’ queries, so as to answer his wish and arrange them for my own use.”

  • -Autobiography, 1821


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Background on “Notes on Virginia” American Political Culture

  • “I had received a letter from deMarbois…informing me he had been instructed by his govt. to obtain statistical accounts of the different states of our Union, as might be useful for their information; and addressing to me a number of such queries relative to the state of Virginia….


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Complete Contents of NOV American Political Culture

  • Header

  • Front Matter

  • Query 1 "Boundaries of Virginia" An exact description of the limits and boundaries of the state of Virginia. Limits

  • Query 2 "Rivers" A notice of its rivers, rivulets, and how far they are navigable? Rivers and Navigation

  • Query 3 "Sea Ports" A notice of the best sea-ports of the state, and how big are the vessels they can receive?

  • Query 4 "Mountains" A notice on its Mountains?

  • Query 5 "Cascades"Its Cascades and Caverns?

  • Query 6 "Productions mineral, vegetable and animal" A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.

    • Section Minerals

    • Chart "A comparative View of the Quadrupeds of Europe and of America."

  • Query 7 "Climate" A notice of all what can increase the progress of human knowledge?

  • Query 8 "Population" The number of its inhabitants?

  • Query 9 "Military force" The number and condition of the militia and regular troops, and their pay? Military

  • Query 10 "Marine force" The marine?

  • Query 11 "Aborigines" A description of the Indians established in that state?

  • Query 12 "Counties and towns" A notice of the counties, cities, townships, and villages?

  • Query 13 "Constitution" The constitution of the state, and its several charters? Constitution

    • Section

    • Insertion

    • Insertion

      • Section

    • Query 14 "Laws" The administration of justice and description of the laws?

    • Query 15 "Colleges, buildings, and roads" The colleges and public establishments, the roads, buildings, &c.?

    • Query 16 "Proceedings as to Tories" The measures taken with regard of the estates and possessions of the rebels, commonly called Tories?

    • Query 17 "Religion" The different religions received into that state?

    • Query 18 "Manners" The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state?

    • Query 19 "Manufactures" The present state of manufactures, commerce, interior and exterior trade?

    • Query 20 "Subjects of commerce"

    • Query 21 "Weights, Measures and Money" The weights, measures, and the currency of the hard money? Some details relating to the exchange with Europe?

    • Query 22 "Public revenue and expences" The public income and expences?

    • Query 23 "Histories, memorials, and state-papers"


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Proposition #1: Jefferson excluded blacks from the “men” in “all men are created equal”

  • “(The King) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain.


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Proposition 1: Are blacks not “men?” in “all men are created equal”

  • Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce….he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

  • --Original draft of Declaration of Independence, omitted by Continental Congress


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Proposition #2: the Declaration was political rhetoric, NOV was an attempt at objective “science”

  • “To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the anatomical knife, to optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses…


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Proposition #2: Rhetoric vs. science was an attempt at objective “science”

  • “Let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men, from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.”

  • ---Jefferson, NOV, Query XIV

  • “”In Notes on Virginia, Jefferson was participating in a cosmopolitan discourse on the nature of man and society. This text represents his attempt to bring the scientific method of his great heroes---Newton, Bacon, and Locke---to bear on the central issues concerning his state and new nation.”

    --Alexander Boulton, “The American Paradox: Jeffersonian Equality and Racial Science,” American Quartelry, 9/95


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Political Rhetoric vs. Science was an attempt at objective “science”

  • POLITICAL RHETORIC: had to be consensual, stirring to action

  • SCIENCE: clinical, cold-blooded, “objective”

  • 1.) Need for careful, direct observation, not hearsay

  • 2.) Need to control to control confounding variables

  • What about blacks in Africa? conflict between two scientific principles


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Proposition #3: In the one realm that really counts—”the moral sense”---Jefferson considered blacks to be equal, and therefore deserving of equal rights

  • “We find among them numerous instances of the most rigid inegrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity.” NOV

  • “Whatever (blacks’) degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding he was not therefore lord of the person and property of others”-

  • Jefferson, letter to Bishop Henri Gregoire


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Proposition #4: Jefferson changed his mind and/or really wasn’t all that sure

  • Other instances of Jefferson changing his mind

  • Did Jefferson become less idealistic, less progressive?

  • “No one wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of the want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence…”

  • --Jefferson, Letter to Benjamin Banneker, after receiving Banneker’s almanac

  • “I have a long letter from Bannkeker, which shows him to have a mind of very common stature indeed…it was impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the NOV, and nothing was or is farther from my intentions, than to enlist myself as a champion of a fixed opinion, where I myself expressed only a doubt”--Jefferson, Letter to Joel Barlo


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Digression #2: Phyllis Wheatley wasn’t all that sure

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,Taught my benighted soul to understandThat there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,Some view our sable race with scornful eye,"Their colour is a diabolic die."Remember, Christians,Negroes, black as Cain,May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train. 


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Digression #3: Ignatius Sancho wasn’t all that sure

  • For the GENERAL ADVERTISER.

  • April 29, 1780.

  • -The vast bounties offered for able-bodied men sheweth the zeal and liberality of our wise lawgivers--yet indicateth a scarcity of men. Now, they seem to me to have overlooked one resource (which appears obvious); a resource which would greatly benefit the people at large (by being more usefully employed), and which are happily half-trained already for the service of their country--by being--powder proof--light, active, young fellows:--I dare say you have anticipated my scheme, which is to form ten companies at least, out of the very numerous body of hair-dressers--they are, for the most part, clean, clever, young men--and, as observed above, the utility would be immense:--the ladies, by once more getting the management of their heads into their own hands, might possibly regain their native reason and oeconomy--and the gentlemen might be induced by mere necessity to comb and care for their own heads--those (I mean) who have heads to care for.--If the above scheme should happily take place, among the many advantages too numerous to particularize, which would of course result from it--one not of the least magnitude would be a prodigious saving in the great momentous article of time;--people of the ton of both sexes (to speak within probability) usually losing between two or three hours daily on that important business.--My plan, Mr. Editor, I have the comfort to think, is replete with good--it tends to serve my king and country in the first instance-- and to cleanse, settle, and emancipate from the cruel bondage of French, as well as native frizeurs, the heads of my fellow-subjects.

  • Yours, &c.

  • AFRICANUS


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For more reading: struggle (in science, religion, and politics) between order/stability and freedom/revolution

  • Richardson, William D. 1984. Thomas Jefferson & Race: The Declaration and Notes on the State of Virginia” Polity (3) 446-466.

  • Yarbrough, Jean. 1991. Race and the Moral Foundation of the American Republic: Another Look at the Declaration and the Notes on Virginia.” Journal of Politics, 53 (February): 90-105.

  • Boulton, Alexander. 1995. The American Paradox: Jeffersonian Equality and Racial Science. American Quarterly, 47 (September): 467-491.