“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Beautiful words written by a skilled wordsmith, Thomas Jefferson. I have been fascinated since childhood, when I first read these words, that a person who held other humans in bondage could write them. Jefferson was one of my research subjects when I was doing my Library of Congress Fellowship. He was tangential, my primary subject was Benjamin Banneker.
Although many pro-slavers could claim that the black people they held enslaved were not actually human, Jefferson never claimed that and his behavior with his slaves, particularly one, Sally Hemings, certainly seems to indicate that he did not believe it.
Jefferson was strongly influenced by his friendship with LaFayette and other Frenchmen and their ideas that sprang from the Enlightenment about the basic freedom and rights of all human beings. He could not however, even had he been thoroughly convinced that it was right, free his slaves, they were the only thing standing between him and abject poverty. Jefferson was bad with money.
He frequently had to go to Congress and ask for handouts. Indeed, the very edifice I was doing research in was created because Jefferson had made so many trips to Washington asking for money that some members of Congress finally insisted he give up something to make him more likely to tighten his purse strings. So, they made him give them his precious books. Finding themselves in possession of a plethora of books, they decided to start the Library of Congress.
They forbade Jefferson from buying any more books since a lot of his money went that way. He ignored them, of course, and is famously reported to have said, “ I cannot live without books”, a quote they have on tee shirts and book bags at the Library of Congress gift shop.
Jefferson crossed my mind today as we are fighting a virus that has basically brought America if not to our knees then definitely to a squat. What are human rights? Who is entitled to what? Does it change with societal norms? With situations?
The government is giving most citizens $1200, a figure I find rather odd. Why not $1,000 or $1500? No doubt to some this will be a windfall of importance. To a lot of people it will be a nice addition to the bank balance, and to a privileged few it will be a drop in the bucket and inconsequential. Is equal treatment always fair?
Americans at one point were very interested in the welfare of most other Americans. Needless to say there were always exceptions, depending on the era, including American Indians, most other racial minorities, at one point the Irish, the Italians, etc., but the basic Declaration of Independence was still the guiding principle even if it was not always adhered to equally.
Now I am not so sure. When we talk about helping people there is a tone of disdain, we call aid “entitlements” with a bit of a sneer and imply that only the failed need them.
As flawed as Jefferson was, his words are inspirational and elegant. If and when we get through this crisis we need to rededicate ourselves to making sure all Americans have as much of an opportunity as we can provide to live them out.
Cookie Newsom is a Greene County resident and guest columnist.