This Saturday we observe the 244th birthday of our nation. It doesn’t seem that long since we celebrated the Bicentennial, so it’s hard to believe that we’re approaching a half-century since that celebratory event.
It strikes me that something we have in common with those 1770-era colonists is the turmoil we’re going through. During those turbulent years the Founding Fathers struggled with achieving the goals of the Declaration of Independence while others, often friends and family, disagreed with the notion of separating from England. They probably agreed with the notion of reinforcing their rights as Englishmen but not separating.
244 years later, we are again in a period of turmoil as we finally come to grips with revolutionary principles of the Declaration, especially the assertion that “all men are created equal.”
To be sure, when Thomas Jefferson, with input from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, wrote those words, he was thinking of white men, white men with property. Yet the words were set down and ratified, and words are important. Almost 90 years later, our nation fought a bloody civil war over those words, as President Abraham Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, asserted, “…our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
Yet, 155 years after that Civil War, we still struggle with equality, even at the hands of people charged with serving and protecting the public. When a Minneapolis police officer took the life of George Floyd, it set off a series of protests across the country that have shaken us to our core. There had been protests at similar tragedies earlier, but the brazen action of the officer, in full view of witnesses recording everything, was just too much.
In the aftermath, people are taking a closer look at the Founding Fathers and learning what students of history have known all along, that the Founding Fathers were flawed men. Many of the Founders came from the well-educated landowning gentry of Virginia, such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and that illustrious example of patriotism, Patrick Henry.
Being landowners and farmers usually meant they were also slave owners and if they were considered wealthy, substantial portions of their wealth were measured in the numbers of human beings they owned.
It gets complicated in many ways. As related in Jon Meacham’s biography, “Thomas Jefferson – the Art of Power,” Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote often and eloquently of the evils of slavery and the need to abolish the evil institution. Yet, his slaves farmed his fields, built his famous home, Monticello, and Sally Hemmings, his deceased wife’s servant and half-sister, shared his bed and bore his children. We’ll never know whether this was a loving relationship, or a master and slave relationship.
When Jefferson was our ambassador to France, Sally came to Paris as the companion for Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy.
When Jefferson’s term as ambassador ended and he was returning to Virginia, Sally was pregnant. She also had leverage, as under French law she could have applied for liberty. They came to an understanding and Sally agreed to return to Virginia in return for Jefferson’s promise that their children would be freed at age 21. Their four children that survived to adulthood (one died in infancy) were all granted their freedom at maturity.
When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he was deep in debt and after his death Monticello and his slaves were sold, though Sally was unofficially free and formally freed by Patsy in 1834.
Jefferson, like the nation he helped create, was a complicated man, brilliant and yet deeply flawed, a man of his time. Still, as we reassess our troubled history, I’ll pass on Jon Meacham’s conclusion, “And there is no greater monument to Jefferson than the nation itself, dedicated to the realization, however gradual and however painful, of the ideal amid the realities of a political world driven by ambition and selfishness.”
Like Jefferson, we live in troubled times, but I pray the nation will endure.