The Founders and Slavery

Paul Finkelman Paul-Finkelman at UTULSA.EDU
Tue Apr 18 23:30:17 PDT 2000

TJ's words are useful to all of us. The problem with Professor West's analysis, I
think, is his unwillingness, refusal, inability, to separate the message from the
messenger.  TJ's message is useful to us today, having been resurrected by
Lincoln.  But we cannot credit Jefferson for what other people did with his words,
nor can we impute to Jefferson ideas he opposed, merely  because we have mined his
language and applied it to concepts -- like racial equality -- that he worked
against all his life.  As chair of the committee to revise VA's laws (after he
wrote the DofI) Jefferson proposed outlawing and expelling from the state children
of white women and black men (free or slave).  This is hardly an icon we would
want, anywhere outside of perhaps Bob Jones University.

Paul Finkelman
Chapman Distinguished Professor
University of Tulsa College of Law
3120 East Fourth Place
Tulsa, OK  74104

Fax 918-631-2194

E-mail:  paul-finkelman at

Richard Dougherty wrote:

> Just a suggestion that saying or writing something, even absent political
> activism on it, may itself be an important action.  One might consider, in this
> regard, the comments of Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "I Have a Dream" speech
> in 1963, addressing the articulation of the principles he held dear, and that
> clearly seemed to move him to action:
> "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the
> Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a
> promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.  This note was a
> promise that all men would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life,
> liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
> King, like Frederick Douglass, knew the power of Jefferson's words, even if we
> think Jefferson himself didn't live up to them.  Douglass came to accept the
> view that "the Constitution, construed in the light of well established rules
> of legal interpretation, might be made consistent in its details with the noble
> purposes avowed in its preamble; and that hereafter we should insist upon the
> application of such rules to that instrument, and demand that it be wielded in
> behalf of emancipation" (Life and Writings).
> King's point, of course, was that by 1963 America still hadn't lived up to the
> founding principles, but that was not the fault of the Declaration or
> Constitution.
> Richard Dougherty
> University of Dallas
> Judith Baer wrote:
> > Tom West writes about
> >
> > the big things that Jefferson did to
> > oppose slavery:
> >
> > but only #s 3, 4, and 6 on that list that "do" anything at all.  These
> > others "say" or "write."  In fact, it's arguable that the proposals J. made
> > really weren't action at all.  We all know TJ wrote eloquently against
> > slavery--that doesn't establish that he did much to end it.
> >
> > Judy Baer
> > Political Science
> > Texas A&M


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