Sometimes words can be meaningless. Even words that promise freedom.
The other day, we visited Monticello, the Virginia estate of our beloved forefather, Thomas Jefferson. Designated as a world heritage site, Monticello was an amazing learning experience for our homeschoolers (and me). We have been voraciously reading the history of the United States, digging up everything we can find to read or watch. I think I have learned more American history in the last three months than I did during my entire childhood.
Thomas Jefferson has always been to me a figure of American freedom and democracy. Along with so many others, I cherished those famous words–
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.
Don’t these honeyed lines roll of your tongue, and don’t you feel a pang of patriotism at hearing them? Even non-Americans have used these words as a sign of hope and resiliency against oppression.
But I’m left with the contradictions in this well-told story of American freedom. Theoretically, I understand how Jefferson and his cohorts would want to break from the mother country of England in order to rule themselves. I can see how they would believe their freedoms to be diminished in their role as mere colonists to a great empire.
But I can also see that the Declaration of Independence is not only an elegant display of one of the highest desires of humankind: to be free. Rather, it is also a masterpiece of persuasion and one of the most eloquent bits of propaganda ever written.
Jefferson philosophically penned these noble sentiments, even though he himself owned more than 600 human beings over the course of his life. And, even though he wrote about how he felt slavery should be abolished, he never intended that to happen within his lifetime. If he truly felt that people were not property, why didn’t he at least free his own slaves? Why did he continue to propagate the culture of slavery?
How could the author of the Declaration bemoan the fact that the colonists were “slaves” to England when, at the very same time, he and other Virginians felt it was appropriate to hold people in bondage? How could a country founded on the principles of liberty and equality count 20% of its population as chattel slaves? How can we teach history to our young people without pointing out the significance of this discrepancy? How can we as Americans ever forgive ourselves for our relative success as a nation, since for hundreds of years it was built on the backs of those who weren’t even counted as fully human?
As a student of history, I shake my head while reading this story, thinking I must be hearing something wrong. How can such a sordid story hide behind these beautiful words? I feel real heartache at re-learning this basic American history and seeing it through new eyes. If we can’t believe in Jefferson and his high ideals, what can we believe in as Americans? How many hundreds of years more will it finally take before we can heal these wounds in our people?
At this point, history is history. However, I truly feel I can contribute to a better future by teaching my own kids the real story, shedding some light on the sins of the past so they can help, with the understanding and tolerance they’ll get from a full and honest education, to make a better future. It’s not easy to teach the real story. It’s uncomfortable to ask the questions myself. But I’m definitely beginning to understand that nothing is really black and white in this life but only a whole lot of gray.