Thomas Jefferson was an antiracist who defended racist practices.
The latest famous personality to be censored by Facebook for spreading hate speech is a man who can no longer defend himself: Thomas Jefferson. Business Insider describes how Facebook flagged parts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as “hate speech.”
The offending passage was this accusation against King George III: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
Justice has apparently been served as the “post has since been restored and Facebook has apologized.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The formulation by any person, past or present, of stereotypes concerning another group of people that fails to take into account today’s norms of political correctness
Perhaps the ultimate irony is that this passage of the declaration is, indeed, hate speech. When Jefferson accuses Native Americans of practicing a “rule of warfare” characterized by “an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” it neatly parallels Donald Trump’s notorious, equally generalizing but somewhat less racist, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump at least admits that “some, I assume, are good people.” He claims he is not a racist, but his speech and his policies as president consistently show that he is in phase with the most extreme racist tendencies in US culture.
Jefferson’s original draft of the declaration should be seen today as the ultimate example of political hypocrisy. Sounding more like Martin Luther King than the slave owner and slave exploiter he continued to be after independence and throughout his lifetime, Jefferson accused the English king of being responsible for creating and fostering the inhuman institution of slavery: “[H]e has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s [sic] most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” The king was “determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold … suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”
But that appeal to the notion of “human nature” and the mistreatment of Africans is just a prelude. Here, according to Jefferson, is the real crime: “[T]hat this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also 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.”
Slavery is bad — an “assemblage of horrors” — but not quite as bad as slaves rebelling against their masters.
In the final draft — “revised by the other members of the Committee of Five and by Congress” — all that remains of Jefferson’s diatribe against slavery is the phrase, “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” Jefferson’s colleagues wisely suppressed the historically inaccurate account of the rise of the slave trade, but probably objected even more to the claim that slavery was an inhuman institution and a crime against “a distant people who never offended him.” Most of the Committee of Five were lawyers (John Adams, Robert Livingston, Roger Sherman), who realized that making such claims would commit the emerging nation, in case of success, to abolish the institution that the most powerful voices in Congress depended on for their wealth.
In defense of Jefferson, this episode reveals that, while his statement “all men are created equal” wasn’t meant to apply to Africans or Native Americans, he was, according to Wikipedia, “a lifelong advocate of ending the trade and as president led the effort to criminalize the international slave trade that passed Congress.” His complaint in the first draft appears sincere. He wished for a better world but, in the face of vested interests, particularly in his home state of Virginia, was not only helpless to achieve it but also unprepared to set an example by freeing his own slaves.
What this proves is that even when one is opposed to racist institutions, accommodating the racism of others will always be the easy way out.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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