Happy, uh, Tuesday. I’m writing this midweek edition of Bend Business Roundup, which is not about Bend or business and it doesn’t really round anything up, because there’s something I need to get out of my head.
Also, before I get into that, I heard from a subscriber last week that he and others he knows who read the BBR on tablets, e.g. iPads, that the type is too small and too dense (the type, not necessarily the content or its author, whose density is well-known and irreparable) to read easily on those devices. If you read BBR on a tablet and have a similar experience, please let me know. And while you’re at it, if you have any other recurring technical problems with BBR, whether or not you read it on a tablet, please do respond to this email and let me know. If I’m going to write this stuff, I’d like it to be easy for you to read.
In (Partial) Defense of Thomas Jefferson
The other day, a group of people toppled a statue of Thomas Jefferson from its perch in front of Jefferson High School in Portland. The white man interviewed by Willamette Week in the article linked above explains that he participated in bringing down the statue because he wanted to support people of color, and didn’t think it was appropriate for a statue of a slave-owner to be located near the entrance of a largely African American high school.The concern about the imagery, and the location of the imagery, of Jefferson is understandable. Jefferson did own slaves and may have fathered a child with a female slave, whom he held as property at the time. I think if I were an African American attending Jefferson High School, I’d feel at the very least conflicted about having a guy who used to own and hold in bondage people like me greet me as I came to school every day. So, if people at the high school want to remove the statue permanently, and even change the name of the high school, that’s understandable.
However, as Americans continue our nearly 250-year-long attempt to reconcile the founding of our country by men who owned slaves, it would be a mistake to erase Jefferson from socially acceptable history. As the lead drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson has almost certainly contributed more to human freedom, including to the abolition of slavery and other forms of explicit or implicit human bondage, than any other political actor in world history.
The key clause of the Declaration is worth revisiting in light of our current state of affairs:
“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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
There are at least five epochal assertions here:
1. People are equal.
2. People have rights that cannot be taken away from them.
3. People form governments to protect those rights.
4. Government derives its authority from the consent of the people.
5. When government fails to protect the people’s rights, or acts without their consent, the people have the right to alter or abolish the government.
To modern Americans, those concepts, if not the words themselves, are ingrained in our political psyche. But when they were written, they constituted a shocking break with the entire history of human civilization and governance. Historically, individuals, especially individuals who weren’t aristocrats, had no rights to speak of. They certainly didn’t have rights superior to the wishes of whomever governed them, and they had no role in choosing who governed them. Government existed to enrich those who governed, often at the expense of the governed.
As a result of the concepts espoused by Jefferson, the entire language of political philosophy changed. Not just America but countless other countries and billions upon billions of people came to be governed in systems more or less designed to foster their well-being, and by people they had some role in selecting. Today, even autocratic regimes feel obliged to pretend to be democratic and rights-observing.
A lot of American history involves trying to bring the reality of our government into alignment with the ringing ideals of the Declaration. The Civil War, the civil rights acts and even Black Lives Matter protests are attempts to put into better practice Jefferson’s words. Those who seek equality, freedom and democracy, which I daresay includes a significant majority of Americans, would be worse-off without the Declaration and without Jefferson.
The principles in the Declaration have always been and are still today not without their opponents. Individual rights, equality and self-governance are inconvenient concepts for those who wish to exercise authority over us, who believe that the prerogatives of the state are superior to our rights. The vast majority of humans throughout history have lived under regimes with little regard to the rights let alone the equality of the governed. There is no reason to think we can’t or won’t end up back there if we don’t honor and defend the historical anomaly that is the American experiment.
Jefferson, like the country he helped found, is an imperfect exemplar of the things he wrote. It is a crucial part of our history that he and other founders owned slaves, and that he, like all other mortal humans, was far from a faultless, heroic figure. But as we continue to alter our government to align with our principles, as the Declaration says we have the right to do, it would be harmful to the cause of freedom, equality and the human flourishing to turn our backs on Jefferson’s principles as stated in the Declaration of Independence. History tells us the alternative is far worse.
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