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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Jefferson and “Human Rights”: Some Thoughts

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I was reading Thomas Jefferson last week. Since I have admitted my visceral dislike of Jefferson before, you might well ask me why I would put myself through this. The answer is that as despicable a human being as he was, he was actually a very talented writer. Furthermore, his was the kind of genius ever-fruitful in ideational freaks and monsters, stillborn thoughts sent into this breathing world scarce half-formed. Such thinkers can make for breathtaking reading precisely because of their many fantastical and audacious errors. Jefferson was among the first of learned fools. As such, he is fit inspiration for Tea Party ideologues, who may find in his voluminous writings authoritative backing for just about any half-witted theory they care to march in support of. I’ll also grant Jefferson this much: despite the palpable idiocy of some of his ideas, he clearly took them seriously. He was not merely playing at ideas, which is why his Federalist enemies considered him such a dangerous lunatic.

Anyway, in my Jeffersonian journeying, I came across the following little gem from his Sixth Annual Address of December 2, 1806. It’s not actually one of his crazy writings, but it does say a fair bit in a short space about Mr. Jefferson’s (lack of) principles and the democratic “revolution” he led upon assuming the presidency in 1801. I reproduce it, followed by my annotations:

“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens [1], on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights [2] which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa [3], and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country [4], have so long been eager to proscribe. Although no law you may pass can take prohibitory effect till the first day of the year one thousand eight hundred and eight [5], yet the intervening period is not too long to prevent, by timely notice [6], expeditions which cannot be completed before that day.[7]

1. I congratulate you, fellow-citizens
The speech is addressed to “THE SENATE AND HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE UNITED STATES IN CONGRESS ASSEMBLED”. Washington would typically begin his addresses with a single reference to his “fellow-citizens”, and that would be all. Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, did likewise. John Adams was even more formal, directing his Annual Addresses to the “Gentlemen of the Senate and Gentlemen of the House of Representatives”. By contrast, Jefferson is conspicuous in his habit of beginning almost every paragraph with addressing his “fellow-citizens”. This is likely a conscious affectation, an expression of his Democratic-Republican principles, setting him apart from his “monocratic” Federalist predecessors.

2. those violations of human rights
“Violations of human rights” has a peculiarly current ring to it. I have had difficulty pinpointing the first use of the term “human rights” (as opposed to, say, “natural rights” or “lawful rights” or “the rights of man”). One source tells me the term emerged sometime between 1785 and 1795, but fails to cite a source. Wikipedia does provide a source, but with a much later date of 1831. In any case, Jefferson’s is certainly a very early — if not the earliest — reference to “human rights”.

3. unoffending inhabitants of Africa
Jefferson’s concern here is with Africans in Africa. Nowhere in any of his Inaugural or Annual Addresses does Jefferson mention the Africans who were already in America, over hundreds of whose souls he was sovereign lord and master, and with whose fate he displays a cavalier disregard. He quite probably uses the adjective “unoffending” to both recall and refute John Locke, who in his Second Treatise of Civil Government justified the enslavement of enemies conquered in a just war, among whom he included Africans. Jefferson does not deny Locke’s argument, but only its inapplicability to the case of Africans. A small step forward I suppose. (Incidentally, Locke was a major shareholder in the Royal Africa Company, which was heavily involved in the slave trade, a fact of which he was cognizant.)

4. the best interests of our country
Whether it was or wasn’t in the best interests of the United States to ban the importation of slaves, it was certainly in the best interests of Jefferson’s home state of Virginia. With external supplies of slaves stopped, those states — like Virginia — that had a surplus of slaves stood to profit greatly by selling them to the new territories opening up in the West. With the African slave trade abolished, Jefferson’s own slaves would have a much higher market value. And being heavily indebted to British merchants, Jefferson badly needed the extra income that he could derive from breeding and selling his “stock” of slaves.

5. the year one thousand eight hundred and eight
Article I, sec. 9 of the Constitution reads: “The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”  This clause protected the slave trade from federal prohibition for twenty years, until 1808. However, Congress passed a bill abolishing the slave trade on March 2, 1807, and Jefferson signed it into law the following day. It could not go into effect until January 1, 1808. The reference to “such persons” rather than to “slaves” was typical of the Constitution’s language. The most egregious example of this is Article I, sec. 2, the infamous “three-fifths” clause, which stated that representation in the House of Representatives was to be “determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” This grossly circumlocutory and Orwellian phraseology replaces the word “slaves” with “all other persons”. It also made a mockery of the term “person” as a legal concept.

6. prevent, by timely notice
I cannot but help wondering what form such “notice” took. Since the federal government would be unable to prevent importation of slaves for another year at least, what measures were to be taken in the meantime? Notices posted at ports? Advertisements in trade newspapers? A friendly warning from customs officials during port inspections? Jefferson’s recommendation here is willfully vague, which leads me to suspect he had no concrete plan for this. Or perhaps, as a believer in a weak executive branch, he thought such action fell more properly within the legislative sphere of Congress? After all, Article I, sec. 9 refers to prohibition “by Congress”.
7. cannot be completed before that day
By the nineteenth century, the middle passage of the Atlantic slave trade could take around six weeks, but this could vary greatly depending on the weather. However, the entire triangular trade route voyage would obviously take much longer.

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