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Annette Gordon-Reed: Jefferson's vision

[Gordon-Reed is the author of "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," winner of the 2008 National Book Award.]

On election night, addressing a huge crowd in Chicago's Grant Park, and millions more watching worldwide, the president-elect, with great calm and assurance, invoked America's Founding Fathers, claiming them for all Americans, white and black alike. His successful campaign and election, he said, showed that the "the dream of our Founders" was still alive. He had done this before, during the campaign—referencing the founding era. As one who writes about the period, I had noted this and seen the irony of it.

Of course, at the time of America's founding, when Thomas Jefferson wrote his stirring words in the Declaration of Independence about the equality of all mankind, the majority of black Americans—one fifth of the country's 2.5 million people—were enslaved, and totally outside civil and political society. Those who were free were, in the main, people of mixed African and European ancestry just like Mr. Obama. And those whose families had been free the longest were the descendants of the English women and African men who married or had liaisons back in the 1660s before Colonial legislatures got around to forbidding and punishing that behavior. Whether enslaved or free, blacks—who included mixed-race people, for they were by law the same as "Negroes"—were not under the cover of Jefferson's Declaration. What dreams did the Founders, particularly Jefferson, the most famous "dreamer" among that group, have for people of African origin?

Approaching the matter in the most literal-minded way, it is hard to imagine that Jefferson could have specifically dreamed of an American electorate that would put Barack Obama at the head of the American government. Jefferson, along with James Madison, John Marshall and many other prominent Americans, including, for a time, Abraham Lincoln, espoused what was considered the "enlightened" position of his day. After slavery was abolished in the United States—at some unspecified moment in the future—blacks were to be expatriated to form their own countries. A President Obama could exist, but he would be in Africa. That was all theory. In the real world, Jefferson had no intention of his sending his own mixed-race children "back to Africa" and arranged to have them and some of their relatives remain in the country. After Jefferson's death, two sons, along with their mother, Sally Hemings, would be asked if they wanted to go "back" to Africa. They declined. To be fair, Jefferson also would not have contemplated a President Hillary Clinton, a Vice President Sarah Palin or even an electorate that included female voters.

But while it would be easy to locate other identifiable groups within current-day American society that likely would have been outside of Jefferson's reveries, his relationship to black people has always been noticeably problematic and conflicted. There is no question that from the time of the American Revolution until today, blacks have used Jefferson's words to establish their right to equal citizenship. Benjamin Banneker, David Walker, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, all in different ways, used the Declaration to challenge their countrymen to help fulfill what they saw as the promise of that document, its "dream," as King put it. Even President Obama's favorite politician, Abraham Lincoln, who loved Jefferson, understood the power of the words "all men are created equal" and used them as he committed a country, deep in the midst of a civil war over slavery, to a new birth of freedom.

Lincoln's move was not without controversy. There were those who said at the time, and even now, "Jefferson didn't mean black people," without explaining exactly how or why that observation settles anything—what it binds us to. No creator of a meaningful phrase, a useful invention or powerful idea has the ability to control the uses to which his or her creation is put. They cannot envision what the future may hold for the thing they have put in motion. The Declaration is not the Constitution. It is a document designed to explain the desire of a colony to break from the mother country, with justifications for that expressed in terms of ideals that were supposedly universal and "self-evident." Jefferson believed the Constitution should be torn up and rewritten every couple of decades, figuring that each generation should chart its own course in matters of law and politics. It is highly unlikely he would have thought the ideals expressed in the Declaration should, or could be, scrapped periodically. Instead, as a believer in "progress," he predicted at the end of this life that one day the ideals expressed in the Declaration would come to apply to everyone as humankind improved itself....
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