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Lincoln, Jefferson, & Blacks

In response to:

Lincoln's Black History from the June 11, 2009 issue

To the Editors:

Garry Wills (and Stephen Douglas) are wrong. Jefferson did include blacks in the statement “all men are created equal” [“Lincoln’s Black History,” NYR, June 11].This is clear from his response to the Haitian slave rebellion. He feared a similar rebellion might break out in the US and wrote:

Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of the situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference. The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.

This was a statement Lincoln was fond of quoting.

The issue is complicated by the fact that slaves were not included in the “one people” that was separating from Britain. The people declaring their independence in paragraph one of the Declaration were white men, but the rights asserted in the next paragraph are universal.

Daniel Klenbort
Professor of History
Morehouse College
Atlanta, Georgia

Garry Wills replies:

Daniel Klenbort neglects to say that Henry Louis Gates Jr. is wrong, along with me and Stephen Douglas. Jefferson had always feared a slave rebellion, and that numbers would avenge the mistreatment of slaves (which he had often said made him fear a divine judgment). Jefferson, like Lincoln, thought slavery wrong—as did many Abolitionists who denied that this belief made blacks the equal of whites.

On the subject of equality, we do not have to wait for the Santo Domingo rebellion to get Jefferson’s views. They were stated much closer in time to the Declaration of Independence, in the Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), where he made shockingly clear where he thought blacks stood in the “chain of being.” He justified the fear of blacks raping white women from “their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species” (Query XIV, emphasis added).

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