Payton Malloy Ellison
August 31, 2018 Week 1/Journal #1
“Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox," a 1972 article written by Edmund S. Morgan, states how the history of America and the rise of freedom is a paradox because of the use of slavery throughout history. The biggest takeaway is the use of Thomas Jefferson to prove his argument, applying him because he was such a historical figure when it came to freedom in America. Jefferson had long owned slaves since going into debt as a planter, and continued to resist doing so until he got out of debt. His belief was that the procession of land was important towards financial stability, and allowing the slaves to be free would not allow a stable society. What makes these actions even more repugnant is his alleged affair with one of his slaves—Sally Hemings. Nonetheless, he was a major fundamental part of the foundation of liberty and equality in America, as he was the one who transcribed the United States Declaration of Independence. Because of his slave-ownership and important part in American history, this leads Morgan to call him the “slaveholding spokesman of freedom”. The common argument heard is if Thomas Jefferson should be written off as a hypocrite because of these paradoxical actions. Then we have to ask ourselves if we should care about the Declaration of Independence. Morgan states that it shouldn’t be an automatic write-off, and that we should call him a “flawed man looking for perfection.”
That all said, if we’re going to compare the “paradox” of American freedom and equality, we should look no further than the two most important figures in America when it comes to ending slavery and racial inequality in America: Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Lincoln fought to preserve the Union, as well as abolish slavery—stated in his final speech before being fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth. However, on September 18, 1858, Lincoln—then a presidential candidate—expressed opposition towards racial equality during a debate with Senator Stephen Douglas. According to Texas State Senator Jerry Patterson in 2017, Lincoln stated, “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people…” This may explain the more known quote "If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves, I would do it” as Lincoln’s attempt to reunite with the Southern states while keeping slavery. Based on this information, “Honest Abe” was closer to a churlish white supremacist than the “Great Emancipator” that we all believe he is. However, should his actions towards ending slavery—therefore, preserving the union—be viewed as hypocritical, much like Thomas Jefferson’s transcribing of the Declaration of Independence?
Lyndon B. Johnson, named the 36th president of the United States after the unfortunate assassination of John F. Kennedy, was the president who renewed the effort towards social and political equality for all races. Unlike presidents before him, Johnson would succeed, signing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964—and later the Voting Rights Act of 1965—into law on July 2, effectively ending and outlawing racial segregation and discrimination, and affirming that all United States citizens were protected by the law. However, as a congressman—from his time in the House of Representatives (1937-1949) to a Texas senator (1949-1961), he had voted against every single civil right bills that made it to Congress before voting for two relatively weak bills in 1957 and 1960. Even more contradictory was his use of racist and degrading language; during his time as a senator, he would call civil rights legislation “n***er” bills, among other alleged and proven quotes. Despite him acquiring full rights for all Americans, regardless of race, Johnson showed traits that resemble more of a white supremacist and racist rather than someone who wanted the 1964 Civil Rights Act for the right reasons—”I’ll have them n***ers voting Democratic for two hundred years” being another quote picked up in private conversation.
Jefferson was a slave owner who fought for American liberty. We argue on whether he should viewed as a hypocrite, and that will continue as the world advances and history is still studied. If we’re going to call “Slavery and Freedom” the “American Paradox”, Jefferson should not be the only figure we mention. Lincoln was a white supremacist who ended slavery. Johnson was a Southern white racist who signed the most important bill towards racial equality since the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Our current president, Donald J. Trump, might open the door to better control of immigration without vast limitations, despite previous comments that he has made. If Jefferson is to be known as a hypocrite, by all means he should; if he is to be written off as such, the same should be said about Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson, who are not far off from Jefferson.
Works Cited Page