POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY DANIEL FINKELSTEIN IN THE TIMES
You are only partly right, Daniel, calling Jefferson author of the Declaration of Independence.
That is of course what Jefferson liked to think himself - he had an ego the size of a cruise ship - and he had that half-truth carved on his tombstone at Monticello.
But in that as in so many things Jefferson was a rather dark and devious man.
Jefferson's draft of the Declaration was long and slightly ridiculous. The opening memorable phrases were amended to what we know today by that original genius, Benjamin Franklin.
Perhaps more importantly, the Continental Congress whittled his draft seriously down. Jefferson was in fact angry and embarrassed by the editing.
Jefferson’s draft was ridiculous for his lengthy focus on the King’s guilt for the slave trade – this from the lifetime owner of more than two hundred slaves.
Jefferson undoubtedly had a double purpose in this condemnation of the King.
First, at the time, there was actually a surplus of human flesh on the market, and slave prices were falling, and Jefferson was looking after his large investment in flesh.
Second, as always, Jefferson liked to be seen as a great advocate of human freedom, a kind of minor Enlightenment figure if you will with a legacy of words if not acts, so condemning the King would be part of his manufactured legacy.
Jefferson was such a spendthrift all his life, never able to earn his way as a lawyer, he never thought of setting his slaves free. Indeed, he died a bankrupt still.
So far as freedom goes, Jefferson also assisted Napoleon in trying to suppress the slave revolt in Haiti. A number of other ugly behaviors and policies are on his freedom-balance sheet.
The Declaration, if you actually read it (few do), after the wonderful opening words, descends into an almost petulant long list of charges and grievances, taking on a tone of something still true of America, always blaming others for their own poor choices.
All early – before the revolution - visitors to the colonies remarked how healthy and free the American colonies were. The colonies were widely regarded as one of the freest places on earth.
But being asked to help pay with taxes for something which largely benefited them – the French and Indian War – and being made part of a dreaded Catholic place, Quebec, under the Quebec Act caused an almost insane reaction.
The colonists had the benefit of the war and saw no reason to help pay for what they already had, and anti-papacy became a raging storm resembling in its intensity something from Northern Ireland in 1969.