Today’s Thought: I accept good ideas whatever their source. I reject bad ideas whatever their source.
I am writing just a quick blog today to address an important issue that came up relative to a tweet I posted on the 4th of July. The tweet was a quote of Thomas Jefferson from the American Declaration of Independence.
“All men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
This single sentence is one of the most memorable and powerful in the entire history of the struggle for human freedom. Several of my tweeps quickly pointed out that Jefferson was a slave owner when he wrote those words. That is an historical fact. He was a slave owner for many years after that. He did free his slaves upon his death; a fact that does not excuse the fact that he ever owned slaves. He was quite progressive for his time and place in that respect, but that is a very low bar.
The point I want to make is that perfect (or near perfect) ideas often come from imperfect human beings. I will certainly agree that being a slave owner was pretty darn big flaw. Still, which of us is without flaws? If someone were to judge us based on our worst, how would we stand up? What hatreds, hypocrisies, and blind spots do we hold in our hearts?
Perhaps in 200 years (we can hope), our progeny will find it equally outrageous that we allowed financial institutions to crash economies with highly risky derivatives and then take people’s homes and life savings hostage to cover their bets. Yet, we have all stood by and accepted that virus has it has circled the planet for the past three years. I’m not comparing the two. I’m simply saying that (hopefully) as human society continues to advance, every age’s flaws will seem backward and deplorable. If they don’t, we haven’t grown.
Taken on the whole, Thomas Jefferson was a very intelligent, accomplished person who contributed and, frankly, continues to contribute to the American experience and to the global struggle for a free humanity. If he deserves demerit for being slaveholder, he deserves credit for that fact.
It is a great irony, even hypocrisy, that a man could write those words and hold other human beings in bondage simultaneously. I’d even call it an outrage. Yet, would I rather he had not written them? No. It’s important to remember that in 1776 slaves in America, while the most egregious example, were far from the only human beings not free on this planet or in this country. If you were white and didn’t own land, you were not a whole lot freer than the slaves and many whites came to this country as indentured servants to the wealthy. Further, those words, Jefferson’s words, have been the rallying cry in numerous freedom movements the world over since.
We cannot and we must not forget to see people like Thomas Jefferson as the whole, imperfect human being he was. Just as we would all expect others to see us.
I wish someone who didn’t own slaves had written those words. Because those words have led to freedom for a great many people. Ironically, that very hypocrisy between the new nation’s principles and its reality were precisely what led to the formation of abolition movements that came to fruition about 80 years hence.
Adolph Hitler was an evil man, but if he had come up with a cure for cancer, would we have rejected it because he came up with it? I would accept the cancer cure from Hitler and I accept the freedom-inspiring words from Jefferson. If I cannot excuse his slave holding, I can at least see the power of the words he wrote and the impetus they have had in creating freer people the world over.
Conversely, if Martin Luther King or Gandhi or my grandmother came up with a terrible idea, I must be free to reject it despite my respect for them. We will lock ourselves out of wonderful ideas or into terrible ones, if we evaluate them based on who wrote them or proposed them.
In my book, Jefferson should be remembered as a slaveholder and the man who penned some pretty powerful words that led to freedom for many. Irony? Sure. But as Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”