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Kenneth C. Davis

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Jefferson's Declaration, Slavery and Nazis in Paris

Posted: 07/02/09 02:11 PM ET

Last evening, I had a thrilling experience. In a small, darkened room with the feel of a chapel inside the magnificent New York Public Library, I saw Thomas Jefferson's handwritten copy of his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. For me this was a "Grail Moment." Setting aside all of Jefferson's contradictions and human flaws, I found the experience of seeing these words in his own hand exhilarating.

We take them for granted, of course. But Jefferson gave full voice to the idea that we all possess "inalienable rights" --That we are "created equal." That we have basic rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." That governments exist to advance those human rights, and only with the "consent of the governed."

The document is written on both sides of two pieces of paper. In his careful, flowing script, Jefferson included all of his original wording to show what the Congress in Philadelphia had changed, underscoring words and phrases that had been deleted. Those alterations, Jefferson, thought were "mutilations." Distressed by the editing, he made these "fair copies" of his original some time after July 4th. (The document on display at the New York Public Library is one of only two known surviving copies.)

The most startling of these changes is a paragraph about what Jefferson calls "this execrable commerce" -- slavery. Jefferson charged --rather ridiculously, of course-- that King George III was responsible for the slave trade and was preventing American efforts to restrain that trade. The section was deleted completely. But it is striking to see Jefferson's bold, block lettering when he describes:

An open market where men should be bought & sold

Yes, he was going home to a plantation completely dependent upon slave labor. But he clearly wanted to underscore his belief that slaves were MEN. The contradiction is stunning, troubling, and difficult to resolve.

As I pondered that contradiction yet again, I came across a second exhibition in another nearby hall. Between Collaboration and Resistance: French Literary Life Under Nazi Occupation is a large and vivid collection of documents, photographs, films, letters and books from the period when the Nazis ruled Paris. It is also about the the French response to that dreadful occupation. Though some of that response was heroic, there was much that was not. Frenchmen --as well as some American expatriates in Paris-- collaborated. Some reluctantly, many openly, especially when it came to the "Jewish question." The viciousness of French wartime anti-Semitism is also on full display here.

Leaving the two exhibits, I was left to consider the extraordinary range of humanity and history that they represent, side by side. One of the most shining moments: the Declaration of Independence and its emphatic celebration of universal rights. And one of the darkest: Nazism and the Holocaust. Between them lay the whole spectrum of individual reactions to evil and injustice, "in the course of human events," as Jefferson put it.

As the nation approaches its celebration of Independence and the ideals of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," it is always crucial --and challenging-- to remember that with those rights comes responsibility. We have traveled a remarkable road in 233 years. There is no more powerful symbol of that distance than the fact that an African American is President.

But we still have far to go until we all have secured all of those rights --equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness-- for all of the people. Jefferson and his 55 fellow signers pledged their lives, fortunes and "sacred honor" in support of those fundamental human rights. Would we all be willing to say the same?

Find my earlier posts on the Declaration at http://www.dontknowmuch.com/category/blog/

Information about the display of the Declaration at the New York Public Library can be found here: http://www.nypl.org/research/calendar/exhib/hssl/hsslexhibdesc.cfm?id=463

Information on the Collaboration and Resistance exhibit can be found at: http://www.nypl.org/research/calendar/exhib/hssl/hsslexhibdesc.cfm?id=492

 
 
 

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