RECAP: “Talking Back to Thomas Jefferson: African-American Nationalism in the Early Republic,” Colloquium with U. Penn Professor Mia Bay

Though it was produced centuries after the time period on which her December 4 talk focused, University of Pennsylvania Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Chair in American History Mia Bay cited the juxtaposition of Thomas Jefferson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Faith Ringgold’s 2009 “As Free and Independent States” as embodying exactly the overlooked relationship which her new book project attempts to unpack. Specifically, Prof. Bay discussed how Ringgold’s work nods toward a tradition in African-American thought of dialoguing with Jefferson that has largely gone unnoticed—or at least un-explored—by academics. Scholars of African-American thought—particularly in the nascent United States—have tended to devote attention to the rise of Black nationalism, she explained, while Jefferson scholars’ discussions of race have focused primarily on his views on African Americans, rather than the other way around. What is lost in this equation is the curiously central, quite complicated role that Jefferson plays in the history of Black thought as a figure who, in embodying the contradictions of the new nation, was as celebrated as he was abhorred.

In fact, African American thinkers of the early republic were fascinated with Jefferson not in spite of but because of his contradictions. He was the author, on the one hand, of one of the most egalitarian endorsements of human rights, in the Declaration of Independence, but also one of the earliest articulations of scientific racism, in Notes on the State of Virginia. It was precisely this disconnect that Benjamin Banneker seized on in his correspondence with Jefferson. In the letter that accompanied the copy of his Almanac that he sent to Monticello, Banneker praised Jefferson’s revolutionary spirit while at the same time presenting himself as a living rebuttal to the theories about Black inferiority that permeate Notes, ultimately using the dialogue to challenge Jefferson to live up to his ideals. It was pitiable, Banneker reasoned, that the mind behind the Declaration of Independence should likewise be guilty of that criminal act which he so detested in others.

As Prof. Bay would go on to show, this line of argumentation, which crafted contradiction into a mandate for racial justice, was a common theme in both free and enslaved African Americans’ writings about Jefferson. In a 24-page long, 1808 letter to Jefferson signed only “A Slave,” for example, the writer utilizes Jefferson’s status as a symbol of flawed democracy to introduce the African-American freedom struggle into the republican canon. A withering, often angry critique of Jefferson’s failure to manifest his philosophy, the letter appeals to the “brave sons of ‘76” in demanding that Jefferson follow up his 1808 abolition of the slave trade with wholesale abolition. (In this, the letter bears some resemblance to Lemuel Haynes’ 1776 Liberty Further Extended, which champions the language of the Declaration’s Preamble in the course of petitioning to redefine discourse on the aims of the American Revolution to include the liberation of enslaved people.) Similarly, Daniel Coker’s Dialogue between a Virginian and an African Minister, the first African-American-authored anti-slavery tract published in a slave state, celebrates Jefferson’s philosophical commitment to anti-slavery while using his [Jefferson’s] own natural rights arguments to disprove both the divine sanction of the institution and the premise of racial inferiority. In his orations, William Hamilton, too, lauded Jefferson’s abolition of the slave trade but only as a way to underscore his intellectual limitations and inconsistencies as an “ambidexter philosopher” whose denial of his own declaration of equality violated the axioms of geometry.

Perhaps nowhere was this dialogue with Jefferson clearer than in David Walker’s 1829 Appeal. In framing the Jefferson of Notes as someone who gave voice and name to some of white America’s most racist ideas regarding slavery, colonization, and discrimination, Walker’s Appeal functioned not only as a rallying cry for Black Americans to refute the ideas of racial inferiority contained in Jefferson’s writings but also as an open call for revolt. Important to note, though, is the degree to which Walker rooted the enslaved community’s right to revolt in the same principles that Jefferson himself penned into the Declaration. As Prof. Bay argued in closing, this was characteristic of the antebellum era. As Southerners gravitated toward a pro-slavery ideology that left no room for the idea of Black freedom, Jefferson became all the more important as a figure whose understanding of rights, especially when coupled with those actions which contradicted said understanding, could be drawn on by abolitionists as evidence of a promise left unfulfilled. After emancipation, Lincoln almost immediately displaced Jefferson as the lodestar around whom African Americans oriented discussion of their precarious position in free society, which might to some extent explain why Jefferson’s place in African-American thought has for so long gone relatively unplumbed. That said, the latter was not entirely erased from the record. In E.G. Renesch’s 1919 “Emancipation Proclamation,” for example, there is Lincoln, squarely in the foreground as a symbol of liberation, but it is not his own 1863 Proclamation which he holds as an embodiment of American democracy, but rather Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration.