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Point of view January 15, 1990

JEFFERSON QUOTED, BEIJING TO BERLIN

Overton Love Turner II

"Security is never an absolute." Bartholini

It would be presumptuous to conclude that America played a direct role in the freedom movement of both China and the East European nations. Yet one cannot ignore the distinctive American color of these events.

From Tiananmen Square to Budepest, Bucharest, East Berlin, Prague, Sofia, and Warsaw, the revolutionary partisans have quoted Thomas Jefferson. Evidently the notion that all men are created equal and have a right to individual self-determination runs both silently and deeply in the human psyche.

Whatever else may be said about the essence of America- and the "else" would be immense- it is evident that the bottom line has to do with the pursuit of equality and liberty.

Only four men have been honored with a federal legal holiday by our government. Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King. Of the four, two were active in seeking the rights of African-Americans. Lincoln was in pursuit of emancipation, and King struggled to end discrimination. Both were assassinated.

It sometimes seems that blood and liberty are synonymous. And does not one get weary of freedom and strife, and long for a benign autocrat who would command a settled status quo? Perhaps so, when one in weakness loses sight of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

But when one regains sight and clears his senses, one sees equality and liberty as the only true goals. Benign autocrats are fickle, and slavery, of whatever sort is always dehumanizing. To humanize implies Liberty, and liberty implies equality. We can not have one without the other. The real battle lies in overcoming our ignorance, our confusion, and often our plain meanness.

Perhaps we would be much further down the road had we acted on the exhortation of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. They both fought to abolish slavery from the beginning. Their failure to convince their countrymen put this nation on a course that led directly to the Civil War. The cost was staggering 2,813,363 dead Americans. While other causes are noted for this slaughter, every schoolboy knows the real issue was slavery. The telling evidence is the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Consitiution.

Too many contemporary Americans do not know that Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of independence, put into that charter a paragraph condemning slavery. It was, he wrote, "a cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most secured rights of life and liberty of a distant people who never offended" the British crown.

This was stricken from the final document because it mainly offended South Carolina and Georgia. But Jefferson continued to make his views known. On June 26, 1786, in a letter to Jean Demeunier, he noted the resistance to emancipation and lamented, "But we must await with patience the workings of an overruling providence, the deliverance of these, our suffering brethren.

When the measure of their tears shall he full doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, manifest his attention to the sins of this world."

Jefferson confessed that he shuddered because the wrath of God would fall upon this nation if it continued the slave institution. It appears history vindicated Thomas Jefferson. Homo sapiens wants to be free.

James Madison, the father of the Constitution, resisted the slave states' delegates who insisted that slaves be enumerated as property in the Constitution. Because these delegates were so immovable in their position, he compromised and agreed to enumerate slaves as three-fifths persons, but not as property.

Madison had his eye on emancipation and realized that the word "person," even if diluted, was an important precedent. He explained the Federalist Papers, No. 54, that slaves may some day be enumerated as full persons, since "if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the Negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants." It is said that when he died in 1817, he had a broken heart because the slaves had not been emancipated. Persons? Oh Madison knew, "a rose by any other name is still a rose."

Today, Martin Luther King Day is a significant milestone in our national journey, if it reminds us that we are still a nation in pursuit of equality and self-determination. Thomas Jefferson called it our fate.


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copyright 2005 O.Frank