With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence– “all men are created equal”–Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula: “from the hour of their birth some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”1
Jefferson’s words had a great effect. Massachusetts freed its slaves on the strength of his wording. Jefferson’s words were weaved into the state constitution of 1780.
However by the 1790s, Jefferson’s emancipation efforts had stopped. At that time Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello. In contrast, George Washington was scraping together financing for the emancipation at Mount Vernon which he finally accomplished in his will.
Washington’s emancipation of his slaves stands for the idea that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them. Jefferson’s treatment of his own slaves reveals a dark character flaw and hypocrisy.
A reflection on the choices made by both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington is instructive. There are certain choices that we all make that will ultimately reveal who we are and what we stand for.
In the practice of family law, I help clients make difficult choices realizing that these choices will echo into the future.