After England abolished slavery, the Thirteen Colonies still wouldn’t. Soon, they declared war on the British. Thomas Jefferson famously started the Declaration of Independence with the words, “All men are created equal.” But was he talking about enslaved people, too?
Most students probably don’t know that colonists launched the American Revolution in part because they wanted to maintain slavery. Jefferson’s words point out the contradiction between the U.S.’s history of racism and enslavement and its lofty ideals of freedom and justice. In fact, nobody embodies this contradiction better than Jefferson himself.
Jefferson was full of contradictions. For instance, he was a slaveowner, and he hated the British for challenging American slavery—but he also thought that slavery was cruel and immoral. And even though he helped start the war, he spent most of it hiding out from the British. During this time, he wrote some notes explaining what he really thought about Black people: they’re naturally inferior to white people, they don’t feel pain, and they should go back to Africa. Later, he moved to Paris and campaigned to end slavery—while ordering the people he enslaved back home in Virginia to work harder on the plantation.
Jefferson’s contradictions show how racism is often based on delusion and self-deception: people can have racist ideas at the same time as they oppose slavery. (It’s also possible to have some racist and some antiracist ideas at the same time.) Of course, he took it even further because he campaigned against slavery based on moral principles, while enslaving people for his own financial benefit. This contradiction again shows how material self-interest is the real engine of racism—not racist ideas, which come later.
After the Revolutionary War, the framers of the Constitution agreed to define enslaved people as three-fifths of a human being. The South wanted to count enslaved people for representation in the House but didn’t want to have a higher population and pay extra taxes to the federal government. And the North didn’t want the South to get more power in the House by counting enslaved people. So, everyone agreed on three-fifths. This number satisfied both assimilationists and segregationists by arguing “that slaves were both human and subhuman.” Meanwhile, in Haiti, a group of enslaved people overthrew the French government in 1791. This inspired rebellions in the U.S. and scared American slaveholders.
The racist idea that Black people are less than fully human was literally written into the American Constitution. There’s no greater metaphor for racism’s central role in the U.S.’s economy and history than the three-fifths compromise. Again, this doesn’t mean that the U.S. is an inherently racist or evil country: rather, it was founded with racist ideas, and racism has always played a central role in its history. But so has antiracism. In fact, the Haitian Revolution represents the opposite of the American Revolution: a country founded on antiracism. It showed early American racists that antiracists could win—and today, it’s still proof that they can.