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The Story of America: Thomas Jefferson's Dying Words On Slavery

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
March 21, 2024 3:01 am

The Story of America: Thomas Jefferson's Dying Words On Slavery

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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March 21, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, in our 20th episode of "The Story of America" series, Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope, tells the story of a changing America—and an America on the brink of a collision of opinions on the very nature of freedom and liberty themselves.

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The Story of America series with Professor Bill McClay, author of the terrific book Land of Hope and a professor at Hillsdale College. By the time 1820 rolled around, America was a nation on the move. Trains, canals and steamboats all moving westward and New York becoming our largest city. Our way of life was changing, but our original sin remained. Slavery. Let's get into the story.

Take it away, Bill. It was not just canals being built. The first railways were being built in the 1820s and they would turn western towns like Chicago into commerce powerhouses. There was Samuel Slater, whose factory innovations and systems changed textile manufacturing. Eli Whitney's cotton gin, which made short staple cotton into a commercially viable product and would make cotton king in the south.

John Fitch and Robert Fulton's innovations in steam technology and other inventions like that would usher in an era of economic growth unrivaled in American history. But there were still important unresolved problems, one of them a huge unresolved issue. Slavery. By 1818, there was a balance between free and slave states, 11 of each, which made for a stalemate in the Senate.

But a balance wasn't a solution to a problem. It was merely a delay of a solution. It was a truce, a ceasefire in place of an actual treaty of settlement.

In 1819, the first of the Louisiana territories applied for statehood, Missouri. And there was little doubt it would seek to be admitted as a slave state, and that would disturb the equilibrium. A fierce debate ensued in Congress because more than any previous time in American history, when the subject of slavery had come up, there was greater commitment economically to the institution in the southern states. And there was greater opposition morally and otherwise in the northern states. So any debate that would occur was going to be more ferocious than debates that had been seen before.

And this one was extremely fiery. A compromise finally averted an all-out disaster. Maine would be admitted as a free state, thus maintaining the balance between slave and free states. Maine really just separated off from Massachusetts. More importantly, slavery would be excluded henceforth from the remaining parts of the Louisiana territory that were north of Missouri's southern border.

That is the 3630 latitude extended westward. Again, a problem delayed is not a problem solved. And the hope that many of the actual framers of the Constitution had sincerely held, that slavery was an institution on its way out and it would die out of its own in addition, this was a hope that was dying itself. No one understood the nature of the peril, the depth of the issue, the depth of the problem better than Jefferson himself. He wrote the following words to John Holmes, the U.S. representative from Massachusetts and one of the earliest supporters of the Missouri Compromise. Holmes had mailed a letter to Jefferson with a copy of a pamphlet he'd published for the citizens of Maine. Jefferson, in retirement at Monticello, responded to Holmes shortly after the passage of the Missouri Compromise.

Here's what he said. I thank you, dear sir, for the copy you have been so kind as to send me and the letter to your constituents on the Missouri question. It is a perfect justification to them. I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands and content to be a passenger in our bar to the shore from which I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union. It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated, and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way. It's a remarkable letter in its substance and its tone.

Let me repeat two lines of it, because they bear repeating. This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union.

That word knell, it means the slow, repeated, solemn ringing of a bell for a death or funeral. Then came this evocative and disturbing line from his letter to Holmes. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.

Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other. So Jefferson doesn't see a way out, doesn't see a way out of slavery, and this doesn't only disturb him, it haunts him. Here's how he closes things out in this letter. I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away for the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons.

And my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be affected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world. These are words, powerful words, that resound and echo down through the ages, down through the years, and I think they echo to the present day. The present, any present, are present to the presence of the past. They've never been immune to the possibility of becoming full of itself and its passions, but it should never be allowed to fail to honor the sacrifices of the past and the blessings we owe to it. That was the bitter prospect that Jefferson was facing as he faced death after a long and distinguished career.

The possibility that it might all have been for nothing. A terrific job on the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery, himself a Hillsdale College graduate, and a special thanks to Professor Bill Maclay, who teaches at Hillsdale College. All of the work we do here at Our American Stories, all the history stories, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale, where you can go to learn all the beautiful and important things in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale College, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses. Go to hillsdale.edu.

That's hillsdale.edu. The story of us with Professor Bill Maclay here on Our American Stories. Billie Eilish and Phineas O'Connell. They're with us today on Crew Call.

I'm your host, Anthony D'Alessandro. Billie's vocals. It was automatic art. You know, I had to like choose a more challenging route than just like, you know what I'm saying? Like it could have been like easier. And a lot of people have asked me, like, how did you choose to have it be so soft and like so simple? And what else was it going to like?

That's what the song wanted. Thanks for listening to this episode of the Crew Call podcast on Deadline. The first time, every time or your money back. Plus, at these prices, you're burning rubber, not cash.

Keep your ride or die alive at eBay Motors dot com. Eligible items only. Exclusions apply. Ready to celebrate International Women's Day? M&M's and I heart present Women Take the Mic, sharing empowering stories of women supporting and celebrating each other. And of course, there is a smooth and creamy companion for your listening pleasure. Peanut butter M&M's, because they're just another way to help treat yourself in situations where you deserve a little added delight, like listening to your favorite podcast. So savor the deliciousness of peanut butter M&M's and spread some positivity from breaking glass ceilings to dominating in sports and entertainment. Women truly are unstoppable.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-03-21 04:20:54 / 2024-03-21 04:25:18 / 4

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