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October 30, 2012

May 26, 1817 – May 17, 1818

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1818:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of S. America. They will succeed against Spain. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 2012:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of Syria. They will succeed against Bashar al-Assad. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with one another. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence and self-government, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, May 17, 1860:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the notion of emancipation. The slaves will succeed against their masters. But the dangerous enemy is within their own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain their minds and bodies with stagnation and vengeance. I do believe it would be better for them to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify them to take charge of themselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep them at peace with us. Surely it is our duty to wish them independence, because they wish it themselves, and they have the right, and we none, to chuse for themselves: and I wish moreover that our ideas may be erroneous, and theirs prove well founded.”

Thomas Jefferson to French dude, May 17, 1776:
“I enter into all your doubts as to the event of the revolution of the American colonies. We will succeed against Britain. But the dangerous enemy is within our own breasts. Ignorance and superstition will chain our minds and bodies under religious and military despotism. I do believe it would be better for us to obtain freedom by degrees only; because that would by degrees bring on light and information, and qualify us to take charge of ourselves understandingly; with more certainty if in the mean time under so much controul only as may keep us at peace with one another. Surely it is your duty to wish us independence and self-government, because we wish it ourselves, and we have the right, and you none, to chuse for ourselves: and I wish moreover that your ideas may be erroneous, and ours prove well founded.”

Is this at all helpful? Jefferson’s real words made me think how this refrain seems to echo throughout the history of revolutions and freedom fights. I think our current president made a similar point in a recent debate—not the same point, but similar. Something about how his administration’s pace of movement in supporting the rebellion in Syria depends on whether a legitimate replacement of President Assad can be identified (rather than replacing him with another terrorist regime). The argument was there for Egypt’s overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, too.

It may or may not make sense for Syria and Egypt; it’s an open question. In the case of American slavery and the American Revolution, it sounds like hogwash, right? Freedom now! Except that it was as open a question during their time as it is today.

So we’re back to the old “hindsight is 20/20” conundrum. Again, is it helpful? Should we be learning anything from this? Should we be yelling “Freedom!” and dropping a SEAL team on Assad’s house about now? Or is our moral clarity over American colonial rebellion and immediate emancipation for slaves just part of the myth-making that occurs over time? During the American Revolution, plenty of fence-sitters were all for freedom but weren’t interested in paying the price of war. Leading up to the American Civil War, plenty of anti-slavery people feared that immediate emancipation would leave slaves—without education, legal protection, job skills—at the mercy of former masters who would simply employ them in equally dismal serf-like conditions.

Maybe “morality” isn’t the issue. Abraham Lincoln was morally against slavery, but he signed the Emancipation Proclamation to win the war, not to end slavery (and the Proclamation didn’t free all slaves, just those in the “rebellious states”).

On the other hand, when you compare the North American colonies with the South American colonies, Jefferson (Mr. Declaration of Independence) sounds like an ass. We get our freedom, but they’re too ignorant to handle it? Was Jefferson being a hypocrite or is my moral clarity getting in the way?

How’s that for a mash-up of current Middle Eastern events, global colonial history, and the American Civil War?

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June 20, 1815 – August 24, 1815

Adams to Jefferson and Thomas McKean: “Who shall write the history of the American revolution? Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it? The most essential documents, the debates and deliberations in Congress from 1774 to 1783 were all in secret, and are now lost forever.”

Four signers of the Declaration of Independence were still alive in 1815: Adams, Jefferson, Thomas McKean, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton. I don’t know why Carroll of Carrollton didn’t get a letter, too. I will assume nothing more than that he and Adams weren’t buds. Carroll of Carrollton, yes that’s how he signed his name. How long did it take before that became a running joke at the Continental Congress? “I now give the floor to the distinguished delegate from Maryland, Charles Carroll . . . yes, Carroll. Charlie Carroll? Of Carrollton, Charles Carrollton, I mean Carroll, of Carrollton. Carol’s son? No, I mean, I don’t know, maybe. Charlie, what’s your ma’s name? No, Mr. Washington, it’s Elizabeth, the wife of Charles Carroll. No, she’s his mother. Charles Carroll is her husband. This is Charles Carroll of Carrollton, her son. Yes, the Catholic. Sorry, sir, I should have said that to begin with. Ha ha, no other papists here, sir, that’s for sure. Charles Carroll of Carrollton the Catholic, the floor is yours.”

That awful excuse for humor rests upon the premise that George Washington is deaf and senile, I know.

I’ve successfully sidetracked myself from discussing the obvious question of whether we can truly know history or whether it is like a star in the night sky that is impossible to see except peripherally. I buzzed through American Creation again to see if Joseph J. Ellis verifies Adams’s comment or if some secret documents have been discovered between 1815 and now. Here’s what he says:

“No true history of that fateful time would ever be written, Adams insisted, because the most important conversations occurred ‘out of doors’ in local taverns and coffeehouses. What’s more, the official record of the deliberations imposed a misleading gloss of coherence over the congressional proceedings, concealing the messy confusion that reigned supreme for all the delegates, himself included. Any coherent narrative of the deliberations must necessarily falsify the way it really was for all the participants, who were improvising without a script in a historical drama without a known conclusion.”

So, no secret documents. Depending on your personality, or need to prove a point based on history, this could be a discouraging or exhilarating thought. Here’s Ellis again:

“Adams was making a serious, perhaps even profound, point: namely, that retrospective history—that is, history viewed with the benefit of hindsight—is invariably neater and tidier than history experienced by those making it. But since hindsight is the only interpretive tool historians have at their disposal…”

Ellis obviously isn’t aware of Pastwatch, but I digress. (For all of you Orson Scott Card fans.)

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