The American Revolution was really about slavery, Thomas Jefferson is a Bastard, and coupling Christianity with Capitalism

Jules Taylor
No Easy Answers
Published in
15 min readJun 29, 2020

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[Transcript from the Podcast ‘No Easy Answers’]: https://anchor.fm/noeasyanswers/episodes/The-American-Revolution-was-really-about-slavery--Thomas-Jefferson-is-a-Bastard--and-coupling-Christianity-with-Capitalism-eg2lfo

Today is Monday, June 26th. The year is 2020. This is No Easy Answers and I am your host, Jules Taylor. Today, like all days, I have no easy answers for you.

I would like to start this discussion today by telling you about Francis Julius Bellamy. Francis lived from 1855 to 1931. He was an author, minister, and Christian Socialist. He “championed the rights of working people and equal distribution of economic resources, which he believed was inherent in the teachings of Jesus.” He was forced out of the pulpit by angry parishioners who disliked his tendency to describe Jesus as a socialist. Francis was also the founding vice-president of The Society of Christian Socialists, and once offered public education courses with topics such as “Jesus the Socialist” and “Socialism versus Anarchy”. [1, 2, 3]

The name Francis Bellamy should be familiar to you, as most Americans know his most famous work by heart — The Pledge of Allegiance. As a socialist, he had initially considered including the word equality, but he decided against it, knowing the state superintendents of education on his committee were against equality for women and African Americans. It was in October of 1892, on the 400th anniversary of Columbus Day that children across the United States first recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Here’s Francis Bellamy’s original wording:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands — one Nation indivisible — with liberty and justice for all.”

In 1923, the words ‘the flag of the United States of America’ were added out of fear that immigrant children would not understand clearly which flag they were meant to be saluting. [4, 5] In 1952, Congress voted to insert the words ‘under God’, completing the wording of the pledge that we know today. [5]

One could speculate that Bellamy, despite being an ordained minister, did not include the words ‘under God’ in his original wording out of respect for the separation of church and state. After all, he was a patriot composing a pledge of allegiance. One could also speculate that if Bellamy were around at the time of the insertion, he would not, as a Christian, take offense to the wording adjustment.

Historian Kevin Kruse acknowledges the insertion of the phrase ‘under God’ was part of push-back against Russian and Chinese atheistic communism during the cold war, but argues the longer arc of history shows the conflation of Christianity with capitalism [1], and that I do believe Francis Bellamy would have a real bone to pick with America about. The irony of a life-long Christian socialist, who believed the politics of socialism were inherent in the teachings of Christ, composing a pledge of allegiance, which is then co-opted by capitalism to push-back against communist and socialist politics abroad, and couple capitalism with Christianity, is superbly rich.

Bellamy also contributed a flag salute to be performed while reciting the pledge. This action would come to be known as the Bellamy salute. Unfortunately, the Bellamy salute greatly resembled the Roman salute, and the Roman salute would later be adopted by Italian Fascists and Nazi Germans. Congress would vote to replace the Bellamy salute with the hand-over-the-heart gesture in 1942. [6]

In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in the West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that students could not be forced to salute the US flag or say the pledge because doing so would violate their first amendment rights. [7] Despite this ruling, for many years American classrooms ritually began their day by saluting the flag and reciting the pledge. These days, starting the day out with the pledge is left up to the individual district and school, but this was very consistent at least up until the late 1980s.

It is not an overkill to plainly state that a ritual reciting of the pledge is the first step of indoctrinating children into nationalism. After all, what utility does the pledge of allegiance have, if not for purposes of building nationalism and national loyalty? The young impressionable minds who are made to memorize the pledge and its cadence are as malleable as the pledge itself, which we know has been augmented by design in order to accomplish broader ideological goals (such as the conflation of capitalism with Christianity). The national anthem is of similar utility, a tool in the toolbox for constructing the ideology of patriots.

While all nations have pledges and anthems and make use of them in similar ways, I doubt the stories of how the ideological pillars of other nations came to be areas uniquely damning to the national character as the historical truths behind the pledge, the national anthem, and declaration of independence. I would submit to you that every core tenet of American Ideology, be it a pledge, song, document, or historical figure has not-so-well-hidden truths just below the surface. This duality of narratives is pervasive, starting at the birth of America with her founders.

John Trumbull’s famous 1818 painting hangs in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, where it has been since 1826. [9] The 12 x 18-foot oil-on-canvas depicts the presentation of the declaration of independence to congress, along with 42 out of 56 signers of the declaration. [9] In 2019, a Twitter user named Alan Parsa took a digital image of this painting and placed red dots over the faces of those historical figures who owned slaves. The result was a vivid representation of how pervading slave ownership was amongst the founding fathers, having only 8 faces left uncovered. [8]

While most Americans are aware to varying degrees the founding fathers were mostly slave owners, it may come as a shock to some when they find out that all of the early presidents, with the exceptions of John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, were slave owners. The last president to own enslaved people was Ulysses S. Grant, the former commanding general of the Union Army. [10] Some presidents are comparatively less guilty than others, like Martin Van Buren owning a single slave during his early career, versus Zachary Taylor, who owned around 150 enslaved workers on plantations in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Out of all the early presidents and founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson is clearly the one who carries the greatest degree of guilt in his legacy.

Historical assessments of Jefferson have been mixed, but generally, they fall into one of three categories. There are those in the ‘emancipationist’ camp, who maintain that Jefferson was an opponent of slavery all of his life, noting that he did what he could within the limited range of options available to him to undermine it, his many legal attempts at abolition legislation, the manner in which he provided for his slaves, and his advocacy for their more humane treatment. The ‘revisionist’ camp criticizes Jefferson for racism, for holding slaves, and for acting contrary to his words, and the ‘contextualists’ emphasize a change in Jefferson’s thinking from his emancipationist views before 1783, noting that Jefferson seemed to yield to public opinion by 1794, as he laid the groundwork for his first presidential campaign against John Adams in 1796. [11]

Jefferson owned far more enslaved people than any other person in John Trumbull’s painting. In total, there were around 600 enslaved people, most of them residing at Monticello, Jefferson’s primary residence, and sprawling mountain-top plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia. 135 enslaved people came to Jefferson through inheritance when his father-in-law died. At the time of Jefferson’s writing of the declaration of independence, the practice of slavery had been so thoroughly denounced that Thomas Paine wrote that the case for slavery had been ‘sufficiently disproven’. [8]

In a March 1775 edition of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advisor, Paine published an essay calling for the abolition of slavery, the resettlement of freed slaves, and he likened the institution of slavery to those colonial grievances about Britain.

To quote from his article, “…they complain so loudly of attempts to enslave them, while they hold so many hundred thousands in slavery and annually enslave many thousands more, without any pretense of authority or claim upon them… How just, how suitable to our crime is the punishment with which providence threatens us? We have enslaved multitudes and shed much innocent blood in doing it, and are now threatened with the same..[by the English]… [Should] all not immediately discontinue and renounce it, with grief and abhorrence? Should not every society bear testimony against it and [consider] obstinate persisters in it bad men, enemies to their country, and exclude them from fellowship, as they often do for much lesser faults?”

Thomas Paine was not the only abolitionist commenting on the irony of slaveholders declaring their independence. The British Abolitionist Thomas Day similarly stated in 1776, “If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature it is an American patriot signing resolutions of independency with the one hand and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.”

It is easy to surmise a hypocritical stance held by Jefferson, knowing the words he penned while simultaneously keeping hundreds of enslaved people. Even the staunchest of emancipationists would not disagree with the labeling, but they would be sure to argue the ways in which Jefferson acted to legally undermine slavery as an institution and bring up a major accomplishment of the Jefferson presidency, the ending of the international slave trade. In fact, with Jefferson’s leadership and probable authorship, the Virginia General Assembly banned importing people to be used as slaves in 1778. All other states, except for South Carolina, eventually followed by the time Congress banned the trade in 1807.

Historical records seem to indicate that Jefferson supported gradual emancipation since the 1770s. [12] There are records of Jefferson speaking out against slavery, calling it a ‘moral depravity’, a ‘hideous blot’, and ‘contrary to the rules of nature, which decreed that everyone had the right to personal liberty’, but despite these remarks, he continued to profit from the keeping of enslaved people. These very sentiments prove to be nothing more than lip service when you read his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he wrote that he suspected Black people to be inferior to white people. To Jefferson, the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process, and abolition would be stymied until slaveowners consented to free their human property together in a large-scale act of emancipation. [14]

While the contextualists and emancipationists present Jefferson as a complex and nuanced historical figure, with seemingly redemptive actions taken during his life, the criticisms of Jefferson made by revisionists are not at all reductive. There is an argument to be made that the abolition of slavery in England in 1774 was the primary impetus for the American Revolution. If England were to force the ending of slavery in the colonies, it would have been a direct threat to the fortunes of slave-owning founding fathers. [16]

Further arguments would point to a different motivation for Jefferson’s ending of the international slave trade. In 1791, the Haitian Revolution began as a slave revolt and would continue until 1804 when they declared their independence. Jefferson lived his life under constant fear of slave revolts, as was a common fear among white wealthy enslaving landowners in the South. The news of enslaved people successfully taking the island from their white masters, resisting a French counter-revolution, and placing an end to French-colonial endeavors in the region sparked a fear that similar revolts would happen in the states. The records of Jefferson expressing his belief in white supremacy, along with the ending of slavery in England and the Haitian Revolution provide a compelling counter-narrative to the emancipationist and contextualist arguments, but perhaps the most damning indictment of Jefferson was not settled upon until 1998.

Sally Hemings was an enslaved woman of mixed race owned by Thomas Jefferson. She was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s late wife Martha, a product of her slave-trading father and one of his slaves. She came to live at Monticello as an infant with her siblings and mother as part of the 135 enslaved people bequeathed by Martha’s father to Martha and Thomas Jefferson. Most historians agree that Jefferson began a sexual relationship with Hemings when she was around the age of fourteen. For more than 150 years, historians denied rumors of Jefferson having an enslaved concubine. When pressed on the issue, they would claim one of Jefferson’s nephews was the father of Hemings’ children. It was not until the 1970s when historians of Jefferson started to lose control of the narrative.

A DNA test in 1998 showed there was a high probability that Thomas Jefferson was the biological father of Eston Hemings, with a nearly perfect match between the DNA of Jefferson’s paternal uncle and the descendants of Eston Hemings. In the fall of 2001, The National Genealogical Society published a special issue devoted to the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. The experts in the publication stated that historical, genealogical, and DNA evidence supports the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson was the father of all of Hemings’ six children. [17]

At the risk of seeming crude of gauche, I want to be clear that historians are now in agreement that Sally Hemings was raped by Thomas Jefferson from the time she was fourteen until Jefferson’s death. For 39 years, she was in a nonconsensual relationship that produced children who Thomas Jefferson also kept as enslaved people. Although the actions of Jefferson are reprehensible, they are in line with the character and practices of other colonial slavers, and there is reason to believe Jefferson is not unique among the former presidents and founding fathers.

The slave-owning version of Jefferson is unsuitable for building the pride and folklore of a nation, and America cannot perfect herself as the nation she aspires to be, standing on a foundation of oppression in direct contradiction to her ideals. The Star-Spangled Banner is not immune from these indictments either. The lyrics in the third verse are “celebrating the murder of enslaved people.” [15]

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave,

from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

When one takes an honest appraisal of American history, many historical narratives are not as they seem. Take for example the concept of Taxation without Representation, which is typically pointed to as the main reason why the colonies revolted against England and declared their independence. In a recent interview, historian Gerald Horne finds a different line of reasoning behind the colonial revolt. “…when the settlers here in North America revolted against British rule in 1776, a major impetus for that revolt was what was going on in London in terms of Somerset’s case in 1772, where England decided to abolish slavery. In England itself, there was a fear that that decision would leapfrog the Atlantic, jeopardizing the fortunes of a murderous rule of so-called founding fathers, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, the lawyer for slave owners, president number two, John Adams. And so rather than run that risk, they revolted…” [16]

American folklore is easily turned on its head when approached with historical veracity. If one were to factor in Somerset’s case as the deciding factor which led to the colonial rebellion, one can liken the argument of ‘taxation without representation’ to the false notion that the Confederacy seceded in order to preserve ‘states’ rights’. That is not to say that taxation without representation was not a legitimate grievance but centering the American Revolution’s causes around England’s ending of chattel slavery places the founders of America under a revealing light.

For Americans who subscribe to the belief the folklore of their nation is an accurate version of history, these indictments are not easily received by them. A good faith attempt at communicating the moral truth concerning the ideology of America can be perceived as an assault on deeply held belief systems or an attack on America itself. American exceptionalism crumbles under historical scrutiny, and American innocence, in turn, fails to absolve our nation of its sins when our nation takes on the character of its founders. The American Revolution then becomes a war fought for the continuance of slavery, under the auspices of dishonorable men, who were penning hallow words men of lower classes took as truth backed up by principle and died for.

In 1968, in his book Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver writes “What has suddenly happened is that the white race has lost its heroes. Worse, its heroes have been revealed as villains and its greatest heroes as the arch-villains… They recoil in shame from the spectacle of cowboys and pioneers- their heroic forefathers whose exploits filled earlier generations with pride- galloping across a movie screen shooting down Indians like Coke bottles. Even Winston Churchill, who is looked upon by older whites as perhaps the greatest hero of the twentieth century- even he, because of the system of which he was a creature and which he served, is an arch-villain in the eyes of the young white rebels.” [19]

The more you read about American History, the less of a patriot you should be. There was a time when I was a patriot, considering it my duty to love my country despite its flaws. I was a believer in American Exceptionalism, and I believed America to be the ‘shining city upon a hill’ John Winthrop imagined. I believed our military was spreading democracy around the world, and that our democracy was a standard to judge other nations against.

You could say I have an ever-worsening condition of Anti-Americanism. My patriotism has been chipped away at by historical truths which lay in direct contradiction to our purported national ideals. The America I imagined is now in dissolution, with the truths of her history urging me to further deconstruct the nationalist fables told to me as a child. After all, History is an inheritance bequeathed to all mankind, and we ought to protect these truths as they are our only insight into our current collective worsening conditions. History helps us decipher the world around us, and we must act to ensure the well of history is not poisoned with misinformation.

Maybe the broader ideological question being asked is what do the words of the declaration of independence mean if the writer did not believe in the equality of all men?

With the words of Jefferson clearly not applying to the enslaved, can you imagine all around you, slave owners celebrating new-found national independence? The disappointment of believing perhaps mass emancipation was in the works by the words written into the formation of a new government, only to have nothing change. This is a reoccurring nightmare for Black Americans. Though the industry and infrastructure of this nation were built upon the backs of slavery, the destiny of America was separate and apart from the destiny of Black Americans. In other words, the disenfranchisement of African Americans started before we were independent, and the disenfranchisement of African Americans was ratified in the declaration of independence.

The need for cheap labor outweighs the need for honoring our national promises to this day. The prosperity of a few plantation owners was paramount, as the fields of sugar and cotton thirsted for laborers and single-handedly fueled the North Atlantic slave trade, just as a handful of billionaires today salivate for cheap labor and further exploitations of the working class.

Is it any wonder that our country did not make it through 100 years of independence without a civil war erupting? Civil War was the down payment on the price our nation pays for betraying our written ethos, and yet again, much of that cost was paid for by African Americans, this time fighting in the Union Army for half-wages.

Of course, you cannot expect soldiers to fight for their freedom and still be accepting of subjugation.

I will leave you with this quote by Robin D.G. Kelley, “The presumption was the constitutional basis of our system was sound, we just had to fix it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound, it never has been sound. It has been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. This vision of abolition is not better jails, better police, better training… it’s no police, it’s no jail, it’s no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice, that’s not based on criminalization, but based on affirmation and reparation, and by reparation, that is trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of 5 centuries of warfare against indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations. So here is an opportunity to transform not just the nation, but the entire world.”

1.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pledge_of_Allegiance#:~:text=The%20phrase%20%22under%20God%22%20was,Flag%20Code%20enacted%20in%201942.

2.https://books.google.com/books/about/Cultural_Movements_and_Collective_Memory.html?id=Bp_FAAAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Bellamy#Political_views

4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/06/14/the-gripping-sermon-that-got-under-god-added-to-the-pledge-of-allegiance-on-flag-day/

5. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-man-who-wrote-the-pledge-of-allegiance-93907224/

6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bellamy_salute

7. https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/19/us/pledge-of-allegiance-explainer-trnd/index.html

8. http://www.openculture.com/2020/06/john-trumbulls-famous-1818-painting-declaration-of-independence-virtually-defaced-to-show-which-founding-fathers-owned-slaves.html#:~:text=John%20Trumbull's%20Famous%201818%20Painting%20Declaration%20of%20Independence%20Virtually%20Defaced,Which%20Founding%20Fathers%20Owned%20Slaves&text=Statues%20of%20slaveholders%20and%20their,lot%20of%20people%20are%20distraught.

9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Independence_(Trumbull)

10. https://www.history.com/news/how-many-u-s-presidents-owned-slaves

11.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson#Monticello,_marriage_and_family

12.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson_and_slavery#:~:text=there%20is%20not%20a%20man,self%2Dpreservation%20in%20the%20other.

13. https://www.vox.com/2016/4/8/11389556/thomas-jefferson-sally-hemings-book

14. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-a-brief-account/

15. https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/video-do-you-know-the-star-spangled-banners-third-verse/

16. https://theanalysis.news/interviews/murder-of-george-floyd-rooted-in-american-slave-system-gerald-horne/

17.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jefferson%E2%80%93Hemings_controversy#1998_DNA_study

18. https://www.monticello.org/thomas-jefferson/jefferson-slavery/jefferson-s-attitudes-toward-slavery/

19. Eldridge Cleaver — Soul on Ice, 1968

20. https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war#:~:text=Black%20soldiers%20were%20initially%20paid,no%20clothing%20allowance%20was%20drawn.

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