Jefferson and Kosciusko:*
Two Views of Equality
Was Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, a racist as some claim? This startling possibility and other aspects of our third President's Renaissance-like personality were discussed throughout the United States in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of hid birth in 1743.
Why however should Jefferson's views be of particular interest to Lithuanians and what relationship do they have with those of Thaddeus Kosciusko?
Many of us remember Kosciusko's role in the American Revolution but few of his long and close friendship with Jefferson.
Both men championed human rights but, in this very area, both men's views differed significantly. Although Jefferson held that "all men are created equal'" he excluded the black race from this generalized proposition. On the other hand, Kociusko, as leader of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, proclaimed an unconditional equality for all men including society's under class.
In private and in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson did condemn slavery as a morally repugnant institution which demeaned both oppressor and oppressed. Yet as a Virginian and politician, he was inhibited by the immense obstacles emancipation would engender in a slave-based society, including the specter of racial violence.
More important, Jefferson believed that the black race was mentally inferior to the white race and therefore incapable of coexistence on an equal basis. To resolve this dilemma, he advocated in his one book, Notes on the Sate of Virginia, an earlier and nonviolent form of ethnic cleansing under which Virginia would liberate, train, and then deport young blacks "to such place as the circumstances of time should render most proper."1
Free whites would be imported to replace the expatriated blacks and in time Virginia would become an entirely white society. Jefferson's plan, however, was inhumane because it would forcibly separate young blacks from their parents at the age of 18 for females and 21 for males. It was intolerant because it implied white supremacy and the concomitant refusal to accept coexistence on an equal basis.
In defense of his plan, Jefferson aired a number of racial biases that resonate across the years with a familiar and disagreeable echo: "[Blacks] have a very strong and disagreeable odor...in reason are much inferior...in imagination are dull, tasteless, and anomalous." Significantly, Jefferson concluded that "their inferiority is not merely the effect of their condition in life."
Jefferson's book, written at the French government's request for information on the Colonies, was not originally intended for general circulation and Jefferson did not publicly urge the adoption of his plan. In fact, throughout his long career, Jefferson refused to commit his immense prestige by speaking out publicly against a social evil he privately censured as morally abhorrent.
Dumas Malone, Jefferson's eminent biographer, mentions an incident that sheds additional light on this aspect of Jefferson's character. An aide to President Madison pleaded with Jefferson that no one was better suited than the author of the Declaration of Independence to bring the "hallowed principles" of this document into full effect, by which he meant black emancipation. The aide urged Jefferson not to be deterred by fear of failure, saying that the influence of his example would be even greater after death. But the Sage of Monticello declined.2
There were other men who rose above their time and place to publicly oppose human servitude. One of the most prominent of these was Thaddeus Kosciusko3, born in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania of Lithuanian-Ruthenian heritage when that country was united with the Kingdom of Poland.4
In important respects, the political and social characteristics of the dual state resembled those of Jefferson's Virginia. The economy depended upon the forced labor of serfs who were placed under their lord's complete jurisdiction. Their conditions were similar to those under slavery.5
Yet the upper classes of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were among the most liberal in Europe in other respects. The combined office of King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania was an elective one and the parliament's will could be thwarted by a one vote. These democratic practices weakened the Commonwealth and left it prey to rapacious neighbors.
Showing a potential for advancement, Kosciusko was awarded a royal stipend to study the military arts in Paris. It was during this formative period that the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment with its notions of human perfectibility and the rights of man helped mold Kosciusko's social outlook. Throughout hid life, he remained publicly opposed to human servitude and believed, without any of Jefferson's crippling doubts, in the equality of all men without exception.
It was not surprising, therefore, that the 'shot heard round the world" fired the enthusiasm of the young idealist who offered his services as military engineer to the embattles American Colonists.6 At Saratoga, his fortifications were a major factor in the decisive victory that changed the course of the American Revolution. Year's later, John Quincy Adams eulogized Kosciusko as one of the two most eminent foreigners to fight for the American cause (the other being Lafayette).7
Following the Revolution, Kosciusko returned to a homeland seething under the brutal partition policy of Catherine the Great of Russia. In part due to his military success in America, the ardent patriot was chosen commander-in-chief of a brief but violent uprising in 1794. In an Act of Insurrection, Kosciusko cited grievances against his people's enemies, justified the Insurrection to those in other countries "who know how to value liberty," and assured his countrymen of their right to resist tyranny. These sentiments in tone and language echoed Jefferson's vindication of an earlier act of rebellion. Unhappily, his selfless efforts on behalf of freedom, successful in America, were unsuccessful in his own country.
Kosciusko's deep concern for political freedom, however, extended well beyond the battlefield. Generally overlooked by Western historians is his pledge at this time to free the serfs and endow them with land. In these two important respects, Kosciusko's edicts surpassed Jefferson's Declaration which left the moral stigma of slavery untouched. Kosciusko understood that the right to possess property, in essence, the right to the fruit of one's own labor, was essential for both political and economic independence.
The point may be made that Kosciusko's position was simpler than Jefferson's because the former did not have to contend with the racial question. The fact remains that Kosciusko went against the entrenched interests of his own class in proclaiming emancipation and land reform. The upper classes in fact regarded the Insurrection as a social Revolution. As a consequence, theirs was a limited response to Kosciusko's pleas for military support and contributed to the failure of the uprising. Nevertheless, Kosciusko did not hesitate, as Jefferson did, to act upon his convictions. His genius lay in grasping that political and economic independence depend upon each other and that one without the other is impossible.
Kosciusko returned to America after he was released by Catherine's son, Paul I, from imprisonment. The defender of American liberty was given a tumultuous welcome in Philadelphia where his apartment at Third and Pine Streets (now a National Park Service Memorial) soon became one of the social centers of the then-capital city. Among the more notable visitors was Thomas Jefferson, Vice-President under John Adams. The two became warm friends, each attracted to the other's liberal outlook. Jefferson wrote of Kosciusko: "I see him often, and with great pleasure... he is as true a son of liberty as I have known, and that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few or rich alone." 8
Out of this friendship arose a chain of events that did not end until more than a half-century later.
The affair began when Kosciusko appointed Jefferson executor of a will authorizing the latter to empty the proceeds of Kosciusko's Revolutionary War pay in purchasing the freedom of American slaves and financing their education. The will illustrates the basic tents of Kosciusko's social philosophy, which he proclaimed in more general terms during the Insurrection: personal freedom had to be supplemented with the means, in this case education, for earning a livelihood and also for instilling a sense of personal and civic morality. Kosciusko's limited resources emphasized the generosity of this act.9
One final difference between Jefferson and Kosciusko is that the latter freed all the serfs on his estate in Lithuania and ceded to them the lands on which they lived. Jefferson, on the other hand, freed only a few slaves in his will, and these were related to the black woman who may have been either his mistress or his nephew's.10
Kosciusko gave the concept of freedom a new dimension. He note only believes that all men without exception have the right to be free but that freedom had to supplemented with the means (land or education) to make it a realistic proposition. "[Freedom] alone does not [feed] a peasant and his family," as he trenchantly put it. In these tow important respects, Kosciusko was well ahead of Jefferson's qualified concepts of freedom and equality.
|Lituanus, The Lithuanian Quarterly|
|1994, vol 40, no 3|