God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.
Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America
When we talk American history, and particularly America’s foundational social and economic institution, the argument is often made that we should judge the architects of this nation “within the context of their time” - i.e. that we can’t judge Jefferson and the likes for being slave owners, because they were merely products of a particular cultural milieu (and that history may not judge us kindly either). This is problematic though in light of the fact many of these same men, Jefferson being a prime example, understood slavery to be “tyranny”. They were capable of understanding and articulating a justice much more expansive than the one they opted for. I really struggle with this, and take from it, among others, the lesson that the greatest threats to justice are the lies we tell our selves. It’s hard to even conceive the size of the lie they had to tell themselves to birth America, all blue with the umbilical of slavery around its neck.