Jefferson, Selma, and the Ordinance of 1784

As we remember MLK’s march for voting rights fifty years ago, it’s interesting to go back further in our history, we can wonder how the story of race in the US might have been very different, and how a march in Selma, Alabama might not have even been necessary if one man from New Jersey hadn’t been sick over 230 years ago.

I had never heard of the Ordinance of 1784, but I learned a little about it as I was recently reading Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (2012).  (If you enjoy presidential history, you’ll love it. It’s a great read.)

Jefferson is a bit of a conundrum when it comes to the issue of race and slavery. He most famously wrote that “all men are created equal…” in the Declaration of Independence, and yet he owned hundreds of slaves. He argued for the abolition of slavery, but only freed a few of his own. He was almost certainly in a long-term relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, and probably fathered several of her children.

In 1784, the new US government was trying to determine how to govern the territories generally to the west of the Thirteen Colonies, as the expectation that they would eventually become states and join the union. Jefferson drafted the ordinance, he was kind of the “go to guy” for this sort of thing.

The fifth article of the ordinance essentially said that after 1800, none of the newly formed states that were formed from these territories would have slavery or involuntary servitude (Meacham, 173).

As the congress debated the fifth article, they voted to remove it by a margin of only one vote.  Unfortunately for Jefferson and other proponents of this fifth article, a member of the New Jersey delegation, who apparently would have voted to keep it in the Ordinance, was sick in bed.

Future states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, home of Selma, would not have been slave states after 1800 if this fifth article had passed.  It didn’t, and they became slave states.

Jefferson wrote, “Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment” (Meacham, 173).  Two years later, he was expressed a similar sentiment, but slightly more positively, “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime; heaven will not always be silent; the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail” (from Wikipedia).

Obviously, even if slavery were not allowed in these post-Thirteen Colonies Southern states, racism would likely have still continued unabated.  Since the Selma March for equal voting rights was still necessary a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.  But it’s hard not to imagine that things could have been very different, but for the absence of one person’s effort as Jefferson so eloquently put it.

This story convicts me to not be like that guy from New Jersey in 1784, but like those marchers in 1965, and like even the confusing Thomas Jefferson, to do something to advance racial equality.  We haven’t fully overcome yet, but we are slowly making progress.

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