Declaration of Independence

TJ gets a wake up call

January 23, 2023

   Sally Hemings tiptoed into her master’s study, but was surprised to find Thomas Jefferson fully awake. “I’m sorry, master, I thought you’d be asleep at this hour. I’m very sorry I woke you.”

   Jefferson shot up straight. “I am not woke!”

   “But you are awake.”

   “Yes, Sally, I’ve been awake all night.”

   “Troubled, master? Is it that guilt thing over slavery again?”

   “What? No!”

   Sally sighed.

  “It’s this damned Declaration I’ve been tasked to write, Sal. I am really struggling with the wording.”

   “Why, that’s not like you, master. Everyone in the slave quarters tells me you have a real way with words, that you can even make a flogging come off sounding like a pat on the back when you say it.”

   Jefferson’s initial smile of approval dissolved with a sudden sense Sally might be being sarcastic. “Thank you…I think,” he told her.

   “Perhaps I can help you find the right words, master.”

   Jefferson furrowed his brow thoughtfully. She is quite the reader, I’ll say that for her. She swoons on every word I write. A true child of the Enlightenment. He finally said, “Okay, here. Give it a go.” (The irony of giving a slave a draft of the Declaration of Independence to edit was completely lost on the Founding Father.)

   “Hmm,” Sally muttered, after only a couple of minutes or so of reading (which was still more than most subsequent generations of school children would spend with the document).

   “What ‘hmm?'” Jefferson asked. This marked the first time Sally had ever uttered such a discordant sound while reading his writings. 

 “Oh, ’tis nothing. A mere trifle.”

   “Tell me,” Jefferson insisted.

“Well, master, it’s just this phrase, ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.'”

   “Yes? What about it?”

   Sally cast her gaze out of one of Jefferson’s precious elongated windows and out to the fields of slaves bent over in the hot morning sun. ” You mean those men too?” She asked, pointing.

  

   

   Jefferson was clueless and shrugged. “What do you mean, Sal? Those aren’t men, those are…” Jefferson struggled for the proper term, but couldn’t bring himself to say it in front of Sally.

   “Don’t you mean to say, ‘all white men of property are created equal, master?” This time Sally spoke ‘master’ with a special emphasis.

   “Well, of course that’s what I mean,” Jefferson thundered. “What else could I mean?”

   “Then just write it that way,” Sally said with a stern tone. “That’s why you’re stuck. You’re being dishonest.”

   “I know,” Jefferson said, deflated but her words. “It’s that dang Madison – that pimple! He says we can’t say the quiet part out loud, or something like that.”

   “And the others? Washington, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton?”

   “Hamilton?” Jefferson spat in disdain. “Who the heck knows what he’s saying with all that spitting and that thrumming on the table. And what’s with all those hands and arm gestures and everything rhyming? Must be a Caribbean thing.” (Sally knew it wasn’t any Caribbean thing.)

   “Sounds to me like y’all just need to say what you mean, and just ignore the elephant in the room,” she said.

  Jefferson loved when Sally resorted to metaphor, especially when she used one he got. (He made a note to ask her later whether it was “inalienable” or “unalienable.”) “And how long do you think we can do that?”

  “For as long as you can continue to ignore it. You know, just stop losing any more sleep over it the way you’re doing now.”

  “But we can’t sleep forever, Sal. What happens when one day we find we’re, uh,…” Jefferson again struggled for the right word.

   “Woke?” Sally said with the wryest of smiles.

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