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XVI E X O D U S I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations. These words concluded the second inaugural address of President Thomas Jefferson in 1805. Coming from him, from the Enlightenment , from rationalism and natural philosophy, from Virginia, they effuse a special illumination. It was exactly two and a half centuries since Englishmen had first confronted Negroes face to face. Richard Hakluyt was then in his cradle and the idea of America not yet fully alive in England. Now, what had once been the private plantations of the English nation was transformed into an independent state seeking not only the "peace" but the "approbation" of all the nations. The transformation had been accompanied by similarly impressive alterations in the character of society and thought. The people had become what so many sixteenth-century Englishmen feared they might become—the governors. As Jefferson said, magistrates were "servants'* of the people. God no longer governed— much less judged—his people immediately; indeed "that Being" was now to be given "supplications" so that his "goodness" might endorse a people's continuance in peace and prosperity. It would seriously mistake the meaning of Jefferson's words to see them as entirely a bland acclamation of the new society in America or as merely another stanza to God-on-our-side. They were these and more. His explicit identification of Americans with the covenanted people of Israel suggests that all Americanswere very much in touch with what has been called too narrowly the old New England [573] W H I T E O V E R B L A C K firm of Moses and Aaron. The American people had been led out "from their native land/' though here there was a crucial difference, for Americans had once been truly "native" to England in a way that Israel had never been in Egypt. They had been planted in a land "flowing" with "comforts," a land of plenty, a land surely of milk and honey. In their earliest years, as the process of maturation was so persuasively described, they had "providence"; later they had "wisdom and power." As they grew they dispossessed the tribes of the land and allotted it in various portions to themselves. They killed and enslaved those people not of their own house, both the dispossessed tribes and the black sons of the cursed Canaanites whom their very ancient intellectual forefathers had driven out and killed when they achieved their deliverance from bondage. All of which suggests that the most profound continuities ran through the centuries of change. Particularly, there were the tightly harnessed energies of a restless, trafficking, migrating people emerging from dearth and darkness into plenty and enlightenment. These were a people of the Word, adventuring into a New World; they sought to retain their integrity—their identity—as a peculiar people ; they clamped hard prohibitions on themselves as they scented the dangers of freedom. Which in turn rings of the twin themes which coursed through Elizabethan England—freedom and control. The same themes were changed upon in America; they may be summarized and at the same time most clearly illuminated by looking at a single, undramatic development in the heart of Jeffersonian America. In 1806 Virginia restricted the right of masters to manumit their slaves.1 On its face not a remarkable measure, in fact it was the key step in the key state and more than any event marked the reversal of the tide which had set in strongly at the Revolution. It was the step onto the slippery slope which led to Appomattox and beyond. There had been some sentiment in Virginia favoring restriction of manumission ever since passage of the law permitting private manumissions by will or deed in 1782.However, the appearance of widespread and insistent demand for restriction may be dated precisely at September 1800. The next year in the...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781469600765
Related ISBN
9780807834022
MARC Record
OCLC
861793501
Pages
696
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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