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Child Abuse, Racism, and Thomas Jefferson

Child abuse did not exist before 1960.

You probably read that statement and thought, “That can’t be true.” You would be half right. The term “child abuse” was first used around 1960 and encompasses physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. These can occur, not just with babies and young children, but at any point in childhood, which, in most states, extends to 18 years of age.

The behavioral characteristics of child abuse have likely been ever-present features of human life across time and cultures. So, in that regard, you would be correct. However, a second component of our contemporary understanding of child abuse is quite new: the identification and valuation of these behaviors as morally repugnant and legally punishable. The first appearance of organized concern for the physical maltreatment of children was the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, founded in 1874. It was an extension of the already established Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.1

The concern for cruelty to children emerged in concert with the appearance of other concerns about children’s welfare, including child labor laws. Prior to the 19th century, the economy of most societies consisted of agriculture and handcrafts. Children worked on family farms, as indentured servants, in homecrafts, and some were apprenticed to trade guilds, typically between 10 and 14 years of age. Children were critical to family finances and the labor force, employed like adult workers, and essential for survival in a time of struggle and hardship. Children lacked legal rights or any recourse. Cruelty to children, and child abuse, were behaviorally integral to the social order; simply a part of life. However, there was no identification or valuation of these behaviors as moral or legal injustices.

It is difficult to appreciate that what is now so obviously, and profoundly, morally repugnant could have been invisible; an accepted fact of life. Differentiating the behaviors from their moral valuation allows us to better grasp how the dramatic transformation in material circumstances, political and economic contexts, and cultural values can reconfigure our moral universe.


Racism did not exist before the 20th century.

You probably read that statement and thought, again, “That can’t be true.” You would be half right, again, for the same reasons as that just discussed for child abuse.

The word, “racism” first appeared in 1902 to describe and condemn the practice of segregating a race of people from the rest. The current definition of racism, “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capabilities and that racial differences produce inherent superiority of a particular race”2 gained its full meaning in the 1930’s to describe the political ideology of the Nazi’s about Jews.

Although the term “racist’ did not exist prior to the 20th century, what did exist was the abolitionist movement that was propelled by the conviction that no race had the right to enslave another, and that freedom was a right due to everyone regardless of race. The abolitionists movement began in the 18th century and the first abolitionist organization in the United States was founded in 1775.

Slavery has been an ever-present part of civilizations since the first settlements in Mesopotamia, beginning about 3500 BCE, and has flourished on all inhabited continents since that time. Slavery in many societies was not always, or often, based on race. Slavery in Colonial America and, later the United States, however, was largely racial, as most slaves were brought from Africa by Europeans. Here, slavery and race were inseparably linked. The belief that one race, Whites, is superior to another, Blacks, was simply assumed (by Whites) as part of the natural hierarchical order. Behaviorally, slavery and racism were an ever-present given.

No systematic philosophical or religious arguments questioning the moral injustice of slavery existed in the West before the 18th century. It was simply a fact of life. So, what changed in the 18th century that lead to a moral awaking to the evils of slavery and racism; to the appearance of the abolitionists?

Thomas Jefferson

The idea that all individuals have rights that are not conferred by a divine ruler, privileged personages, or an institutional decree, but are intrinsic to being human, first appeared in the 17th century and was most powerfully argued by John Locke. Locke’s arguments provided the foundation for the American Revolution; a revolution that forged a radically new political, social, and moral order.3

The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson, announces this new ordering in the very first lines: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These truths were NOT self-evident at that time. They challenged the existing self-evident beliefs that all are NOT created equal; NOT endowed by the Creator with rights; and do NOT possess the right to life, liberty, or pursuit of happiness.4

The Declaration was a missile aimed directly at monarchy. Rights are not innate to a divinely sanctioned ruler; they are conferred by the Creator to all individuals, who establish a governmental order that derives its legitimacy from these individual rights. It inverts the social hierarchy. It shatters the political order.

We fail to appreciate the enormous risks taken by Jefferson and his colleagues. Their fortune, family, position, reputation, their very lives, were staked on a bold declaration to lead an insurrection against the world’s most powerful, wealthy, militarily strong country that controlled every corner of Colonial governments, every courthouse, every harbor, every form of authority and power in the land, and was supported by many passionate Colonialists. It was not only a declaration of war against British monarchial rule, it was a trigger for a civil war. These unlikely rebels had no army, no navy, no organized government, no currency, no allies. This was a wild, crazy, mad gamble.

Unappreciated by our country’s founders was how far reaching “All are created equal” would become; not only a bugle call to overthrow monarchy, but a clarion call for a revolutionary moral order. It is not an accident that abolitionist movements first appeared in human history at the exact moment as the revolution against monarchial order.

The 250 years since the Declaration have been marked a growing appreciation of the reach of the ethics of rights and equality. The abolitionist movement to end slavery has been joined by other liberation movements that continue to our day: civil rights, equality of women, the rights of children, of animals, gender equality, the rights of persons with disabilities. All these moral uprisings have involved struggle, hardship, sacrifice, and bloodshed. They continue. This history affords appreciation of the long, arduous, and tumultuous process required to wrench behaviors out of taken-for-granted darkness into the hot glare of moral injustice.

Our highest ideal, that all are created equal, is inherently disruptive, calling us to continually confront injustice and reaffirm our commitment to a more perfect union.

Jefferson a Racist?

Was Jefferson a racist? Of course. As was everyone else of his time—and before. The pointed critiques of how racism, sexism, and the other heretofore invisible injustices have shaped human history, and killed, maimed, and destroyed so many lives, is a necessary corrective to the blindness of the past. But simply condemning Jefferson and his brethren who championed equal rights, at great personal cost, without recognizing their contributions flattens the moral landscape; affords easy self-righteous moralizing at the expense of understanding.

250 years from now, will any of us escape the moral condemnation certainly due us “fossilists”5 for our wanton, headless destruction of the biosphere that may, perhaps, render human life extinct by then? How many of us have sworn off using fossil fuels; taken a Jeffersonian stance to create a revolutionary political, social, and moral order to save our species and our planet? Very, very few.

But damning climate patriots among us as equally morally reprehensible as the CEO’s of the oil and gas companies, and the commercial and political interests that denude, pollute, and destroy the planet’s forests, rivers, and oceans, flattens our moral landscape, obliterating the crucial differences between individuals that make a difference. This is how revolutions happen: Individuals, in the trenches, relentlessly, aggressively, tirelessly, in the face of long odds and bleak prospects, at great personal cost, confront and attempt to upend powerful vested interests. The future is forged by the efforts of courageous, imperfect individuals acting in the uncertain, messy present.

Jefferson and the other Declaration instigators were imperfect visionaries in their messy, uncertain time who championed ideals they were prepared to die for. They bequeathed to us a moral order that, ironically, we use to condemn them for their moral shortcomings. This paradox is their legacy. When we critique them, we need to do so with gratitude. And humility.




  1. I am indebted to Ian Hacking, who makes this distinction and discusses how it applies to child abuse in The Social Construction of What?
  2. Merriam Webster
  3. See A Revolutionary Moral Order
  4. The Declaration is organized in the form of propositional logic: If A then B. “Self-evident” is the “A” from which the rest of the propositions in the Declaration follows (the “B’s”). It must be self-evidently true if the argument is to be unassailably true. Although the “Creator” anchors the initial proposition, logic, not religion, is used as the source for indisputable truth.
  5. Those who use fossil fuels.


  1. Bill Mayhan

    Great posting. Precisely argued thesis….very well written. Thanks Brian.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Thank you, Bill.

  2. Shawn O'Connor

    I was at a Civil War site just the other day, and learned that Confederate General PGT Beauregard, who led many thousands to their death in the war, after his defeat, advocated for civil rights and voting rights for freed slaves. I think it is unclear how any statues for him should be regarded in our current moral universe.

    • Brian Vandenberg

      Indeed. There is little patience for complexity and nuance, as they upend our comfortably simplistic moral polarities.

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