Jacob and Esau By DuBois

Jacob and Esau By DuBois


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



The mass of the laboring people of the world were put to work for wages

which led them into starvation, ignorance, and disease.



Books by Du Bois


The Suppression of the African Slave Trade  (1896)  / The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899)  / The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903)  /  John Brown.(1909)  / The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911)  /  Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil (1920)  Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America (1924)  / Dark Princess: A Romance (1928)  / Black Reconstruction in America (1935) / Black Folk, Then and Now (1939)

Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945)  / The World and Africa: An Inquiry (1947)  / In Battle for Peace (1952) /

A Trilogy: The Ordeal of Monsart (1957) Monsart Builds a School (1959) nd Worlds of Color (1961) / An ABC of Color: Selections (1963)

The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (1968)

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Shirley Graham Du Bois, His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E. B. Du Bois (1971)

Leslie Alexander Lacy. The Life of W.E.B. Du Bois: Cheer the Lonesome Traveler (1970)

Du Bois on Reform: Periodical-based Leadership for African Americans. Edited and Introduced by Brian Johnson. New York Altamira Press (A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.), 2005

A Du Bois Bibliography

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Jacob and Esau

[Or Lying & Stealing–Jacob’s Thumbprint]

By W.E.B. Du Bois

We have got to stop making income by unholy methods; . . . to stop lying . . . that a civilization based upon the enslavement of the majority of men for the income of the smart minority is the highest aim of man.

I remember very vividly the Sunday-School room where I spent the Sabbaths of my early years. It had been newly-built after a disastrous fire; the room was large and full of sunlight; nice new chairs were grouped around where the classes met. My class was in the center, so that I could look out upon the elms of Main Street and see the passersby. But I was interested usually in the lessons and my fellow students and the frail rather nervous teacher, who tried to make the Bible and its ethics clear to us. We were a trial to her, full of mischief, restless and even noisy; but perhaps more especially when we asked questions. 

And on the story of Jacob and Esau we did ask questions. My judgment then and my judgment now is very unfavorable to Jacob. I thought that he was a cad and a liar and I did not see how possibly he could he made the hero of a Sunday-School lesson.

Many days have passed since then and the world has gone through astonishing changes. But basically, my judgment of Jacob has not greatly changed and I have often promised myself the pleasure of talking about him publicly, and especially to young people. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity.

My subject then is “Jacob and Esau,” and I want to examine these two men and the ideas which they represent; and the way in which those ideas have come to our day. Of course, our whole interpretation of this age-old story of Jewish Mythology has greatly changed. We look upon these Old Testament stories today not as untrue and yet not as literally true. They are simple, they have their truths and yet they are not by any means, the expression of eternal verity. Here were brought forward for the education of Jewish children and for the interpretation of Jewish life to the world, two men: one small, lithe and quick-witted; the other tall, clumsy and impetuous; a hungry, hard-bitten man.

Historically, we know how these two types came to he set forth by the Bards of Israel. When the Jews marched North after escaping from slavery in Egypt, they penetrated and passed through the land of Edom; the land that lay between the Dead Sea and Egypt. It was an old center of hunters and nomads, and the Israelites, while they admired the strength and organization of the Edomites, looked down upon them as lesser men; as men who did not have the Great Plan. 

Now the Great Plan of the Israelites was the building of a strong, concentrated state under its own God, Jehovah, devoted to agriculture and household manufacture and trade. It raised its own food by careful planning. It did not wander and depend upon chance wild beasts. It depended upon organization, strict ethics, absolute devotion to the nation through strongly integrated planned life. It looked upon all its neigh-hors, not simply with suspicion, but with the exclusiveness of a chosen people, who were going to he the leaders. of the earth.

This called for sacrifice, for obedience, for continued planning. The man whom we call Esau, was from the land of Edom, or intermarried with it, for the legend has it that he was twin of Jacob the Jew. But the idea of the Plan with a personality of its own took hold of Europe with relentless grasp and this was the real legacy of Jacob, and of other men of other peoples, whom Jacob represents.

There came the attempt to weld the world into a great unity, first under the Roman Empire, then under the Catholic Church. When this attempt failed, and the empire fell apart, there arose the individual states of Europe and of some other parts of the world; and these states adapted the idea of individual effort to make each of them dominant. The state was all, the individual subordinate, but right here came the poison of the Jacobean idea. How could the state get this power? Who was to wield the power within the State? So long as power was achieved, what difference did it make how it was gotten? 

Here then was war–but not Esau’s war of passion, hunger and revenge, but Jacob’s war of cold acquisition and power.

Granting to Jacob, as we must, the great idea of the family, the clan, and the state as dominant and superior in its claims, nevertheless, there is the bitter danger in trying to seek these ends without reference to the great standards of right and wrong. When men begin to lie and steal, in order to make the nation to which they belong great, then comes not only disaster, but rational contradiction which in many respects is worse than disaster, because it ruins the leadership of the divine machine, the human reason, by which we chart and guide our actions.


It was thus in the middle ages and increasingly in the seventeenth and eighteenth and more especially in the nineteenth century, there arose the astonishing contradiction: that is, the action of men like Jacob who were perfectly willing and eager to lie and steal so long as their action brought profit to themselves and power to their state. And soon identifying themselves and their class with the State, they identified their own wealth and power as that of the State. They did not listen to any argument of right and wrong; might was right; they came to despise and deplore the natural appetites of human beings and their very lives, so long as by their suppression, they themselves got rich and powerful. 

There arose a great, rich Italy; a fabulously wealthy Spain; a strong and cultured France and, eventually, a British Empire which came near to dominating the world. The Esaus of those centuries were the Jews but the chief fact is, that no matter what his blood relations were, his cultural allegiance lay among the Edomites. He was trained in the free out-of-doors; he chased and faced the wild beasts; he knew vast and imperative appetite after long self-denial, and even pain and suffering; he gloried in food, he traveled afar; he gathered wives and concubines and he represented continuous primitive strife.


The legacy of Esau has come down the ages to us. It has not been dominant, but it has always and continually expressed and re-expressed itself; the joy of human appetites, the quick resentment that leads to fighting, the belief in force, which is war.

As I look back upon my own conception of Esau, he is not nearly as clear and definite a personality as Jacob. There is something rather shadowy about him; and yet he is curiously human and easily conceived. One understands his contemptuous surrender of his birthright: he was hungry after long days of hunting; he wanted rest and food, the stew of meat and vegetables which Jacob had in his possession, and determined to keep unless Esau bargained. 

“And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright be to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he swore unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.”


On the other hand, the legacy of Jacob which has come down through the years, not simply as a Jewish idea, but more especially as typical of modern Europe, is more complicated and expresses itself something like this: Life must be planned for the Other Self, for that personification of the group, the nation, the empire, which has eternal life as contrasted with the ephemeral life of individuals. For this we must plan, and for this there must be timeless and unceasing work. Out of this, the Jews as chosen children of Jehovah would triumph over themselves, over all Edom and in time, over the world.

Now it happens that so far as actual history is concerned, this dream and plan failed. The poor little Jewish nation was dispersed to the ends of the earth by the overwhelming power of the great nations that arose East, North, and South and eventually became united in the vast empire of Rome. This was the diaspora, the dispersion of, curiously represented by various groups of people: by the slum-dwellers and the criminals who, giving up all hope of profiting by the organized State, sold their birthrights for miserable messes of pottage. But more than that, the great majority of mankind, the peoples who lived in Asia, Africa and America and the islands of the sea, became subordinate tools for the profit-making of the crafty planners of great things, who worked regardless of religion or ethics.


It is almost unbelievable to think what happened in those centuries, when it is put in cold narrative; from whole volumes of tales, let me select only a few examples. The peoples of whole islands and countries were murdered in cold blood for their gold and jewels. The mass of the laboring people of the world were put to work for wages which led them into starvation, ignorance and disease. The right of the majority of mankind to speak and to act; to play and to dance was denied, if it interfered with profit-making work for others, or was ridiculed, if it could not be capitalized. 

Karl Marx writes of Scotland: “As an example of the method of obtaining wealth and power in the 19th century; the story of the Duchess of Sutherland will suffice here. This Scottish noblewoman resolved, on entering upon the government of her clan of white Scottish people to turn the whole country, whose population had already been, by earlier processes, reduced to 15,000, into a sheep pasture. From 1814 to 1820 these 15,000 inhabitants, were systematically hunted and rooted out. 

All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasture. Thus this lady ~ appropriated 794,000 acres of land that had from time immemorial been the property of the people. She assigned to the expelled inhabitants about 6ooo acres on the sea-shore. The 6ooo acres had until this time lain waste, and brought in no income to their owners. The Duchess, in the nobility of her heart, actually went so far as to let these at an average rent of 50 cents per acre to the clansmen, who for centuries had shed their blood for her family. 

The whole of the stolen clan-land she divided into 29 great sheep farms, each inhabited by a single imported English family. In the year 1835 the 15,000 Scotsmen were already replaced by 131,000 sheep.


“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in the mines of the Indian population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of power of those spiritual children of Jacob, who owned the birthright of the masses by fraud and murder. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primary accumulation of capital in private hands. On their heels tread the commercial wars of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s anti-jacobin war, and continues in the opium wars against China.”

Of the Christian colonial system, Howitt says: “The barbarities and desperate outrages of the so-called Christians, throughout every region of the world, and upon people they have been able to subdue, are not to be paralleled by those of any other race, in any age of the earth. This history of the colonial administration of Holland-and Holland was the head capitalistic nation of the 17th century-is one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness.”

Nothing was more characteristic than the Dutch system of stealing men, to get slaves for Java. The men-stealers were trained for this purpose. The thief, the interpreter, and the seller were the chief agents in this trade, the native princes the chief sellers. The young people stolen, were thrown into the secret dungeons of Celebes, until they were ready for sending to the slave-ships.

The English East India Company, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, obtained, besides the political rule in India, the exclusive monopoly of the tea-trade, as well as the Chinese trade in general, and of the transport of goods to and from Europe. But the coasting trade of India was the monopoly of the higher employers of the company. The monopolies of salt, opium, betel nuts and other commodities, were inexhaustible mines of wealth. 

The employees themselves fixed the price and plundered at will the unhappy Hindus. The Governor-General took part in this private traffic. His favorites received contracts under conditions whereby they, cleverer than the alchemists, made gold out of nothing. Great English fortunes sprang up like mushrooms in a day; investment profits went on without the advance of a shilling. The trial of Warren Hastings swarms with such cases. 

Here is an instance: A contract for opium was given to a certain Sullivan at the moment of his departure on an official mission. Sullivan sold his contract to one Binn for $200,000; Binn sold it the same day for $300,000, and the ultimate purchaser who carried out the contract declared that after all he realized an enormous gain. According to one of the lists laid before Parliament, the East India Company and its employees from 1757-1766 got $30,000,000 from the Indians as gifts alone.


The treatment of the aborigines was, naturally, most frightful in plantation colonies destined for import trade only, such as the West Indies, and in rich and well-populated countries, such as Mexico and India, that were given over to plunder. But even in the colonies properly so-called, the followers of Jacob outdid him. 

These sober Protestants, the Puritans of New England, in 1703, by decrees of their assembly set a premium of $200 on every Indian scalp and every captured red-skin: in 1720 a premium of $500 on every scalp; in 1744, after Massachusetts Bay had proclaimed a certain tribe as rebels, the following prices prevailed: for a male scalp of 12 years upward $500 (new currency); for a male prisoner $525, for women and children prisoners $250; for scalps of women and children $250.

Some decades later, the colonial system took its revenge on the descendants of the pious p11-grim fathers, who had grown seditious in the meantime. At English instigation and for English pay they were tomahawked by the red-skins. The British Parliament, proclaimed blood-hounds and scalping as “means that God and Nature had given into its hands.”

With the development of national industry during the eighteenth century, the public opinion of Europe had lost the last remnant of shame and conscience. The nations bragged cynically of every infamy that served them as a means to accumulating private wealth. Read, e. g., the naive Annals of Commerce of Anderson. 

Here is trumpeted forth as a triumph of English statecraft that at the Peace of Utrecht, England extorted from the Spaniards by the Asiento Treaty the privilege of being allowed to ply the slave-trade, between Africa and Spanish America. England thereby acquired the right of supplying Spanish America until ‘743 with 4,800 Negroes yearly. This threw, at the same time, an official cloak over British smuggling.

Liverpool waxed fat on the slavetrade. Aihin (1795) quotes that “spirit of bold adventure which has characterized the trade of Liverpool and rapidly carried it to its present state of prosperity; has occasioned vast employment for shipping sailors, and greatly augmented the demand for the manufactures of the country; Liverpool employed in the slave trade, in 1730, 15 ships; in 1760, 74; in 1770, 96; and in 1792, 132.”


Henry George wrote of “Progress and Poverty” in the 1890’s. He says: “At the beginning of this marvelous era it was natural to expect, and it was expected, that labor-saving inventions would lighten the toil and improve the condition of the laborer; that the enormous increase in the power of producing wealth would make real poverty a thing of the past.

Could a man of the last century (the eighteenth)–a Franklin or a Priestley–have seen, in a vision of the future, the steam-ship taking the place of the sailing vessel, the railroad train of the wagon, the reaping machine of the scythe, the threshing machine of the flail; could he have heard the throb of the engines that in obedience to human will, and for the satisfaction of the human desire, exert a power greater than that of all the men and beasts of burden of the earth combined; could he have seen the forest tree transformed into finished lumber-into doors, sashes, blinds, boxes or barrels, with hardly the touch of a human hand; the great workshops where boots and shoes are turned out by the case with less labor than the old-fashioned cobbler could have put on a sole; the factories where, under the eye of one girl, cotton becomes cloth faster than hundreds of stalwart weavers could have turned it out with their handlooms; could he have seen steam-hammers shaping mammoth shafts and mighty anchors, and delicate machinery making tiny watches; the diamond drill cutting through the heart of the rocks, and coal oil sparing the whale; could he have realized the enormous saving of labor resulting from improved facilities of exchange and communication-sheep killed in Australia eaten fresh in England, and the order given by the London banker in the afternoon executed in San Francisco in the morning of the next day; could he have conceived of the hundred thousand improvements which these only suggest, what would he have inferred as to the social condition of mankind?

“It would not have seemed like an inference; further than the vision went it would have seemed as though he saw; and his heart would have leaped and his nerves would have thrilled, as one who from a height beholds just ahead of the thirst-stricken caravan the living gleam of rustling woods and the glint of laughing waters. Plainly, in the sight of the imagination, he would have beheld all these new forces elevating society from its very foundation, lifting the very poorest above the possibility of want, exempting the very lowest from anxiety for the material needs of life; he would have seen these slaves of the lamp of knowledge taking on themselves the traditional curse, these muscles of iron and sinews of steel making the poorest laborer’s life a holiday, in which every high quality and noble impulse could have scope to grow.”

This was the promise of Jacob’s life. This would establish the birthright which Esau despised. But, says George, “Now, we are c6ming into collision with facts which there can be no mistaking. From all parts of the civilized world,” he says speaking fifty years ago, “come complaints of industrial depression; of labor condemned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; of pecuniary distress among business; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working class. All the dull, deadening pain, all the keen, maddening anguish, that to great masses of men are involved into the words ‘hard times’ which afflict the world today.” What would Henry George have said in 1933 after airplane and radio and mass production, turbine and electricity had come?


Science and art grew and expanded despite all this, but it was warped by the poverty of the artist and the continuous attempt to make Science subservient to industry. The latter effort finally succeeded so widely that modern civilization became typified as industrial technique. Education became learning a trade.

Men thought of civilization as primarily mechanical and the mechanical means by which they reduced wool and cotton to their purposes, also reduced and bent human kind to their will. Individual initiative remained but it was cramped and distorted and there spread the idea of patriotism to one’s country as the highest virtue, by which it became established, that just as in the case of Jacob, a man not only could lie, steal, cheat and murder for his native land, but by doing so, he became a hero whether his cause was just or unjust.

One remembers that old scene between Esau who had thoughtlessly surrendered his birthright and the father who had blessed his lying son; “Jacob came unto his father, and said, My Father: and he said, Here am I; who art thou? And Jacob said unto his father, I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.” In vain did clumsy, careless Esau beg for a blessing-some little blessing.

It was denied and Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing: and Esau said in his heart, “The Days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will slay my brother Jacob.” So revolution entered–so revolt darkened a dark world. The same motif was repeated in modern Europe and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when there grew the super-state called the Empire.

The Plan had now regimented the organization of men covering vast territories, dominating immense force and immeasurable wealth and determined to reduce to subserviency as large a part as possible, not only of Europe’s own internal world, but of the world at large. Colonial imperialism swept over the earth and initiated the First World War, in envious scramble for division of Power and Profit.

Hardly a moment of time passed after that war, a moment in the eyes of the Eternal Forces looking down upon us when again the world, using all of that planning and all of that technical superiority for which its civilization was noted; and all of the accumulated and accumulating wealth which was available, proceeded to commit suicide on so vast a scale that it is almost impossible for us to realize the meaning of the catastrophe.

Of course, this sweeps us far beyond anything that the peasant lad Jacob, with his petty lying and thievery had in mind. Whatever was begun there of ethical wrong among the Jews was surpassed in every particular by the white world of Europe and America and carried to such length of universal cheating, lying and killing that no comparisons remain.


We come therefore to the vast impasse of today: to the great question, What was the initial right and wrong of the original Jacobs and Esaus and of their spiritual descendants the world over? We stand convinced today, at least those who remain sane, that lying and cheating and killing will build no world organization worth the building.

We have got to stop making income by unholy methods; out of stealing the pittances of the poor and calling it insurance; out of seizing and monopolizing the natural resources of the world and then making the world’s poor pay exorbitant prices for aluminum, copper and oil; iron and. coal. Not only have we got to stop these practices, but we have got to stop lying  about them and seeking to convince human beings that a civilization based upon the enslavement of the majority of men for the of the smart minority, is the highest aim of man.


But as is so usual in these cases, these transgression: of; Jacob do not mean that the attitude of Esau was flawless. Ibe conscienceless greed of capital does not excuse the careless sloth of labor. Life cannot be all aimless wandering and indulgence if we are going to constrain human beings to take advantage of their brain and make successive generations stronger and wiser than the previous. There must be reverence for the birthright of inherited culture and that birthright cannot be sold for a dinner course, a dress suit or a winter in Florida. It must be valued and conserved.The method of conservation is work, endless and tireless and planned work and this is the legacy which the Esaus of today who condemn the Jacobs of yesterday have got to substitute as their path of life, not revengeful revolution, but building and rebuilding. Curiously enough, it will not be difficult to do this, because the great majority of men, the poverty-stricken and diseased are the real worker~ of the world. They are the ones who have made and are making the wealth of this universe, and their future path is clear. It is to accumulate such knowledge and balance of judgment that they can reform the world, so that the workers of the world, receive just share of the wealth which they make and that all human beings who are capable of work, shall work. Not national glory and empire for the few, but food, shelter and happiness for the many. With the disappearance of systematic lying and killing, we may come into that Birthright which so long we have called freedom: that is, the right to act in a manner that seems to us beautiful; which makes life wbrth living and joy the only possible end of life. This is the experience which is Art and Planning for this is the highest satisfaction of civilized needs. So looking back upon the allegory and the his-tory, tragedy and promise, we change our subject and speak in closing of Esau and Jacob, realizing that neither was perfect, but of the two, Esau had the elements which lead more naturally and directly to the salvation of man; while Jacob with all his crafty planning and cold sacrifice, held in his soul the things that are about to ruin mankind: Exaggerated national patriotism, individual profit, the despising of men who are not the darlings of our particular God and the consequent lying and stealing and killing to monopolize power.


May we not hope that in the world after this catastrophe of blood, sweat and fire, we may have a new Esau and Jacob; a new allegory of men who enjoy life for life’s sake; who have the Freedom of Art and wish for all men of all sorts the same freedom and enjoyment that they seek themselves and who work for all this and work hard.

Gentlemen and ladies of the class of 1944: In the days of the years of my pilgrimage, I have greeted many thousands of young men and women at the commencement of their careers as citizens of the select commonwealth of culture. In no case have I welcomed them to such a world of darkness and distractions as that into which I usher you. I take joy only in the thought, that if work to he done is the measure of man’s opportunity, you inherit a mighty fortune.

You have only to remember that the birthright which is today in symbol draped over your shoulders, is a heritage which has been preserved all too often by the lying, stealing and murdering of the Jacobs of the world, and if these are the only means by which this birthright can he preserved in the future, it is not worth the price. I do not believe this, and I lay it upon your hearts to prove that this not only need not he true, but is eternally and forever false.

The Talladegan, November

Historian, sociologist, novelist, editor, and political activist, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was always controversial. Among the first to criticize Booker. T. Washington, who preached a policy of accommodation, Du Bois went on to help found the NAACP, and celebrated in his most famous writings “The Talented Tenth.” He wrote on virtually every aspect of American and African-American life. As the author of The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawn, and Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, Du Bois’ contributions to American thought are more important than ever. He was the most gifted and influential black intellectual of the twentieth century.

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 22 July 2008



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