The Jeffersonian Perspective

Commentary on Today's Social and Political Issues
Based on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson


Brief Notes on Jeffersonian Topics

Jefferson and Slavery

You should be aware that Jefferson worked all his life to end the slave trade and to limit its institutionalization in America. A section of the draft Declaration of Independence condemning George III for overruling the colonist's attempts to end the slave trade was struck out by Congress.

It is all to easy to judge Jefferson by our standards of today. But he considered himself "stuck" with the slaves that he had, and that to simply turn them loose would be like putting children out on the street. That idea is difficult for people today to understand, however. Moreover, the essence of the problem of slavery was as a social institution, and this was the level at which he attacked it. At the same time, he realized that the solution was not to destroy a government that was basically a free state, just because it was not free enough, just because most others did not agree with his views on the elimination of slavery. So he tried to work within the government and the social system in order to eliminate this terrible problem. He did consider the establishment of American self-government to be more important than the issue of slavery itself, and he was willing to compromise on the latter in order to avoid destroying the former. Under a free government, the issue of slavery would eventually be resolved; but if free government were destroyed, nothing would be gained for freedom in the world.

The question is often raised, How could Thomas Jefferson be such a great champion of the rights of man and yet also be a slave-owner? Isn't that a blatant contradiction?

In questioning why Jefferson would be a slave-owner, there are many factors that should be take into consideration.

    1. Jefferson fought against slavery all his life. Even in the Declaration of Independence, he had inserted in the original draft a section condemning the slave-trade, but that was deleted by Congress.

    2. Jefferson realized that eliminating something that was such an integral part of society was not easily accomplished. He endeavored to make other changes on other occasions that would have limited slavery, but was always defeated. For example, he supported the elimination of slavery in the Western Territories, but that measure lost by a single vote.

    3. Jefferson could have walked out of the legislature in protest, but that would do nothing for eliminating slavery, would prevent him from using his influence in other important ways, and would, in fact, just turn the government over to those who favored slavery.

But, a person might ask, why didn't HE get rid of his own slaves? This was easier said than done.
    1. The slaves themselves had grown up under that system, and many were hardly able to manage their lives on their own. Jefferson honestly thought that to turn them loose would be like putting children out on the street.

    2. Having slaves to work large plantations was a part of the economy, and all owners of such plantations used slaves. Therefore, one could not compete in the same economy with others who had slaves. The most effective way to eliminate slavery was to do it on a national basis. The action of one individual slave-holder would have little or no effect on slavery as an institution.

    3. There were also legal restrictions on the freeing of slaves, or at least he apparently thought that there were. In a letter to Edward Coles (Aug 25, 1814), he wrote, "The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good." To Edward Bancroft he wrote (in 1789), "As far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children." Thus, he seems to have sincerely believed that simply freeing slaves was not an ideal solution, and that the real source of this injustice was the institution of slavery itself. His overall solution to the slavery problem was to return the blacks to their African homeland or to some land where they could live as "a free and independent people," and to give them implements and skills to establish their own nation. He was strongly opposed by the Southern slave-holding states, however.

    4. Jefferson also had inherited enormous debts, and it is possible (I have no evidence one way or the other) that the slaves and the monetary value they represented served as collateral for his debts, thus preventing him from freeing them, even if he wanted to. This, I believe, also prevented their freedom after he died, even though freeing them was his wish. After his death, his entire estate was sold to pay off his debts.

    5. Expanding on the previous point, it is my understanding that Jefferson's creditors could have forced the liquidation of Jefferson's estate during his lifetime, but did not out of love and respect for such a great man. Given such a situation, it no doubt would have been taken as an enormous affront to their generosity had Jefferson taken a substantial part of his assets--the slaves under his care--and simply let them go. Given the laws, his financial situation, and the existing social customs, therefore, it would have been a totally dishonorable thing for Jefferson to free his slaves. Thus, he was truly trapped by the whole unsavory business.

There are many other factors that enter into this issue, but as you can see, it is not a simple one. It is also important to remember that AT NO TIME DID JEFFERSON EVER DEFEND THE INSTITUTION OF SLAVERY! This is more than you can say about some of the Southern defenders of segregation, some of whom are serving in the Senate right now. He wrote five years before his death:
    "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [blacks] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821.
So, from his point of view, it was an enormous, awful problem, and he dealt with it as best as he could under the circumstances of the time and in the light in which he was able to view it.

The following paragraph was submitted to Conversations on Morality and the Jefferson Bible. There was no other identification of the submitter other than the handle, "mellyrn," and we are unable to give proper credit for the points made. But it is well worth considering in reference to Jefferson and slavery.

    "I did not know about Jefferson's enormous debts. That being the case, he had to keep his slaves, and not because they were "somebody else's property." In his day, an owner could of course free any slave he pleased, but he could not do so just by saying "Go!" There was quite an amount of money involved. Exactly what, escapes me, but you had to send a freed slave out with clothes and money. Effectively, you had to buy your own slave's freedom for him. If Jefferson was strapped, he could not have done that for more than a very few."

For an excellent article from Atlantic Monthly on the question of Jefferson and slavery, see Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue, by Douglas L. Wilson.


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© 1999 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.