Thomas Paine indeed played an invaluable role in the founding of America, but that role did not include ghostwriting the Declaration of Independence, as has been suggested. Paine’s writing style differed considerably from Jefferson’s, which remained consistently elegant throughout his life. When compared with the Declaration, Jefferson’s soaring prose, and not Paine’s more common language, is the convincing match.
Nowhere is there any mention of Thomas Paine in the proceedings of the second Continental Congress, when Jefferson retired to the Graff House in Philadelphia to compose the Declaration. John Adams explained that samples of Jefferson’s prior works were circulated before he was chosen as the main author. “Mr. Jefferson came into Congress, in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression.” Adams also made a much more personal comment regarding the authorship of the Declaration: “The sub-committee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draught. I said, ‘l will not.’ ‘You should do it.’ ‘Oh! no.’ ‘Why will you not? You ought do it.’ ‘I will not.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Reasons enough.’ ‘What can be your reasons?’ ‘Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.’ ” (Adams to Pickering, August 6, 1822)
One of the samples of Jefferson’s writing that were passed around the second Continental Congress may very well have been his Summary View of the Rights of British America, which was originally written by Jefferson in July of 1774 as a set of instructions for the delegates from Virginia attending the Congress. In that document he used language that is very similar to the two paragraphs on slavery that were struck from the final Declaration at the request of the representatives of South Carolina and Georgia, who threatened non-support of the proposed union of the colonies should those two paragraphs remain. Thomas Paine did not arrive in the colonies until November of 1774, and he was not writing about the colonists’ grievances with Great Britain before his arrival. Thus, there can be no mistaking the origin of the text.
Paine’s Common Sense, published in January of 1776, called for a declaration of independence. Although his pamphlet was crucial to the Revolution, Paine himself did not compose a declaration. The original requirement of such a document was simply to declare independence in order to procure aid from other countries. It was Jefferson who took that declaration further,
This was not the first time Jefferson had expressed such a sentiment. In 1770, while defending a mulatto servant at his own expense, he wrote, “Under the laws of nature, all men are born free.” Even Philip S. Foner, Paine’s biographer, wrote that although Thomas Paine is sometimes characterized as “the first American abolitionist”, that characterization is inaccurate because “Thomas Jefferson . . . had urged the Assembly in Virginia to emancipate the slaves in the colony as early as 1769.” (Foner, African Slavery in America, Complete Writings of Thomas Paine, v. 1, p. 15). Foner’s description is not completely correct, as Jefferson proposed that owners of slaves be allowed to give them freedom merely by signing the proper document, and not that they be compelled to free all slaves.
Just a couple of months before writing the Declaration, Jefferson wrote a draft of the Virginia Constitution that stated, “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever,” demonstrating that it was completely within Jefferson’s thinking to declare that “all men are created equal” while struggling with the long-established system of slavery.
There is no defense for the unspeakable institution of slavery, but the current trend of sanctimoniously condemning Jefferson without due research or comprehension of historical context is both unprofessional and injurious to the quest for truth. Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson did more than any other Founder to roll back the institution in terms of writing laws and making concrete proposals. That he was defeated at every turn speaks only more powerfully to his courage in opposing an entrenched way of life during a time when even his neighbors and friends would object to his enlightened views. Unfortunately, the manifestation of vision as reality takes time; and despite his vigorous and long-running efforts, the emancipation of the slaves was not accomplished in Jefferson’s lifetime.
Below is a summary of major actions that Thomas Jefferson took toward the ultimate emancipation of the slaves during his life.
Thomas Jefferson’s Opposition to the Institution of Slavery
Early challenges to an entrenched institution
Thomas Jefferson’s first direct challenge to slavery was in 1769 as a young member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, a British institution. He was too junior to introduce legislation himself, so together with Richard Bland, a fellow Burgess, he introduced a law that would allow individuals to free slaves simply on their signature. They were shouted down and Bland was “denounced as an enemy of his country and was treated with the grosses indecorum.” (TJ Autobiography) He later wrote in his autobiography, “I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected; and indeed, nothing [like this] could expect success.” Jefferson held the British responsible for the unwillingness of the colonists to ban slavery: “Our minds were circumscribed within narrow limits by habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government, to direct our labors in subservience to her interests.” He also blamed the entrenched habits of an older generation: “From those of the former generation who were in the fullness of age when I came into the public life…I soon saw that nothing was to be hoped. Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing the degraded condition, both bodily and mental, of those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that their degradation was very much the work of themselves and their fathers, few minds had yet doubted but that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses and cattle.” (To Edward Coles, 1814)
As an attorney, Jefferson declined fees whenever cases came his way that would have established the freedom of persons their masters claimed were slaves (Willard Sterne Randall, TJ: A Life). On October 18, 1769, one month after his attempt to legalize emancipation in Virginia County Courts, Jefferson at no charge took the case of Samuel Howell, a person of mixed race, or mulatto, who was suing for his freedom. Jefferson took out a writ at his own expense to bring suit in the General Court (December 15, 1769).
Samuel Howell was the great-grandson of a white woman who had a daughter by a Negro man. Virginia law stated that “if any woman servant shall have a bastard child by a Negro or mulatto, or if a free Christian white woman…shall have such a bastard child by a negro or mulatto, in both the said cases, the churchwardens shall bind the said child to be a servant until it shall be of thirty-one years of age.” Thomas Jefferson was arguing for the freedom of Mr. Howell before the age of 31 (he was at the time 27 or 28 years old), based on provisions of the laws of 1705 and 1723. But he did not stop there. He made his presentation, and for the first time in his life he uttered the words, “Under the law of nature, all men are born free,” in open court, in the defense of a black servant. Jefferson continued his eloquent plea: “Everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance. The reducing of the mother to servitude was a violation of the law of nature. Surely then the same law cannot prescribe a continuance of the violation to her issue, and that too without end, for if it extends to any, it must be to every degree of descendants…The act of 1705 makes servants of the first mulatto; that of 1723, extends it to her children, but that it remains for some future legislature, if any shall be found wicked enough, to extend it to the grandchildren and other issue more remote…” The reaction of the court was immediate, derisive, and dismissive. George Wythe (Jefferson's mentor and friend) was about to argue for his client in opposition to Jefferson, but Lord Botetourt, the Royal Governor of Virginia, interrupted him and dismissed the case, judging in favor of Wade Netherland from Cumberland, because he felt it was absurd that the existing laws could be challenged by anyone on larger, natural law principles such as “All men are born free.” Thus, Jefferson at 27 was thrown out of court for arguing for the liberty of a mulatto African-American. Even at this point, the adoption of Jefferson’s defense that “all men are born free” might have resulted in the abolition of slavery in the colonies, before the establishment of the United States.
Condemnation of the slave trade and its profit motive, 1774
In 1774, Jefferson sent instructions to the delegates from Virginia to the Continental Congress. Those instructions later became know as A Summary View of the Rights of British America. In this document, Thomas Jefferson included a searing condemnation of the slave trade, carried on by Great Britain to the detriment of African slaves. He called the introduction of slavery into the colonies a “shameful abuse of power trusted to his majesty,” and felt that the British had saddled America with the terrible burden of slavery: “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”
Before Jefferson was born (1743), Great Britain had huge financial interests in perpetuating the slave trade. King Charles II put his brother James in charge of the East India Company and the Crown depended on the revenue. The King began passing laws and his brother adopting policies intended to decrease the use of white indentured servants in the colonies and increase the use of slaves, thus increasing their income. By 1699 in Virginia, concern about having large numbers of impoverished slaves that could turn against their masters caused the House of Burgesses to try to curtail the number of slaves entering Virginia through such means as imposing large duties upon the importation of slaves (in 1699, £1; in 1710, £5). The true intent of the duties was camouflaged by the Burgesses as necessary for public works. The Crown ignored them and continued bringing slaves and impoverished white prison inmates to Virginia. Sometime in 1718 the duties were discontinued to the detriment of the slaves, and TJ offered this explanation: “During the regal government we had at one time obtained a law which imposed such a duty on the importation of slaves as amounted nearly to a prohibition, when one inconsiderate assembly, placed under a peculiarity of circumstance, repealed the law. This met a joyful sanction from the then reigning sovereign, and no devices, no expedients, which could ever be attempted by subsequent assemblies, and they seldom met without attempting them, could succeed in getting the royal assent to a renewal of the duty.”
Slavery: a political and moral evil
Regarding the Crown’s denial of the House of Burgesses’ petition to end to the slave trade in 1772, Jefferson wrote, “In the very first session held under the republican government, the assembly passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves. This will in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for a complete emancipation of human nature” and, “The unanimously supported 1772 petition by the House of Burgesses to end the slave trade was entirely ignored as similar but less pointed petitions had been since 1723.”
By 1776 it had become apparent that an effort to separate from Great Britain was imminent. Just before June, Jefferson took it upon himself to rewrite the constitution of Virginia as laws that a civilized nation could live by. In both the second and third drafts he wrote, "No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever." It could all have ended right there.
The abolition of slavery struck from Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress
Soon after, Jefferson was chosen as author of the Declaration of Independence. The document was to serve as a means for securing foreign military aid from France, but Jefferson took it much further. Rather than just list the grievances of the colonists, he took the opportunity to declare in five soul-stirring words that would change humanity forever, “all Men are created equal.” Among the long list of tyrannies and abuses of Great Britain that were included in Jefferson’s Declaration was a large section on the subject of slavery that was struck from his original draft by the Continental Congress. In soaring, eloquent rhetoric, he condemned the King of England (George III) and the tyranny of Britain as manifested through the slave trade: “He [the king of England] has raged a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold [note that Jefferson capitalizes MEN instead of using the term “slave,” indicating his recognition that slaves were men], “he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [the colonists’ attempts to put an end to the slaver trade were rejected by King George III for the sake of his financial interests in the Royal African Company, which profited extensively from the trade], “and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, and murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
The passage was heavily debated by the Continental Congress. It was the most extensive block of text that was deleted from Jefferson’s draft at the insistence of South Carolina and Georgia, who threatened to secede, before the final approval of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson said, “A secession would weaken us more than could be compensated by any foreign alliance. That in the event of such a division, foreign powers would either refuse to join themselves to our fortunes, or …would insist on terms proportionally more hard and prejudicial.” Even John Adams said later, ”I have long wondered that the original draught has not been published. I suppose the reason is, the vehement philippic against Negro slavery." (John Adams to Timothy Pickering, August 22, 1822)
Ending slavery in Virginia
In 1776, Jefferson was appointed the chairman of the Virginia Revisors Committee and rewrote the entire legal code of Virginia. He authored 126 laws, including one that proposed banning the importation of slaves from outside the country into Virginia. In the revolutionary spirit of 1778 it passed. Virginia became the first government body in recorded history to ban the importation of slaves. “This passed without opposition, and stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to further efforts its final eradication.” (TJ) He went further and wrote a bill to be taken up by the legislators stating, “From the date of this act on, all persons born into slavery shall be emancipated.” Jefferson proposed that children “should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up at the public expense.” Upon reaching the prescribed age, the freed slaves were to leave Virginia, supplied with arms, household implements, seeds, domestic animals, and Virginia’s “alliance and protection till they shall have acquired strength.”
Jefferson felt the freed slaves had to be relocated for their own protection, as well as that of their former masters. “Why not retain and incorporate blacks into the State, and thus save the expense of supplying by importation of white settlers the vacancies they will leave? Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections by the blacks, of the injuries they have made; and many other circumstances will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but with the extermination of the one or the other race.” Apparently overruled by the Revisors Committee, Jefferson said, “It was thought better that this should be kept back and attempted only by way of amendment.” When the bill was taken up by the legislature in 1785, the amendment was never proposed because Jefferson was away in France and George Wythe, his coadjutor, was an officer of the judiciary department. The bill passed unaltered in 1786 as a mere digest of the existing laws on the subject of slavery without any intimation of a plan for future and general emancipation.
After learning while in France that the bill had passed without the amendment, Jefferson wrote, “What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose. We must wait with patience the workings of an overruling Providence, and hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these, our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their tears shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a God of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they be not left the guidance of blind fatality.” (Answers submitted to Jean Nicholas de Meunier, 1786)
The slow pace of societal change
This amendment was proposed in 1778 and it was defeated. But it displayed Thomas Jefferson’s idea that emancipation should come, it should come gradually, and it should have the support of everyone in society, even to the level of digging into their own pockets to try to provide for the economic adjustments that were necessary to do this in a peaceful manner. Of the experience in 1821 he wrote, at the age of 77, “It was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
Thus far, nobody had made more attempts in concrete legal and binding ways to stop the import of slaves and end slavery altogether. Jefferson continued his efforts in Notes on the State of Virginia. In this document, which is said to be Jefferson's only book, he responded to a series of questions about the newly independent American States posed by François Marbois, secretary to the French Ambassador, in 1781. It was the first comprehensive account of the conditions of life in the new country, containing biological, geological, meteorological, social, and political descriptions. Its passages on slavery ensured that it would receive a chilly reception among the Virginia establishment, and Jefferson initially rejected appeals to have it published. He wrote to James Madison, “I fear that the terms in which I speak of slavery may produce an irritation which will revolt the minds of our countrymen against reformation, indispose the people towards the great object I have in view—that is, the emancipation of their slaves—and thus do more harm than good.”
Jefferson did more than merely state his opposition to slavery, which was already well known at the time; he suggested that the country was already moving towards emancipation. “The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest…It is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one’s mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation.”
“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it…Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? …Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever…”
In 1783 Jefferson proposed a constitution for Virginia that called for the freedom of everyone born after 1800: “The general assembly shall not have the power to infringe this constitution;…permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the 31st day of December 1800; all persons born after that day being herby declared free.” It was never adopted.
Stopping the spread of slavery
When considering the expansion of slavery into the newly admitted states, Jefferson said quite plainly in his draft of the ordinance in 1784, the predecessor of the famous Northwest Ordinance of 1787, “That after the year 1800…there shall neither be slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states.” It was in his law, and it was close to passage. Votes were undertaken by states at the time, and it failed by one state’s vote. The representative from New Jersey, James Beatty, who would have supported the prohibition, stayed home with a cold. Jefferson lamented, “The voice of a single individual…would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country. Thus we see the fate of millions of unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment.” But, ever the patient optimist, he concluded, “It is to be hoped it will not always be silent, and that the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail.” (Note: The first federal racial civil rights law in America was passed on August 7, 1789—“An Ordinance of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio.” It prohibited slavery in states seeking entry to the Union and was based on Jefferson’s draft.)
Practical concern for the fate of emancipated slaves
Always thinking about the far-reaching consequences of the problem, Jefferson wrote to Edward Bancroft, “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.” Then he proposed a project that might be helpful in expediting the freedom and survival of the enslaved African-Americans: “I am decided on my final return to America to try this one. I shall endeavor to import as many Germans as I have grown slaves. I will settle them and my slaves, on farms of 50 acres each, intermingled, and place all on the footing of the Metayers [Medietarii] of Europe. Their children shall be brought up, as others are, in habits of property and foresight, and I have no doubt but that they will be good citizens.” Jefferson’s plan for teaching his slaves a sustainable livelihood in preparation for their freedom was never attempted, as he was drafted by George Washington to serve as Secretary of State as soon as he returned from France.
A letter to Benjamin Vaughan in 1790 demonstrates that the issue never left his thoughts: in it, he surmised that replacing cane sugar with maple sugar would render slavery unnecessary.
In 1796, Jefferson wrote to Robert Pleasants that his 1784 Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge could provide a framework for the education of the slaves. “Permit me therefore to suggest to you the substitution of that as a more general and certain means of providing for the instruction of the slaves, and more desireable as they would in the course of it be mixed with those of free condition.” The original bill, written when he was on the Revisors Committee, called for the education of children in the first, second and third grades at public expense. It was revolutionary at the time and nothing like it passed for another 50 years. The letter to Pleasants indicates that Jefferson was also thinking about the education of enslaved African-Americans.
First federal appointment of an African-American
While Secretary of State, Jefferson secured a position for Benjamin Banneker as the first African American employed by our nation’s government. He worked for three months as a member of the initial surveying team under Andrew Ellicott that laid the boundaries of the new federal district, Washington D.C. Mr. Banneker had written to Mr. Jefferson stating that he had read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia and wished him to see the work of one he thought Jefferson might take to be inferior in comprehension. Jefferson wrote back that, “No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.” (TJ to Benjamin Banneker, Aug. 30, 1791)
On the same day, Jefferson wrote to Condorcet, “I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac… I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends. Unfortunately, Condorcet had been beheaded in the French Revolution. Jefferson realized that he would not receive a response and that no one else would hold the same opinion as himself. (TJ to Condorcet, Aug. 30, 1791)
Opposing slavery as President
As President, Jefferson signed into law a bill that banned the importation of slaves into any American state. The Constitution permitted the ban to occur 20 years after its adoption. “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight…” Prior to that, in 1806, in his annual message to Congress, Jefferson wrote, “I congratulate you, fellow-citizens on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe…” He urged Congress to begin taking action so that the bill would be passed at the earliest possible date. Jefferson signed the bill into law on January 1, 1808—the earliest date that was permitted by the Constitution. It was hoped by the Founders that the end of the slave trade would signal the end of slavery. This assumption proved erroneous.
Regarding the Missouri Compromise Jefferson wrote, “Nothing has ever presented so threatening an aspect as what is called the Missouri question. The Federalists completely put down and despairing of ever rising again under the old division of whig and tory, devised a new one, of slave-holding, & non-slave-holding states, which, while it had a semblance of being Moral, was at the same time Geographical, and calculated to give them ascendance by debauching their old opponents to a coalition with them. Moral the question certainly is not, because the removal of slaves from one state to another, no more than their removal from one country to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it. Indeed if there were any morality in the question it is on the other side; because by spreading them over a larger surface, their happiness would be increased, & the burthen of their future liberation lightened by bringing a greater number of shoulders under it…If Missouri shall expunge from it the prohibition of free people of colour from emigration to their state, it will be expunged, and all will be quieted. If rejected unconditionally, Missouri assumes independent self-government, and Congress, after pouting awhile, must receive them on the footing of the original states…Amidst this prospect of evil, I am glad to see one good effect. It has brought the necessity of some plan of general emancipation & deportation more home to the minds of our people…My proposition would be that the holders should give up all born after a certain day, past, present, or to come, that these should be placed under the guardianship of the State, and sent at a proper age to S. Domingo.”
“This momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror… There is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach…The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and gradually, with due sacrifices, I think it might be. But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other… I regret that I am now to die in the belief, that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it.” (TJ to John Holmes April 22, 1820) “If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.” (TJ to Williams Short, April 13, 1820)
Jefferson feared the dissolution of the Union more than he feared the institution of slavery, in part because he had faith that the preservation of the former would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the latter.
Hope for the younger generation
Jefferson responded to one correspondent late in his life, “I had always hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathized with oppression wherever found and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it. But my intercourse with them since my return has not been sufficient to ascertain that they had made towards this point the progress I had hoped…I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to every hope. Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come; and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds; or by the bloody process of Santo Domingo…is a leaf in our history not yet turned over. . This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation.” (TJ to Edward Coles, 25 August 1814)
Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy was that the white man’s mind had to be enlightened. Most of society 250 years ago looked upon the African American as inferior, as subhuman, even as animals or chattel. They were regarded legally as an inferior species that could be bought and sold. This was the reality of the prejudice that prevailed at the time. This was the reality that Jefferson had to face, although it was abhorrent to him. He was a great advocate of patience and tolerance, accepting the conditions of life and working with them peacefully to try to improve the human condition. “Persuasion, perseverance, and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others. The revolution which this cause requires is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also.” (TJ to James Heaton, May 20, 1826) This was the context in which Thomas Jefferson denounced slavery in the most ringing terms. He declared his opposition to slavery uniformly from the beginning to the end of his life.
Thomas Jefferson anticipated that the slaves would find their day of freedom as society gradually improved and educated itself and let go of these prejudices, gaining a greater sense of humility, oneness, and egalitarianism. He made it a point to train his slaves with skills that would allow them to survive as independent individuals of dignity when that day came. “My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control.” (TJ to Edward Coles, 1814)
The question of why Jefferson did not free his own slaves is often raised. Under the laws of Virginia at that time, it was very difficult to free slaves. That process was called manumission. Earlier law required proof of meritorious service, and later, the freed slave was required to leave the state. “If the emancipated slave be over twenty-one years of age, he must leave the State in one year, or be re-enslaved.” (Virginia Revised Code, 436) Subsequent laws imposed additional provisions that a slave could not be freed unless the slave owner guaranteed a security bond for the education, livelihood, and support of the freed slave in order to ensure that the former slave would not become a burden to the community or to society. Not only did such laws place extreme economic hardships on any slave owner who tried to free his slaves, but they also provided stiff penalties for any slave owner who attempted to free slaves without abiding by these laws. Freed slaves often encountered a highly unsupportive, prejudiced, and segregated society, and these circumstances deeply troubled Jefferson. Nonetheless, Jefferson did manage to free three slaves (five more slaves were freed upon his death). He felt that they were potentially capable of surviving by themselves in society at the time, despite the prevailing prejudices. One of them, an accomplished chef named James Hemings, was with Jefferson in France. Jefferson granted his wish to be free. After being out in the world for some years, he returned to Monticello, dissatisfied. When he went out again, he became quite depressed and tragically took his own life. He was unhappy free, but could not return to slave life. This was Jefferson’s experience with manumission and the prejudices and difficulties facing freed slaves at that time.
Jefferson did not decree the freedom of his slaves upon his death because he was not legally permitted to do so. He incurred and carried a fair amount of debt after the death of his father-in-law, John Wayles (£3,749-a large sum at the time). He sold property immediately to pay it. The payments for this property were made in paper money that depreciated 1 in 40. He sold again to discharge the debt with its accumulated interest. This swept away nearly half of his estate. Through his creditors and the prevailing trends, Jefferson essentially became responsible for the Wayles debt twice and he was never able to pay it down. (Sloan, Principle & Interest pp. 13-49)
Jefferson repeatedly sold land before he sold slaves to cover his debt. He spent half his days in public service, away from Monticello, working in Williamsburg, Paris, Philadelphia, Washington, and other places, leaving his farm to go unattended and partially to ruin from time to time. He sacrificed his own financial stability for his life of public service.
When Jefferson died, his creditors were essentially the owners of the slaves under the laws at the time, as they had been since the inheritance of his father-in-law’s estate in 1773. The slaves were not his to free. Creditors had first claim on enslaved persons in settlement of debts, and even those who had been freed could be re-enslaved to settle a debt owed by their former master. Slaves were still considered property. “In Virginia an emancipated slave may be taken in execution to satisfy any debt contracted by the person emancipating him, previous to such emancipation.” (Rev. Code of Virginia, 434) Captain Edmund Bacon, overseer at Monticello from 1806 to 1822, noted after Jefferson’s death, “I think he would have freed all of them if his affairs had not been so much involved that he could not do it.” Unlike Washington, whose finances permitted him to free his slaves, Jefferson’s debt did not permit him to free his slaves.
Foreseeing gradual transformation
In 1805, Jefferson explained to George Logan why he was hesitant to lend his name to the cause in his later years: “I received last night a letter from Mr. Thomas Brannagan 163 S. Water St., Philadelphia, asking my subscription to the work announced in the inclosed paper. The cause [emancipation] in which he embarks is so holy, the sentiments he expresses in his letter so friendly that it is highly painful to me to hesitate on a compliance which appears so small. But that is not its true character, and it would be injurious even to his views, for me to commit myself on paper by answering his letter. I have most carefully avoided every public act or manifestation on that subject. Should an occasion ever occur in which I can interpose with decisive effect, I shall certainly know & do my duty with promptitude & zeal. But in the meantime it would only be disarming myself of influence to be taking small means...I see with infinite pain the bloody schism which has taken place among our friends in Pennsylvania & New York, & will probably take place in other states. The main body of both sections mean well, but their good intentions will produce great public evil..." In this statement, Jefferson not only lamented that his involvement might cause more harm than good, but foresaw the Civil War.
A year before he died, in 1825, Jefferson wrote to Frances Wright: "The abolition of the evil is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object.”
In 1826, the year he died, Jefferson wrote to James Heaton again explaining his lack of involvement in the issue in his later years despite his strong wish for an end to slavery: “The subject of your letter of April 20, is one on which I do not permit myself to express an opinion, but when time, place, and occasion may give it some favorable effect. A good cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies. Persuasion, perseverance, and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others. The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also. My sentiments have been forty years before the public. Had I repeated them forty times, they would only have become the more stale and threadbare. Although I shall not live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but living or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayer. This is written for yourself and not for the public, in compliance with your request of two lines of sentiment on the subject.”
Three decades after Jefferson’s passing, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” (Abraham Lincoln to Messrs. Henry L. Pierce and others, April 6, 1859)
Jefferson made considerable efforts to ameliorate and abolish slavery within the constraints of a society that had matured under the historical acceptance that slavery was a way of life. At the time, it existed everywhere in the world. It is actually quite remarkable that he had the courage to express his lofty ideals and radical proposals in the prevailing environment of hostility and opposition to ending slavery. “All men are created equal.” What would Martin Luther King, Jr. have done without those five words that have changed the fate of humanity?