Next to Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most revered man in American history. He was an inventor, statesman, architect, lawyer, farmer, political theorist, prolific writer, governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice-President, and President. He was the conscience of the Revolution, never failing to expound on the natural and inherent rights of man and any infringement thereof. He helped to put Lockean political philosophy into an American context and, without this achievement, the American Revolution would never have happened. In his honor, monuments have been erected and cities have born his surname. So it has been until the twentieth century. We live in a peculiar era, one that seemingly detests greatness. Whenever a titan of American history is venerated, someone recalls an unsupported smear or any faults he may have had. For instance, when you speak of Christopher Columbus, someone indubitably brings up the diseases he brought with him or the fact that he was lost at sea a great deal of his voyage. Or: that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunkard. Or: George Washington was aristocratic. Or: Franklin Roosevelt was a womanizer who knew of the Pearl Harbor ambush, but did nothing about it. There are some who cannot practice hero-worship and believe that everyone is black at heart. To be sure, this is an ancient tradition, but it was never as insidious as it is today. Even Thomas Jefferson is not immune. If you even mention Thomas Jefferson's name, someone inevitably brings up his apparently hypocritical holding of over one hundred slaves. And they accuse him of holding one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, as his mistress. Ayn Rand, a novelist-philosopher, described this whole phenomenon—the desire to topple heroes, to endow them with feet of clay—as "hatred of the good for being the good." My purpose, in writing this research paper, is just the opposite: I want to show that Thomas Jefferson, far from being the hypocrite his detractors allege, was actually a serious and ardent defender of the emancipation of slaves, i.e., an abolitionist. It is important for people to have role models—individuals whose virtues they may emulate. I believe Thomas Jefferson, the paragon of reason, is just such a person.
Upon his election to the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson wasted little time in establishing himself as an opponent of slavery. Being a timid freshman, he persuaded Richard Bland to introduce a piece of legislation that he would second which would allow individual slave holders to free their slaves by will or affidavit, provided they would not become public charges. Prior to this, slave owners could only free their slaves by a petition to the governor and Privy Council and then only because of the slave's good service. The bill was rejected, but was passed in 1782.1 In that same year, Jefferson signed the Virginia House of Burgesses' recommendation to those who would form Associations of non-intercourse with England that "they will not import any slaves, or purchase any imported, after the first day of November next, until the said acts are repealed."2 In 1772, the House of Burgesses petitioned King George after a legislative act restricting slave importation had been struck down by the Royal Privy Council: "The importation of slaves into the colonies from the coast of Africa hath long been considered as a trade of great inhumanity, and under its present encouragement, we have too much reason to fear will endanger the very existence of your Majesty's American dominions…. Deeply impressed with these sentiments, we most humbly beseech your Majesty to remove all those restraints on your Majesty's governors of this colony, which inhibit their assenting to such laws as might check so very pernicious a commerce."3 Finally, in 1778, the Virginia legislature passed a measure abolishing the slave trade outright, in part through the efforts of Jefferson. However successful, eventually, were his efforts to end the slave trade, Jefferson was continually frustrated by the inaction of his fellow Virginians. After publicly supporting the rights of man and the evils of slavery, they were strangely silent when legislation was on the table.
Jefferson's stance in the House of Burgesses was but a prelude to the attacks on slavery contained in his original drafts of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence that we are able to read is actually the product of three revisions: one by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, one by the Committee of Five, and the final revision by the Committee of the Whole (the Continental Congress). By the final draft, this indictment of King George for his promotion of slavery had been stricken:
"he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of distant people who never offended him, captivating & 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 & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: 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, by 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."4
One of Thomas Jefferson's most important and controversial contributions to the cause of anti-slavery was his involvement in the Ordinance of 1784. This historic piece of legislation, put forth in the Congress under the Articles of Confederation, was drafted to establish the procedures for statehood and territory status for the massive amounts of land ceded to the Continental Congress by the various states and Great Britain. Jefferson's proposal abolished all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude in these lands. This was a bold move, since the southern portions of this territory had not yet been ceded to the fledgling government at that time and there was no justification for such a move in the Articles of Confederation. Jefferson reasoned that the power to exclude slavery was a national concern, not a local one. Further frustrating Jefferson's efforts, this act failed enaction by one vote! The delegate from New Jersey was violently ill the day of the vote and thus could not affirm slavery's prohibition in the new territories. As Jefferson later wrote, "Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and heaven was silent in that awful moment."5 Jefferson's ideas, in diluted form, were later incorporated into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
As President during his second term, Thomas Jefferson introduced legislation tellingly entitled, "Act to prohibit the importation of Slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eight." This act made it a crime to transport any slave to an American territory. It did not prohibit slavery per se, but at least the act stopped its proliferation.
Thomas Jefferson believed that a political campaign was the best way to wage the abolitionist battle, but, as is shown by the campaign's results, it was not the best way. The political reforms he proposed were both widely denounced and largely ignored. The fact is, that when it came to his crucial documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the Ordinance of 1784, the slave owners saw to it that any anti-slavery language was removed from the final product. The only possible route to abolition was through a philosophical, and consequently, cultural change. Abraham Lincoln could never have emancipated the slaves without a strong, fervent abolitionist movement that permeated all sectors of the culture. Thomas Jefferson did not have that luxury. However, several of his published works formed a stepping stone for the later movement and that movement would not have existed without his (and others) early foundation-building.
A Summary View of the Rights of British America was a set of instructions for Virginia's delegates to the proposed first Congress of the Colonies. It was rejected, but published by Jefferson's admirers anonymously. In it, Jefferson accused King George of much the same charges he lobbed in the Declaration of Independence. He added another this way, "Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few British corsairs, to the lasting interests of the American States, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice." He furthers writes of the colonists attempts at cessation of the slave trade and the King's subsequent vetoes. This document established Jefferson as an eminent writer of philosophic discourse, setting him up for the authorship of the Declaration of Independence.
In Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, we find his most lengthy treatment of the subject of slavery. We also find his most startling, in the twentieth century context, views on the nature of blacks, whites, and their intermingling. Notes on Virginia was an address to a Frenchman, who had never set foot in Virginia and was curious about the Old Dominion. In it, he answered queries regarding Virginia's government, land, customs, educational system, towns, and wildlife. In Query XIV, on the administration of justice and Virginia's laws, Jefferson discusses the great reform of Virginia's laws taken on by the General Assembly following the Revolutionary War. One of the reform measures was the emancipation of all slaves born after passage of the act. The plan boldly asserts that the newly freed children should remain with their parents until a certain age and then be educated, at public expense, in a field appropriate (farming, science, or arts) to them until the age of eighteen or twenty-one, females and males respectively. At that time, Jefferson would have them shipped off to some destination most proper, fully supplied with all the essentials to found a new colony. Then, ships would be sent off to bring back an equal number of white settlers from some other land and induce them to settle in Virginia. This seems mighty odd, when compared with what we know and have seen of Jefferson. As usual, he continues on in answer to this seeming contradiction. He states that the blacks should not live among the whites because of the racial prejudices of the whites and the resentfulness bred by the injustices the blacks had suffered—it was not fair to the blacks. Given the context of the times, this was a wholly logical and reasonable prescription. After this fairly rational argument, Jefferson lapses into a polemic about the perils of miscegenation: "When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture…"6 and "…their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran[g]utan for the black woman over those of his own species."7 Both of these statements paint a different picture than what the rest of my paper has portrayed, but I think that we must keep in mind the context: Jefferson was a Virginia plantation owner in the late eighteenth century. It was very common for white men to speculate about the nature of the blacks, since they had no scientific basis for anything to the contrary. While I would certainly deplore these views, I would have to say that Jefferson honestly knew no better.
The final aspect to consider is the charges of miscegenation with his slave-girl, Sally Hemings. First we must consider how the reports originally surfaced. In the Campaign of 1800, a young man by the name of James Callender, a Jeffersonian Democrat employed in the art of Federalist character assassination, dutifully served the factional needs of Jefferson the politician. He thought that he should be compensated for his efforts with an appointment to Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson refused. Soon after, Callender dug up evidence of mulatto children at Monticello and interviewed one of the Hemings slaves. He printed all this in a story in a Federalist newspaper. There it died, after a brief political life, until Fawn Brodie resurrected it in 1973 for her psychohistorical biography entitled Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. The story goes as follows: while Jefferson was in Paris, he sent for his daughter, Mary, who was accompanied on the trip by Sally Hemings, a young slave lass of twelve. Soon thereafter, he began making advances towards her. She wanted to remain in France and be free, but this Casanova would not have that. He promised her that any children they had would be freed upon adulthood. After leaving France, Jefferson used Sally Hemings as his chambermaid at Monticello. He continued being intimate with her even after it was revealed by James Callender. In fact, he risked his Presidency during both terms by having sexual relations with this pubescent. While this story has captured the fancy of the American public, it has thoroughly been discredited by all Jefferson and American History scholars as sheer folly. First, given Jefferson's strong and consistent views on miscegenation, it is highly unlikely that he sired children by Sally Hemings, much less had sexual intercourse with her. Second, none of the other residents of Monticello ever suspected a thing. He had three daughters living with him twenty-four hours a day, as well as frequent and numerous guests. That none of them ever suspected him of cavorting with Sally should mean a lot. Third, there is plentiful evidence that Jefferson's nephews, Peter and Samuel Carr, were wholly responsible for the mulatto children of Monticello. In fact, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson's granddaughter who grew up at Monticello, called Samuel Carr "the most notorious good-natured Turk that ever was master of a black seraglio kept at other men's expense."8 It is absurd to contend that Thomas Jefferson would betray the moral teachings he prescribed for his relatives, friends, and himself, without any positive evidence for support. If we are to judge Jefferson, it must be on the basis of the standards he set for himself, the philosophy he explicitly advocated, and the actions he performed over the course of his lifetime. He was completely consistent in every facet of his being and because of that, we must dismiss any charges levied against him.
In researching this essay, I deliberately left out any reference to Thomas Jefferson's correspondence. In all, he penned over fifty thousand letters to all sorts of people. To read them all and comment on them would be beyond the scope of a research paper. It would require a book-length treatment, at least. I focused my research on primary documents, since these came from the mind of Jefferson himself. Where better to learn about the man behind the myth then to explore his most personal beliefs. However, I could not have done anything without the assistance of The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery by John Chester Miller. This book surveys the whole of Jefferson's life and deals with the conflicts Jefferson had between his racial and liberal views.
The brevity of a prospectus does not lend itself well to painting the full picture of Thomas Jefferson qua abolitionist, but the sketches I have drawn here should indicate the boundaries and the highlights. The Founding Fathers, insofar as they practiced what they preached, deserve the utmost respect and honor. The defamation of their characters by unsupported allegations hurled from the distance of two centuries is repulsive. Few people have no faults, but that is not why the Founding Fathers are important. They are to be lauded for their virtues, their achievements.
1 Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1991. pp. 21-22.
3 Ibid., pp. 13-14.
4 Boyd, Julian. The Declaration of Independence: The Evolution of the Text as Shown in Facsimiles of Various Drafts by its Author, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945. pp. 20-21.
5 Miller, op cit., p. 28.
6 Jefferson, Thomas. The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Eds. Adrienne Koch and William Peden. 2nd ed. New York: The Modern Library, 1993. p. 243.
7 Ibid., p. 238.
8 Miller, op cit., p. 170.