Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery throughout his entire life. Calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation. Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. These views were radical in a world where unfree labor was the norm.
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition. In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories. But Jefferson always maintained that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process; abolition would be stymied until slaveowners consented to free their human property together in a large-scale act of emancipation. To Jefferson, it was anti-democratic and contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition or for only a few planters to free their slaves.
Although Jefferson continued to advocate for abolition, the reality was that slavery was becoming more entrenched. The slave population in Virginia skyrocketed from 292,627 in 1790 to 469,757 in 1830. Jefferson had assumed that the abolition of the slave trade would weaken slavery and hasten its end. Instead, slavery became more widespread and profitable. In an attempt to erode Virginians’ support for slavery, he discouraged the cultivation of crops heavily dependent on slave labor—specifically tobacco—and encouraged the introduction of crops that needed little or no slave labor—wheat, sugar maples, short-grained rice, olive trees, and wine grapes. But by the 1800s, Virginia’s most valuable commodity and export was neither crops nor land, but slaves.
Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of ending slavery never changed. From the mid-1770s until his death, he advocated the same plan of gradual emancipation. First, the transatlantic slave trade would be abolished. Second, slaveowners would “improve” slavery’s most violent features, by bettering (Jefferson used the term “ameliorating”) living conditions and moderating physical punishment. Third, all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free, followed by total abolition. Like others of his day, he supported the removal of newly freed slaves from the United States. The unintended effect of Jefferson’s plan was that his goal of “improving” slavery as a step towards ending it was used as an argument for its perpetuation. Pro-slavery advocates after Jefferson’s death argued that if slavery could be “improved,” abolition was unnecessary.
Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of abolition was intertwined with his racial beliefs. He thought that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two “separate nations” who could not live together peacefully in the same country. Jefferson’s belief that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” coupled with slaves’ presumed resentment of their former owners, made their removal from the United States an integral part of Jefferson’s emancipation scheme. Influenced by the Haitian Revolution and an aborted rebellion in Virginia in 1800, Jefferson believed that American slaves’ deportation—whether to Africa or the West Indies—was an essential followup to emancipation.
Jefferson wrote that maintaining slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” He thought that his cherished federal union, the world’s first democratic experiment, would be destroyed by slavery. To emancipate slaves on American soil, Jefferson thought, would result in a large-scale race war that would be as brutal and deadly as the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791. But he also believed that to keep slaves in bondage, with part of America in favor of abolition and part of America in favor of perpetuating slavery, could only result in a civil war that would destroy the union. Jefferson’s latter prediction was correct: in 1861, the contest over slavery sparked a bloody civil war and the creation of two nations—Union and Confederacy—in the place of one.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. Edited by William Peden. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955. Chapters "Laws" and "Manners."
Finkelman, Paul. "Jefferson and Slavery: Treason Against the Hopes of the World." In Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 181-221.
French, Scot A. and Edward L. Ayers. "The Strange Career of Thomas Jefferson: Race and Slavery in American Memory, 1943-1993." In Jeffersonian Legacies, ed. Peter S. Onuf. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 418-456.
Onuf, Peter S. "Every Generation is an Independent Nation: Colonization, Miscegenation, and the Fate of Jefferson's Children." In The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2007), 213-235.
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