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The Question of Slave Education

"Ignorance and despotism seem made for one another."

--Thomas Jefferson to Robert Pleasants, 1796

As often happens in the world of historical research, when Douglas L. Wilson, first director of Monticello's Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, was searching the Library of Congress for material relating to Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, he found something else.  On an almost illegible fragment of a letter in Jefferson's hand, he spotted the word "emancipation," stopped his searching, and read on.  The blurred sentences discussed a topic about which Jefferson seldom wrote--the education of slaves. 

Jefferson's Cabinet, or office, at MonticelloIn a letter to Robert Pleasants, Jefferson recommended that, rather than relying on the "local and partial effects" of a private plan, Pleasants should revive Jefferson's public education plan, the bill for the "More General Diffusion of Knowledge," and alter it to include enslaved as well as free children of elementary age.  "Permit me," he wrote, "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 desirable as they would in the course of it be mixed with those of free condition."

Since it has come back to light, this letter has already evoked spirited debate and widely divergent interpretations.  An article in the Charlottesville paper, for instance, bore the headline, "Jefferson sought integrated schools."  This elicited a letter to the editor the next week which was  headlined "Jefferson a life-long racial separatist."  Jefferson's previously known statements on the education of slaves were made primarily in connection with ideas for a plan of gradual emancipation.  In his Notes on Virginia he wrote that those destined for freedom should be brought up at public expense "to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses."  "The mind...of the slave is to be prepared by instruction and habit for self government, and for the honest pursuits of industry and social duty," he wrote in 1815.


What survives of Jefferson's letter to Pleasants makes clear that he intended the public education of slaves to be part of a gradual emancipation plan, which he must have known would be unlikely to pass the Virginia assembly in 1796. He believed that education for those with no prospect of freedom was inappropriate.  His final comment was, "Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other." Jefferson and Pleasants had materially different views on emancipation. Jefferson's plan always included the relocation of freed slaves outside the boundaries of the United States. Pleasants, on the other hand, believed that writing, arithmetic, and the mechanic arts were the most likely means "to render so numerous a people fit for freedom and to become useful Citizens." This elderly Quaker, president of the Virginia Abolition Society and a lifelong antislavery activist and proponent of education for blacks, pursued his original plan. He freed and educated all his slaves and, in his will, left part of his property to fund a school for blacks that prospered for some years at Gravelly Hill in Henrico County.


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