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Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery throughout his life.[1]   He considered it contrary to the laws of nature that decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. He called the institution an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity," a "hideous blot," and a "fatal stain" that deformed "what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts."

Early in his political career Jefferson took actions that he hoped would end in slavery's abolition. He drafted the Virginia law of 1778 prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784 he proposed an ordinance banning slavery in the new territories of the Northwest. From the mid-1770s he advocated a plan of gradual emancipation, by which all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free. As historian David Brion Davis noted, if Jefferson had died in 1785, he would be remembered as an antislavery hero, as "one of the first statesmen anywhere to advocate concrete measures for eradicating slavery." After that time, however, there came a "thundering silence." Jefferson made no public statements on American slavery nor did he take any significant public action to change the course of his state or his nation.

Countless articles and even entire books have been written trying to explain the contradictions between Jefferson's words and actions in regard to slavery. His views on race, which he first broadcast in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785, unquestionably affected his behavior. His belief in the inferiority of blacks, coupled with their presumed resentment of their former owners, made their removal from the United States an integral part of Jefferson's emancipation scheme. These convictions were exacerbated by the bloody revolution in Haiti and an aborted rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Virginia in 1800.

While slavery remained the law of the land, Jefferson struggled to make ownership of humans compatible with the new ideas of the era of revolutions. By creating a moral and social distance between himself and enslaved people, by pushing them down the "scale of beings," he could consider himself as the "father" of "children" who needed his protection. As he wrote of slaves in 1814, "brought up from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [they] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves." In the manner of other paternalistic slaveholders, he thus saw himself as the benevolent steward of the African Americans to whom he was bound in a relation of mutual dependency and obligation.

By 1820, during the political crisis that resulted in the Missouri Compromise, Jefferson had come to believe that the spread of slavery into the west&—its "diffusion"&—would prove beneficial to the slaves and hasten the end of the institution. The prospect of a geographical line based on principle running across the country, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror." He feared it could threaten the union and lead to civil war. As always, his primary concern was the stability of the nation he had helped to found. Almost forty years after Jefferson's death, slavery was ended by the bloodiest war in American history.


1. This article is drawn from Getting Word; composed by Lucia Stanton, February 2008.

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