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Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery.  Calling it a “moral depravity”1 and a “hideous blot,”2 he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation.3 Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty.4  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.5 In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.6  In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories.7 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.8

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.9 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.10  Second, slaveowners would “improve” slavery’s most violent features, by bettering (Jefferson used the term “ameliorating”) living conditions and moderating physical punishment.11  Third, all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free, followed by total abolition.12  Like others of his day, he supported the removal of newly freed slaves from the United States.13 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.14  Jefferson’s belief that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,”15 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.16

Jefferson wrote that maintaining slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”17 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.

- Christa Dierksheide, 2008

Further Sources

Filed In: 
Politics, Slavery


Sparky0311's picture
Talking about slaves to John Homes Jefferson said, 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'M pretty sure I know what Jefferson's mind set was when he said this. Jefferson was ahead of his time and knew what he was talking about. I'M related to Jefferson by blood as well. Many years ago I wrote a poem on the subject of slavery. Long before I knew much at all about Jefferson. It's called ( In Skin's So White ) I wonder if the South had won the war, Between the states a bloodbath cure. Men who fell in skin so white, To free the Negro in his plight. In after math of smoke and death, Removed for ever the devils breath. But if these men in skins so white, Could see the future in hind sight. Would he think he was wrong, Or think he was right, For his life he gave for the black mans plight. By George Washington Sparks
jeg1876's picture
IMHO, I feel he (along with all of his peers) knew slavery was wrong, but also felt they could not free them due to financial reasons. Plantation owners would have gone bankrupt without them. The majority of the northern part of the country did not have the large quantities of acres and agriculture work that the South had. Although the practice was wrong, to give that up would have sacrificed the well-being of themselves and their families. The choice between freeing your slaves and lose all your accumulated wealth and land that may have been passed down from your ancestors, or keep your slaves and you get to keep your income and land. Obviously they were looking out for themselves. It's really not that hard to understand, but we also need to be careful not to view 19th and 18th century people through 21st century eyes. What would you have done if you lived back then?
razorwire's picture
Thomas Locke had a huge influence on Jefferson's thinking. Locke believed that a man's natural state was to be free. No one has the right to own another human being. The slave, even when freed, will not forget being a slave and the owner will always have the residue of slavery in their memories. Jefferson said that the one must kill off the other to remove the stench of history. I am paraphrasing in this instance.
jeg1876's picture
I believe it was "John" Locke, not "Thomas"
H2Times's picture
To free the slaves or not free the slaves? This question, about why Thomas Jefferson did not ultimately free his slaves has intrigued me for a long time, not to mention his intellect and hypocrisy. His views on slavery had a very good surface quality but ultimately he lived most of his life as a slave owner. Jefferson, a great man of American History presented a strong argument against the practice of chattel slavery. However, his views about Africans in general were typical for the times and collided with his desire to free people in bondage. Jefferson helped to instill into White culture the notion that Blacks were inferior. Men who viewed themselves as superior and as the civilizers of cultures showed great hubris with their racist views even though there was no evidence supporting race inferiority based in science. Jefferson was conflicted about slavery and manumission perhaps because the financial repercussions of freeing his slaves would have caused him financial hardship. To his credit, he eventually freed a handful of slaves but not enough to make a difference. One thing I do agree with is his assertion that the slave population needed to be trained for life outside of bondage. Perhaps his contention that Blacks were inferior and dumb made him feel as though he needed to save them from themselves. Why did men like Thomas Jefferson view Blacks with such little regard? Jefferson studied the works of the 18th century Swedish scholar, Carl von Linnaeus. In 1735 Linnaeus produced a work called Systema Naturae. In one section of the work Linnaeus classified four races of people, American Indians, Whites, Asians and African. Without the benefit of even a shred of science Black people were classified as lazy, phlegmatic and governed by caprice. Linnaeus unwittingly set the groundwork for generational racism without having any proof. Justifying slavery became easy for the superior Whites because after all the Blacks were not human. Jefferson’s theories of Black inferiority continued the theme of non-scientific stereotyping when he suggested that if White blood were mixed with Black blood the person would be more capable both mentally and physically than a pure Negro. Was that his reason for his interest in Sally Hemings? Jefferson was also very practical because he knew he could not part with the free labor force. Without the slaves he could not sustain his lifestyle. Let’s take Jefferson’s claim that African’s required less sleep. Well, if one’s livelihood depended on a free labor force that worked from sunrise to sunset each day, saying that slaves don’t require sleep makes the reality less hurtful. Remember, the slaves did not have souls and did not feel pain like humans after all. He could not understand that slaves needed to socialize after having been out in the fields all day. Jefferson said, “A Black, after hard labor, through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusement to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning.” How could he know that the slaves needed to bond with one another and assure family and friends that somehow they will make it through the torturous times ahead. It must have made Jefferson feel good about himself to think he was not straining and overworking slaves because after all, they required less sleep. This cognitive dissonance was prevalent among the majority of slave masters and consequently society at large. The wounds of slavery have been slow to heal since they were opened in the 17th century.
RachelK's picture
Thomas Jefferson seems to attract more flack than really necessary because, as Prof.1 said, "he wrote the Declaration of Independence, because he was looked up to, because he was looked upon to do the right thing..." We are all human beings, nobody is perfect, not even Thomas Jefferson. It is plain to see, he did not believe freed slaves could live in peace with white Americans. Remember that quote of his about holding "a wolf by the ear...?" In his mind, freeing his slaves would do them no good, as it was his belief that they could not survive. Arguing that he was a hypocrite because he advocated emancipation yet owned slaves is invalid, because he did not argue it so simply. If I remember correctly, he brought his slave, James, to France with him to learn how to cook. That's not the same type of slavery I think most commenters here are referring to when they call him a hypocrite. (I might as well make the same remarks for those who call him such names. Because of him, you have the freedom to say such things. Geeez!)
RachelK (not verified)
Bill Lawson's picture
After reading several of the posts, I am finding the hard to believe that many cannot or will not accept the fact that Thomas Jefferson was a blatant HYPOCRITE! There is no other way to justify the so-called position of Anti-Slavery on one hand, then maintaining it in his personal life on the other. You cannot stand on his actions by saying "During those Times", as if it gives him a pass for continuing to embrace this institution of cruelty, inhumanity and moral depravity. It's very simple and easy to see and explain, as there is no excuse or grounds that anyone can put forward throughout the time of human existance that upholds stripping away the dignity of any Man, Women, Boy or Girl to satisfy a financial burden or liability. All of the historians can pontificate all of the possible theories they like in regards to this, but the fact of the matter remains that he held other human beings as property, against their wills and right for freedom for his own gain. Nothing anyone can ever say will satisfy or vilify this point and if they try to reason it so, I say trade off any of your offspring or loved ones for a similar situation and then tell me how it feels. This is not written in anger nor malice, but just calling it as it is. It's a shame that people refuse to see and acknowledge the truth about life, but I guess it magnifies our condition as less than perfect beings.
Bill Lawson
jeg1876's picture
I agree, but TJ seems to get singled out when in fact, there were plenty of Founders that did not free their slaves and they signed the DofI as well.
Ablyall's picture
The comment: "I imagine Jefferson was against slavery, but he didn't want to inflict his morality upon others" seems to show how hard it is for some people to face the facts. No doubt he didnt want to inflict it on his slaves! The fact is he spoke consistently against slavery, but the fact is also that he did nothing about it and benefitted from it all his life. He fell short of his own lofty ideals, but many of us are equally guilty of that. He was a flawed human being. Join the club.
Andrew Lyall
Ablyall's picture
In view of the many undisputed facts about how Jefferson actually behaved in his life, quite apart from the strong possibility that he fathered a child by Sally Hemmings, assertions such as that "Jefferson fought against slavery all his life", which are actually repeated on this web site, are unsustainable. If he was sincere, he would have freed his slaves. He only freed the Hemmings in his will, but no others - why not in his will? He benefitted all his life from slavery and took no action to disengage from it. Monticello was built through the profits of the labour of his slaves. There is proof that he sought to recover escaped slaves and that slaves were beaten on his plantaion and that family members were sold away. These facts are no doubt uncomfortable, but one does not study history to reinforce existing more comfortable conclusions. You cannot judge him solely by his words.
Andrew Lyall
wlorenzo's picture
The more I learn about Thomas Jefferson and slavery the more I feel I cannot give him the benefit of the doubt on this issue any longer. Because he wrote the Declaration of Independence, because he was looked up to, because he was looked upon to do the right thing when his neighbors freed their slaves, he must be held to a higher standard, because he was Thomas Jefferson. I cannot think of any reason why he did not free his slaves despite the existence of the "Peculiar Institution", especially Sally Hemmings, in his time. Who knows, he could have led a credible abolitionist movement. What we do know is that he chose to do nothing.
jeg1876's picture
As could have many of the Founders...even Washington. In his will, Washington waited to free his slaves until after his wife passed.
Hugh Beaumont's picture
I imagine Jefferson was against slavery, but he didn't want to inflict his morality upon others.
Hugh Beaumont
mdougl's picture
It's discouraging when publications like the Smithsonian choose to post articles in a manner that leads one to believe they are "fact" simply because they were written by a historian. Like anyone else, historian's can also be full of opinions and Mr. Wiencek recent work "Master of the Mountain....", from which I believe the Smithsonian article pulled many of it's assumptions, is full of such opinions....and suggestions....and theories...etc. Having read both Mr. Wiencek's book, as well as the Smithsonian article, I believe it's fair to say that Mr. Wiencek is no fan of Thomas Jefferson. However, as Dr. Dierksheide stated, nothing that he presents - either in the article, or in his recent book - is new information. Historians have written for years about the treatment of some of the slaves at Monticello for years. And also as the Dr. points out, there are many contradictions - at least on the surface - between the opinion that Jefferson conveyed in his writings against slavery, and the fact that his home was indeed an estate who's operation was dependent on the backs of many slave laborers. But obviously no one, including Mr. Wiencek, can truly know what Jefferson's personal thoughts and feelings were with regards to anything - let alone the issue of slavery. All one can do is take the man's writings - his own words - and try to glean some sort of insight into what he likely believed and thought about a given subject. Taken in that context, I believe it's historically accurate to say that Jefferson fought against slavery his entire life. From the original draft of the declaration of independence to his support of the elimination of slavery in the Western Territories. As a slave owner, a stance such as this would have done him no good. Yet this was his stance. As far as his ownership of slaves goes, it's important to keep in context the time in which he lived. There were legal restrictions on the freeing of slaves, and Jefferson also struggled to manage very large debts. One did not simply free slaves at that time by walking up to them and telling them they are free to go. There was a financial burden to be had, both in the release of a slave, as well as the labor loss that would be incurred on these types of plantations - let alone a plantation that carried an enormous amount of debt. Yet regardless of what Jefferson did, or did not do regarding the operation of Monticello, it's important to keep in mind that Thomas Jefferson never once defended the institution of slavery. Not once. That's a lot more than can be said of other men on political power during that time. It was a terrible problem that he did indeed struggled with, as did many of the founding fathers of this country. Jefferson's reasons as to why he did, or did not do, certain things are his own. And it's not my place to speculate, nor do I think it's Smithsonian magazine's place to speculate - or at least encourage such speculation. Facts are one thing. Conjecture is another. It is disappointing to see a historian such as Mr. Wiencek conjecture and speculate, while not enlightening anyone as to any new facts. It is also disappointing, yet not surprising, that the Smithsonian would present such an article as fact and truth....and then readers of that article would feel compelled to "protest" the information that the Monticello historians have objectively put forth about Mr Jefferson, through years and years of factual research. It seems all that is necessary nowadays, is to print something in a magazine, put it on TV, and voila - it must be the truth of the matter. I hope that mindset does not continue to be the case. I believe all of the individuals who founded this country, and forged it's constitution, deserve a little more respect - and dare I say, benefit of the doubt, than an article in a magazine - full of recycled information - might grant them.
Douglas Bryan
Matthew Chen's picture
Dear Sir/Madam, I must write to respectively protest against this page's generally positive portrayal of Jefferson's views and actions regarding slavery. It is simply facetious to argue without reservation that "Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of ending slavery never changed." New research does not support this claim. I urge you to read the October 2012 article in Smithsonian magazine, "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" which discusses evidence showing the widespread use of forced child labor, whipping of enslaved children, and selling of slaves at Monticello. Jefferson's own recognition of the profit that slavery personally accrued to him is, apparently, proven by his own correspondence: "I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” The assertion on this page that Jefferson planted wheat and other crops to replace tabacco in order to "To try to erode Virginians’ support for slavery" also can by explained by new profit-making opportunities that these would create. "Planting wheat required fewer workers than tobacco, leaving a pool of field laborers available for specialized training." (Smithsonian magazine, October 2012) Therefore, I think it is misleading for Monticello to claim that "Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery his whole life. " The historical record says otherwise.
Matthew Chen
aberkes's picture
This is a very difficult topic, and one that many have struggled to understand for a very long time now. This page offers an excellent point to start examining this subject. The text is freshly written by Cinder Stanton, our Shannon Senior Research Historian, and you'll find a link on the right to a page that collects Jefferson's writings on slavery and emancipation. Lastly, the "Further Sources" section at the bottom lists Cinder's own recommendations for exploring this topic further.
Anna Berkes
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