Thomas Jefferson helped to create a new nation based on individual freedom and self-government. His words in the Declaration of Independence expressed the aspirations of the new nation. But the Declaration did not extend “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” to African Americans, indentured servants, or women. Twelve of the first eighteen American presidents owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. Fearful of dividing the fragile new nation, Jefferson and other founders who opposed slavery did not insist on abolishing it. It took 87 more years―and the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th Amendment―to end slavery.
Jefferson drew upon his education in law and Enlightenment philosophy when he wrote the Declaration of Independence (1776) and A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774), two treatises that grappled with liberty and slavery. At the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, colonial Virginia’s capital, he studied mathematics, natural philosophy (science), and political philosophy with Scottish scholar William Small. Jefferson was exposed to the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, who stressed that liberty and equality were natural human rights.
Slavery made the world Thomas Jefferson knew. The colonial society into which he was born would not have existed without it. The profits from slave-based agriculture made his parents’ household and lifestyle, and his education and exposure to the colonial capital of Williamsburg, possible. Though Jefferson came to abhor slavery, his livelihood depended on it.
Jefferson was one of the first statesmen anywhere to take action to end slavery. In 1778 he introduced a Virginia law prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784 he proposed a ban on slavery in the Northwest Territory, new lands ceded by the British in 1783. In Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, he proposed a plan of gradual emancipation. After 1785, he was publicly silent on the issue.