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Jefferson's Antislavery Actions

“You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery: and certainly nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object.” -Thomas Jefferson to Brissot de Warville, February 11, 1788

Early in his public life, 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. But after 1785, while still holding his belief in the injustice of slavery, he was publicly silent.


John Trumbull painted this miniature portrait in preparation for his large painting The Declaration of Independence while he stayed with Jefferson at the Hôtel de Langeac in Paris between December 1787 and February 1788.

Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull, 1788.
Thomas Jefferson Foundation


Passed in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance saw the fulfillment of Jefferson’s support for a ban on slavery in the Northwest Territories.

Northwest Ordinance, 1787.
Library of Congress


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