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 and the Enlightenment

Early in his life, Jefferson was exposed to the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, who stressed that liberty and equality were natural human rights, drew upon their philosophy when he wrote the Declaration of Independence

"This Deplorable Entaglement

Jefferson spent much of his life wrestling with and proposing various solutions to this national problem. But slavery was not abolished, and he remained a slaveholder throughout his life.

Jefferson's Antislavery Actions

Jefferson was one of the first statesmen anywhere to take action to end slavery. Yet, after 1785, he was publicly silent on the issue.