Jefferson and many other patriots believed slavery should be abolished in the new American nation. Emancipation would fulfill the ideal that "all men are created equal."
Yet over the course of his life Jefferson himself owned 600 people. He was unable to extricate himself from what he called the “deplorable entanglement” of slavery.
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 Proposes Solutions to Slavery
At the end of the 18th century, Jefferson and many other Americans believed that stopping the import of enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean would hasten the end of slavery.
In 1807, three weeks before Britain abolished the Atlantic slave trade, President Jefferson signed a law prohibiting “the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States."
Throughout his life, Jefferson privately endorsed a plan of gradual emancipation, by which all people born into slavery after a certain date would be freed and sent beyond the borders of the United States when they reached adulthood.
He published a short description of this plan in his book Notes on the State of Virginia.
Jefferson, along with many other Americans, combined plans for emancipation with colonization―moving freed slaves outside the U.S. "I have seen no proposition so expedient . . . as that of emancipation of those [slaves] born after a given day, and of their education and expatriation at a proper age," Jefferson wrote in 1814.
He eventually decided that Africa was the best destination.
In 1819–20, the question of slavery's expansion into Missouri and other western territories was a matter of fierce political debate.
Jefferson and other southerners favored the "diffusion" of slaves in the west, believing that the spread of enslaved people over a larger geographic area would improve their situation and lead more swiftly to emancipation.