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Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

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Slavery was an issue over much of the United States’ early history. For more than one hundred years slaves were taken back and forth throughout the entire country. Slavery was responsible for offsetting the American Civil War that almost tore the country to pieces in the 1860s. Slavery led to social segregation that continued for one hundred years after the end of the Civil War and slavery itself. It seems that during its early history the country diverted fundamentally from its founding fathers’ vision, which highlighted freedom, equality, and justice. In discussing the founding fathers and their ideas/beliefs on the issue of slavery, it is worth mentioning one of the most respected, admired, and well-known of all of the founding fathers: former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is widely recognized as an advocate for freedom and equality that is the reason why many believed that he was a clear-cut abolitionist. Others, however, feel differently about Thomas Jefferson’s stance on the issue of slavery. It is also believed that Jefferson was not truly against slavery, because he owned slaves and profited from their labor; he did not recognize Haiti (a slave nation) as President; he advocated for the definitive separation of the black and white races (by stating that all blacks living in America should be sent to an African territory that they could call home). Thomas Jefferson was against slavery, but not because he feared for the slaves themselves, but rather because he feared white America would become corrupted and transform into a tyrant nation.

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Over the years various biographers and historians have ascertained that Thomas Jefferson, one of the country’s founding fathers (and writer of the country’s constitution), was definitely against slavery. On this point it is important to state, first and foremost, that the constitution that was ultimately approved in the Second International Congress differed greatly from the original constitution that Jefferson wrote for the newborn United States of America. In its original version, Jefferson was credited as blatantly criticizing King Richard III of England. According to Jefferson, the king “waged cruel war against human nature itself violating the most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people [Africans] who never offended him captivating and carrying them into slavery” (Hopkins 142). Based on this initial wording of the constitution, it seems that Jefferson was an advocate for universal freedom and equality. Jefferson’s defenders go one step further by establishing that in his 1784 Ordinance, the founding father wrote “that after the year 1800 of the Christian era there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states…” (Hopkins 146). Such excerpts from Jefferson’s writings surely appear to indicate that he was the nation’s primary champion for abolition, justice, and equality for all.

The truth of the matter, however, is somewhat more complicated. Jefferson was a man who did oppose slavery on various occasions, but he failed to take any definitive action to stand up against slavery and get it abolished. Here again, his defenders claim that he took a more moderate stance on the matter because he realized that the American aristocrats, primarily in the south, would never agree to abolish slavery. Thus, it is further claimed that since he was convinced that freeing slaves during the late eighteenth century was less humane (and more dangerous) for slaves themselves, “Jefferson never freed his slaves into the highly unsupportive, prejudiced, and segregated society of his day and chose to be a benevolent and exemplary master instead” (Hopkins 147). In other words, the positions of those who continue to view Thomas Jefferson as an abolitionist champion state that even though Jefferson wanted to free his slaves, he chose not to, because he was convinced that freeing them would be placing them in harm’s way.

Therefore, Thomas Jefferson appears to have been a true champion for abolition and for the consolidation of a free, equal, and just American society. Notwithstanding these seemingly incontrovertible pieces of evidence in favor of the characterization of Thomas Jefferson as an abolitionist, he was a man who benefitted from slavery and might have possibly even promoted it. In fact, considering that he was an American aristocrat, it is highly likely that his apparent disgust of slavery might have been motivated by reasons other than the injustice and abuse of African slaves themselves. In uncovering Thomas Jefferson’s real stance on the issue of slavery (as well as his true feelings towards slaves), the first thing to be noted is that “Jefferson also expressed a disgust for miscegenation and a fear that the emancipation of large numbers of Negroes into a numerous white population would result in widespread racial mixing” (Hopkins 160). This fact raises some very fundamental questions on the matter of Jefferson’s views on slavery. If Thomas Jefferson advocated in favor of abolition, why was he against miscegenation? Why was he wary of racial interactions and mixing between Africans and white Americans if his heartfelt, unwavering conviction was that all men were equal? This, in principle, showcases him as a paradoxical character at best.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that despite anything that he might have written or stated in public, Thomas Jefferson was a man who owned slaves and profited from doing business using slave labor. Jefferson came from a prominent Virginian family; “as a result of the inheritance, Jefferson owned 187 men, women, and children, but the figure changed from year to year with births, deaths, purchases, and sales. In 1783, despite the loss of thirty slaves to the British, it rose to 204” (Cohen 4). His wife was also from a prominent Virginian family; she too owned slaves and this helped elevate the number of slaves that ultimately came under Jefferson’s property, which reached 267 by 1822 (Cohen 4). Considering that he owned a significant amount of slaves and that slavery was instrumental in making Jefferson one of the richest men in the state of Virginia, it would appear that he was not against slavery, but actually in its favor.

Jefferson’s estate, the world famous ‘Monticello’, was a place that flourished on slave labor; there were various “household servants who did the cooking, washing, house cleaning, sewing, and child tending” (Aubrecht 41). It is important to mention that Jefferson grew accustomed to a luxurious, comfortable lifestyle, thanks largely to slavery. Why then, would he suggest its abolition? In looking at his Notes on the State of Virginia one can begin to uncover his true motivations to champion for abolition. Specifically, three reasons can be drawn for his resistance to the perpetuation of slavery in the United States, “First, he hated what slavery did to whites. Second, he hated slavery because he feared it would lead to a rebellion that would destroy his society. Third, he hated slavery because it brought Africans to America and kept them there” (Finkelman 203). These three assertions can be contextualized in the frame of Notes on the State of Virginia, work in which he clearly stated that “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other” (Jefferson 288). In other words, firstly, Jefferson clearly contended that slavery promoted tyranny and despotism in white Americans. Secondly, being convinced that with time the Negro population would increase significantly (as it in fact did) he feared that continued slavery would impose a grave threat on the safety of white Americans (as Negro rebellion was a definite possibility). Finally, his resistance to Negros being brought to the United States is consistent with his disgust for miscegenation.

Slavery was an issue that tore the United States apart in the nineteenth century. In principle it appeared that throughout the nineteenth century (primarily during the American Civil War) the United States fundamentally diverted from the country that the founding fathers had envisioned when they declared the country’s independence and drafted its constitution. Ever since the country gained its independence, Thomas Jefferson has been regarded by biographers, historians, and the public in general as a champion for equality and justice. Naturally, it has led to the perpetuation of the belief that he was a proto-abolitionist of sorts. Through analyzing his life motivations, and having contextualized his ideas to his epoch and social, political, and economic conditioning, it becomes clear that Thomas Jefferson thought that Negros were a lesser race (and a dangerous one too). This being said, Thomas Jefferson was a virtuous man, but he also had character flaws; “his greatest failing lay in his inability to join the best of his generation in fighting slavery and in his working instead to prevent any significant change in America's racial status quo” (Finkelman 228). Today, Thomas Jefferson should not be demonized as a racist; he should not be hailed as the ultimate defender of racial equality and abolition either. Instead, he should be seen as the man that he truly was, one that despite his commitment to the country’s strengthening, integration, and grandeur, found it impossible to fully escape the cultural, social, and political codes of his time.

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