Jefferson the Slaveholder
Jefferson's treatment of slaves was not much different from that of other planters. He was strikingly unconcerned about enslaved men and women as individuals. Instead, he viewed them as assets to manage. In discussing the work of his overseers, on April 19, 1792, Jefferson wrote, "My first wish is that the labourers may be well treated," immediately adding, "the second that they may enable me to have that treatment continued by making as much as will admit it." Jefferson did not physically punish his slaves; he had overseers for that. But he was willing to sell a person out of state, effectively exiling them from friends and family, as a punitive measure. The strategy was calculated to create terror in other enslaved men and women. In 1803, for example, he directed that one slave be sold to "negro purchasers from Georgia" or some "other quarter so distant as never more to be heard of among us." This removal should appear to the other slaves "as if he were put out of the way by death."
In a letter to his son-in-law John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson claimed to have "scruples about selling negroes but for delinquency or on their own request." But this was not entirely true. Jefferson lived an elegant, almost regal lifestyle, and he was notoriously poor at managing his money. When cash was in short supply, he sold his slaves to raise more. In the ten-year period between 1784 and 1794, Jefferson sold at least eighty-five slaves to raise cash to buy wine, art, furniture, and other luxury items.
It is theoretically possible—if unlikely—that Jefferson's brother Randolph fathered Hemings's children. But even if that were the case, it means that Jefferson was willing to tolerate Randolph's preying on a woman under Jefferson's care (and evidently only while he was himself at Monticello). And it would mean that Jefferson was still related to Hemings's children by blood. Either way, Jefferson held his own relatives in slavery. From a moral standpoint, does it matter much whether Jefferson enslaved his nieces, nephews, and brothers- and sisters-in-law, or whether he enslaved his own children?
Some of Jefferson's contemporaries who condemned the institution of slavery granted freedom to all of their slaves. Coles, who freed his slaves in 1819, is one example. Another is Jefferson's legal mentor George Wythe, who manumitted all of his slaves before his death. George Washington, who after the American Revolution (1775–1783) refused to either to buy or sell slaves "as you would do cattle at a market" ultimately freed his 123 slaves in his will. Although Washington did not do anything in his public life to dismantle Southern slaveholding society, his private manumission was a strong political statement.
Slavery and the Public Leader
Jefferson claimed that in 1769, as a young member of the House of Burgesses, he supported a failed bill to allow private manumission in Virginia. The only evidence for this event comes from Jefferson himself, who mentioned it in a letter in 1814 and an autobiographical sketch in 1821—forty-five and fifty years later, respectively. Assuming the events unfolded as Jefferson described them, the proposal was not antislavery in any meaningful way: it only would have allowed some masters to privately manumit their slaves in the colony.
After returning to the United States from France in 1789, Jefferson never took a public stand against slavery. As president, he encouraged Congress to end the African slave trade as soon as the Constitution allowed—on January 1, 1808. But he did not demand an end to slavery in the United States. Under the law Jefferson supported, any Africans who were brought to the country illegally would be sold into slavery for the benefit of the state where they were discovered. (Only after Jefferson and his ally James Madison left the presidency did Congress mandate that illegally imported slaves would be repatriated.)
With the exception of his proposal for the western territories in 1784, from the American Revolution to his death in 1826 Jefferson never took a public stance against slavery and never lifted a finger to end slavery, ameliorate the conditions of blacks, or even encourage private manumission. At the of end his life Jefferson flatly declared: "on the subject of emancipation I have ceased to think because [it is] not to be a work of my day."
Jefferson and Race
In Query XIV of Notes, "Laws," Jefferson discusses his proposal for the emancipation and removal of Virginia's slaves—a proposal that he never introduced to a lawmaking body. Arguing that free blacks could not coexist with whites in Virginia, he writes: "Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race." He then goes on to enumerate the aesthetic reasons that whites and blacks cannot coexist. The passage is remarkable, revealing Jefferson's personal fears, his hatreds, and his ideas about sex. He argues that whites are better looking than blacks and that black men prefer white women to black women "as uniformly as is the preference of the [Orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species."
Jefferson's negrophobia was profound. A scientist and naturalist, he nevertheless accepted and repeated unscientific and illogical arguments about blackness. He suggested that blackness might come "from the colour of the blood." He asserted "they secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor," while never considering that his slaves were unable to bathe after working in hot tobacco fields. He remarks upon their "disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour" and compares them to animals, never considering that his slaves might be physically exhausted from overwork.
Anticipating the argument that the harsh conditions of slavery in America prevented blacks from achieving distinction in science, art, or literature, Jefferson asserts that Roman slaves had no such problem because "they were of the race of whites." He also holds up American Indians as a race of people who have "a germ in their minds which only" lacked education. He argued that Indians were capable of "the most sublime oratory." But he claimed he never found a black who "had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture." Jefferson concedes that blacks are brave, but this was due to "a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present." In other words, Jefferson believed blacks were loyal and brave because they were unintelligent.
Jefferson's views on race made it impossible for him to support any end to slavery, even though he also acknowledges in Notes the "unhappy influence" of the practice on Virginia. Black freedom would doom his way of life, which depended on unpaid black labor. And in his eyes, black freedom would also doom America by flooding it with oversexed, intellectually and morally inferior black people. This may be why he approached any emancipation plan with an impossible—or at least prohibitively expensive—condition: repatriation. Race made black slavery both possible and necessary to Jefferson.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Finkelman, P. Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. (2018, September 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_Thomas_and_Slavery.
- MLA Citation:
Finkelman, Paul. "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Sep. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: July 24, 2018 | Last modified: September 20, 2018
Contributed by Paul Finkelman, the president of Gratz College, a scholar of slavery and the law, and the author of more than fifty books.