Thomas Jefferson is this complicated mix of very good and very bad, in much the same way the United States is a complicated mix of good and bad. On the one hand, Jefferson was one of the strongest voices among the Founding Fathers against slavery and he tried various times in the 1770s and early 1780s to pass legislation in the Virginia state legislature and the Continental Congress to end abolish slavery and end the slave trade. He wrote The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and was the main force for fighting for the separation of Church and State. During Jefferson’s time in the Virginia legislature, he proposed laws to end primogeniture to allow more people to own land and have the ability to vote. And he enshrined in our Declaration of Independence the values of freedom and equality.
On the other hand, Jefferson held racist viewpoints on the inferiority of blacks that were not shared by his contemporaries like John and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton. He sold off slaves to pay off debts and allowed the flogging of captured runaway slaves. And his relationship with Sally Hemmings brings up disturbing questions about his private life that are important to examine.
So my feelings for Jefferson are very complicated and mixed.
I tend to see Thomas Jefferson not as a saint or as evil, but as a complex mix of good and bad. I don’t want to conjecture on the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, but I do share the outrage that many people have at the historic rape of slave women by white Southern slave owners before slavery was abolished. Since the primary focus of many Jefferson critics have to do with Jefferson’s views on slavery and race, I’ll post the positive side and the negative side of Jefferson. I respect Jefferson’s efforts to try to abolish slavery and end the slave trade, but deplore Jefferson’s personal views on the inferiority of African Americans as a race.
Jefferson At His Best
In 1769, Jefferson collaborated with senior member Richard Bland to introduce a law to the Virginia House of Burgesses, a British institution that would have allowed individuals to free slaves simply on their signature. They were heckled and shouted down and the bill was rejected.
On October 18, 1769, Jefferson at no charge took the case of Samuel Howell, a person of mixed race, who was suing for his freedom at a Virginia county court. Jefferson argued that every person has a natural right to liberty. Lord Botetourt, the Royal Governor of Virginia, dismissed the case.
In 1774, Jefferson wrote an indictment of slavery in his document A Summary View of the Rights of British America. He wrote:
The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.
In 1776, Jefferson was appointed the chairman of the Virginia Revisors Committee. On June 16, 1777, Jefferson proposed a law banning the importation of slaves from outside the country into Virginia that passed the Virginia legislature in 1778.
On June 18, 1779, Jefferson introduced a bill to the Virginia General Assembly to free all slaves that did not pass the legislature.
In 1783 Jefferson proposed a constitution for Virginia that called for the freedom of everyone born after 1800. Jefferson’s proposal was rejected. The proposal stated:
The general assembly shall not have the power to infringe this constitution;…permit the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state, or the continuance of slavery beyond the generation which shall be living on the 31st day of December 1800; all persons born after that day being herby declared free.
In 1784, Jefferson submitted to the Continental Congress the Report on Government for Western Territory that proposed to ban slavery from all new states of the western territories. The representative from New Jersey, James Beatty, who would have supported the prohibition, stayed home with a cold. The proposal failed to pass by a single vote. Jefferson would privately write:
The voice of a single individual…would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country. Thus we see the fate of millions of unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment.
Finally in 1806, when Jefferson was President of the U.S., he asked Congress to end the slave trade in his sixth annual address to Congress. He said in his address:
I congratulate you, fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe. Although no law you may pass can take prohibitory effect Ôtil the 1st day of the year 1808, yet the intervening period is not too long to prevent by timely notice expeditions which can not be completed before that day.
Congress passed the bill ending the slave trade. Jefferson signed the bill into law on January 1, 1808
I got most of this information from this website.
Jefferson At His Worse
Jefferson wrote several passages stating his opinion on the inferiority of the African American race. Here are several quotes from his book Notes on the State of Virginia where he writes about his opinions on race.
Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.
Here is another passage where Jefferson expresses his opinion on racial beauty:
The first difference [between whites and blacks] which strikes us is that of color. . . . The difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of color in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?
In this passage Jefferson expresses his opinion on the intelligence between races:
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where 2 the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America.
In this passage, Jefferson expresses his opinion on the superiority of one race over the other:
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
Jefferson really doesn’t have an excuse for having these racist views. Several of his fellow Revolutionary compatriots, like John and Abigail Adams, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton, did not share Jefferson’s racist views about the inferiority of the black race.
George Washington had initially held racist views about African Americans. But he changed his views on race during the Revolutionary War. About a fourth of the Continental Army were African American and Washington grew to respect the courage of these African American soldiers. Washington invited black poet Phillis Wheatley to his camp because of his admiration for her poetry. When Washington died, he stipulated in his will that all of his slaves would be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. To aid any old and infirm free former slaves, property of Mount Vernon would be sold to raise funds for their aid.
Benjamin Franklin changed his views on race when he visited a Philadelphia school and saw that black students were just as smart and capable as the white students. After the revolution, Ben Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, a group dedicated to the abolition of slavery, in 1787. In 1790, Franklin sponsored a petition by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society to get Congress to enact measures to gradually abolish slavery and end the slave trade. Franklin believed that the welfare clause in the Constitution empowered Congress to take these measures. It was debated in the House and faced opposition from the Congressmen of Georgia and North and South Carolina. The petition was tabled by Virginia Congressman James Madison in March 1790. Franklin died in April 1790.
Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were founding members of the New York Manumission Society, a group dedicated to the abolition of slavery in the state of New York. They set up lists to protect freed African Americans from being kidnapped into slavery (something depicted by the movie 12 Years a Slave) and petitioned the New York legislature for decades to get the state to end slavery. During the 1790s, Hamilton was not as involved in the Society, but he would offer legal advice to the group. In 1799, New York passed a Gradual Emancipation act that freed slave children born after July 4, 1799, but indentured them until they were young adults. It passed through a state legislature dominated by Federalists (Alexander Hamilton’s political party) and it was signed into law by state governor John Jay.
While Washington, Franklin and Hamilton thought that African Americans were equal to whites and could eventually be integrated into American society, Jefferson thought that blacks would have to be deported from this country once slavery was abolished.
When Jefferson’s slaves would try to escape, Jefferson would have some of them flogged in front of the other slaves. Jefferson would allow slave boys to be whipped that were working in his nail factory in Monticello. He would sell slaves to other plantation owners to get money to pay his debts, even if that meant separating slave families.
Jefferson also wrote about his opposition to miscegenation, or interracial marriage. This seems very hypocritical considering the children that he fathered with Sally Hemmings.
I don’t know enough about the relationship between Jefferson and Hemmings to make any definite judgement on that relationship. Though Sally Hemmings was never freed by Jefferson, his daughter Martha inherited Hemmings and informally freed her. Though she was not legally freed, Hemmings lived the rest of her life as if she was free.
Even if you ignore the implications of the Jefferson/Hemmings relationship, though, there is enough deplorable things that Jefferson wrote on race and his willingness to separate slave families and flog runaway slaves that would be objectionable.
If you look at Jefferson at his best and you look at Jefferson at his worst, it’s like you’re looking at Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. If you hate Jefferson, there is ample things in his life that you could choose to justify that hate. And if you love Jefferson, you can find a lot of things in his life to justify that love.
Because of this Jeckyll and Hyde quality about Jefferson, I have this love/hate view of him.
Here are some good books on Thomas Jefferson and slavery
The Hemmings of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis
Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty by John Boles
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham
Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf
Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves by Henry Wiencek
Those Who Labor For My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by Lucia C. Stanton