The Abolition of Slavery from Thomas Jefferson’s Perspective
Thomas Jefferson, throughout his life, was a consistent opponent of slavery and slave trade. In numerous occasions, he referred to it as a hideous blot and a moral depravity. He also claimed that it was the biggest threat to the continued existence of the new American nation. From a philosophical standpoint, he argued that slavery contravened the laws of nature, which proclaimed that every individual had a right to personal liberty. Jefferson’s antislavery views were radical, especially considering that the elite society valued free labor so much. During the American Revolution, Jefferson played a leading role in establishing legislation that he hoped would lead to the abolition of slavery. For instance, in 1978 he created a law in Virginia that banned the importation of enslaved black persons. In 1784, he suggested an ordinance that would prohibit slavery in Northwest territories.
Even as a leader and a revered abolitionist, Jefferson maintained that emancipating needed to be sanctioned by a majority of slave owners. According to the ideals of the American Revolution, it would have been wrong for the federal government to ban slavery. He also disliked the idea that only some whites free their slaves. Thus, any decision to ban slavery was to follow a democratic process. Despite his efforts, slavery in Virginia only increased in scale. For example, the slave population in the state in 1790 was 292,627 while in 1830, it was 469,757. Meanwhile, Jefferson himself continued to own slaves even though he was a leading crusader for the abolition of the practice. His stance of admonishing slavery from the outside yet practicing it himself has made many people to consider him hypocritical. Furthermore, many people believe that he was not a serious abolitionist, as he had appeared to be. This paper will discuss Thomas Jefferson’s paradoxical stance against slavery, where despite appearing to advocate for its abolition, he continued to practice until his death.
Thomas Jefferson and Abolition of Slavery
Following the death of his father in 1757, Thomas Jefferson inherited twenty slaves and more than 5,000 acres of land. Even though he was an upcoming anti-slavery crusader, the relatively young politician did not abandon the practice of slave holding. In fact, he increased the number of slaves in his farm such that by 1774 he had 42 slaves. Apart from their own reproduction, Jefferson increased this number by purchasing more slaves. Around this time, Jefferson also acquired an additional 135 slaves and 11,000 acres as his share of the large estate of John Wayles, his father in law. However, debts accrued on this property forced him to sell approximately half of the new land. Even then, he was left with an estate encompassing more than ten thousand acres. He maintained this size up until his death.
Boasting a vast piece of land, Jefferson could not do without the services of enslaved Africans. As a result, he maintained more than hundred slaves. For instance, he owned 187 enslaved men, women and children around 1774. This figure would vary from year to year due to deaths, births, sales and further purchases. In 1783, he held 204 slaves despite the fact that the British had snatched thirty from his estate. In 1798, he sold more than fifty slaves as a repayment to his debts. This left him with 147 slaves. However, by 1810, he had increased this number to 197. In 1822, the number had soared to a remarkable 267. These increases happened despite his many efforts to abolish the practice.
After inheriting the land and African slaves from his father in law, Jefferson became the second wealthiest person in Albemarle County. He was also ranked as one of the richest in Virginia. This new found status and level of influence did not deter him from campaigning for the abolition of slave trade and slavery itself during the next decade. However, many scholars have disputed the notion that he was a staunch campaigner since he continued practicing it on his vast farm. In 1774, when the American opposition to British occupation was an extremely high level, Jefferson faulted the British monarch for disallowing Virginia laws that would have ended slave trade within the colony. In one letter, he writes:
For the most trifling reasons, … his majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. 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 … have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative.
Jefferson appeared to take a more positive stance in his opposition to slave trade even as the relational crisis between America and England deepened. For instance, in a 1776 draft of a Constitution for Virginia, he included a provision proclaiming that no person coming into the state would be held under slavery of any kind. However, this document was never adopted. This did not deter him as he continued to attack slave trade. His draft of the Declaration of Independence included a radical paragraph that mirrored the following remarks, made 1774, where he accused George III of:[waging a] cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him … This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.
It is paradoxical that Jefferson made such harsh remarks in spite of the fact that part of his fortune was founded upon profits obtained from slave trade. His biological father as well as father in law had been involved in this commerce while several of his slaves bore African names. In addition, the living quarters of his slaves were indicated with appellations, such as Guinea and Angola. Jefferson’s widely used message was that slavery desecrated the most sacred and innate rights of life and freedom of a distant people. From these words, it is clear that black men had been denied their rights by being compelled to work as slaves. On the other hand, this message does not suggest that Jefferson considered blacks as equals to whites. For instance, in 1784, he expressed his thoughts that blacks were naturally inferior to whites. This suggests throughout his life, he believed that even though he was fighting for their rights, they should not be granted equal status to whites. This apparent contradiction perhaps explains why his remarks were in contravention to what he actually practiced.
As a slave owner, Jefferson was always circumspect when dealing directly with the issue of abolition. During his first stint in the House of Burgesses, he supported a motion for the espousal of law that would allow slaveholders to manumit their slaves. However, the motion did not pass. In an ironical twist, when a similar law was passed in 1782, he did not free his own slaves. This implies that his was mere rhetoric. In several instances after that, he came up with specific plans calling for emancipation but he was not vigorous in pushing for their adoption. This meant that only 1784 Ordinance came to the public for consideration. This does not mean that Jefferson’s effort did not bear any fruits. For instance, in 1778, slave trade was outlawed in Virginia. Even though his exact involvement that led to the implementation of this law has been debated by historians and scholars, it cannot be contested that he had at least created the necessary climate for its passing.
Contrary to Jefferson’s expectations, emancipation of slaves did not occur after the law had come into force. In the same breath, a case was made that outlawing slave trade did not necessarily translate to prohibiting slavery. This meant that some masters feared that the price of slaves would go up significantly if the trade was cut off. This presented Jefferson with another challenge, especially considering that he himself kept slaves. Therefore, while this law was intended to abolish slavery, according to the thinking of Jefferson, its technical flaw made it toothless. As such, the population of slaves only increased in Virginia.
In 1776, Jefferson was appointed to a committee that was to revise, codify, and modernize Virginia statutes. One of his appointments was to draw up a law dealing with slaves. It took him two years to draft this law. However, it disappointed antislavery crusaders since he did not strengthen the anti-slave trade law. Instead, he codified statutes that prohibited backs from testifying against their white masters. His version also forbade slaves from possessing arms or leaving the estates of their holders without a pass. In the same breath, it supported the common penalty of whipping slaves when they make offenses, such as rioting, running away, and presenting subversive speeches, which had been established in earlier legislations.
In a move that would reflect his public viewpoints regarding slave trade, he included provisions that would check the number of enslaved Africans in Virginia. For example, they were not allowed to go to Virginia on their own volition. They were also prohibited from remaining in the state for more than a year after being set free. Furthermore, a white woman who bore a child to a black person was required to leave Virginia within a year. As punishment for violation of these rules, offenders would lose their right to protection. This implies that they would be re-enslaved or be attacked by their neighbors. Such attacks could result in deaths, which was undoubtedly the most severe punishment.
Some scholars have suggested that Jefferson might have included these punishments while having the belief that slavery would die out gradually since there would be no new recruits to replace the existing ones. However, this may not be true since he had a personal experience with slaves and was well aware of their population growth trends. For example, between 1774 and 1778, his slaves gave birth to twenty-two children. The number of deaths during this period was twelve. This shows that his attempts at checking their population by banning importation were not always going to reduce their numbers since they could still increase in number naturally. Some other scholars have since suggested that Jefferson was more concerned with the possibility of unrest amongst the slave population if it became considerably large. Therefore, the most effective way of countering this threat was to let them increase systematically through reproduction.
In 1784, Jefferson made his greatest attempts to establish a legislation that would end slavery. The legislation, called the Bill Pertaining to Slaves, was to free all slaves born after the bill has passed. More importantly, this act stipulated that after undergoing education for a particular period, these blacks would be colonized to a place that circumstances of the time deemed proper. Jefferson added this provision since he always believed that the whites and blacks could not live peacefully together. Moreover, he believed that these races were not equal and thus could not coexist in a plane of equality. Colonization, while different from slaveholding, still ensured that blacks would remain inferior to whites. Nevertheless, when the bill was presented for final action, the colonization provision had been removed. Considering that it was extremely controversial, Jefferson might have feared that it would significantly reduce the chances of the bill passing through the legislature. He also did not think that the conditions were right for the colonization process. This bill did not pass.
During the years that he was actively involved in politics, Jefferson’s single most important abolitionist act was writing a clause in the 1784 Ordinance that would have prohibited slavery in the western territory after 1800. His proposal followed the germ of the free soil ideology that was widely applied in the 19th century. This proposal permitted slavery in areas where it had taken root and tried to stop its expansion to other areas. In essence, this law did not outlaw slavery, as Jefferson would have publicly wanted. The Ordinance of 1784 did not pass by one vote. Even if it had passed, slavery would have been legal in the region for another sixteen years. This is arguably a sufficient amount of time for the practice of slavery to take a foothold in the area. Thus, chances are high that it would have been repealed in 1800. The motivation for Jefferson to include a 16-year grace period has baffled many scholars. Some historians have used this to discredit his fight against slavery, arguing that it was mostly halfhearted.
The Ordinance of 1784 marked his last major public attempt to end or at least limit slavery. From then, he mainly voiced his opposition through private letters to men who had similar views to his. In most of these letters, he clearly expressed his contempt for slavery and campaigned for its abolition. As such, he is reputed as one of the foremost opponents of the practice. However, even though he rose to become the president of the United States, he was unable to end the practice. Indeed, by the time he ascended to the presidency in 1800, he had long ceased to be a staunch public advocate for the abolition of slavery.
One key theme that emerges from evaluation of Jefferson’s perspective regarding slavery is his steadfast stand against slave trade. Even though this was a widespread practice, the general public opinion was that it was immoral. As a result, Jefferson took a radical stand in this regard. His laws pertaining to slave trade were created with the possibility of immediate implementation. On the other hand, his stand against slavery was relatively moderate. A possible explanation is that this practice was widely supported by the white population.
Just like most politicians, he tended to take a position that would not alienate him from the voting public. Therefore, even though he was against the tradition of holding another man to slavery, he was not as fervent in calling for its abolition as much as he was at eliminating slave trade. This explains why his most important proposal permitted slavery for sixteen years before it is considered for prohibition. He also codified state laws that would punish freed slaves, where some could be condemned to death if they were pounced upon by an angry white population. However, the most important paradox in his antislavery crusade was that he continued to keep slaves in his own farm.
The contradiction in Jefferson’s actual slaveholding practice and advocacy stemmed from his beliefs regarding racial equality. Even though he argued that blacks had an inherent right to liberty, he believed that they were not equal to whites. As a consequence, they could not be given an equal status even if they were freed from bondage. Most of his proposals recommended that after emancipation, all freed slaves should be expatriated out of Virginia. Any freed slave who stayed behind for more than a year would lose his/her protection and thus could be subjected to physical attacks by the public. Furthermore, any white woman who had a child with a black man was required to leave the state within a year. All these provisions illustrate his convictions that it would be impossible to integrate blacks into the state. In addition, white prejudice would remind freed slaves of their past and encourage them to cause public disorders.
Jefferson’s descriptions of the physical and moral characteristics of blacks also demonstrate how he looked down upon them. In general, he thought that blacks were more animalistic and unrefined when compared to whites. For example, he found the variation in coloration of whites as well as their flowing more beautiful than the grim veil of black that hid their emotions. He also believed that blacks preferred whites than their own. In the same vein, he observed that blacks urinate less than whites do even though they sweat more. As a result, they had a strong and distasteful body odor. Another characteristic that made them better slaves was that they needed less sleep while their grievances were merely temporary. Although he believed that that their memory was equal to that of whites, he felt that they were inferior in their capacity to reason. As pertains to imagination, he observed that they were tasteless, dull, and anomalous.
Popular black artists and scholars at the time did not impress Jefferson that much. For instance, poetess Phillis Wheatley, whose works received widespread recognition, did not escape his criticism. He once wrote that her compositions were way below the dignity of criticism. In 1791, he appeared impressed by Benjamin Banneker, a black mathematician, who solved some intriguing geometrical equations. However, in 1809, he pointed out that Banneker had been assisted by a white while coming up with the solutions. In another damning account, he claimed that a Banneker letter to him showed that he was of a very common stature.
Jefferson’s views regarding blacks meant that he was not steadfast in advocating for their freedom from slavery. In numerous occasions, he asserted that their inferiority was not as a result of their bondage condition; rather, it came from nature. He always advanced the idea that blacks were inferior to whites in both mind and body. Nevertheless, he could not account for the role of nature in bringing about this difference. This viewpoint ensured that his arguments to abolish slavery did not receive stiff opposition from other whites. To appeal to black sympathizers, Jefferson always mused that blacks had a moral sense. In this regard, they were more or less equal to whites. Had he claimed otherwise, it would have amounted to saying that blacks were not human beings. At the time, it was widely believed that the key difference between humans and animals was the presence of a moral sense. Therefore, if he had said that blacks lacked this sense, he would have implied that they are animals. Such a perception would have caused a public outcry, even from the slaveholding whites.
Jefferson’s contradicting views regarding slaves suggest that he was using the antislavery crusade to advance his political career. On one hand, he publicly admonished slavery and the practice of holding another person in bondage. On the other, he publicly voiced his opinion that they were not equal enough to be given the same rights as whites. More importantly, the way he treated his slaves showed that what he was pushing for was far from what he actually wanted. For a man that thought that it was immoral to hold another person against his will, one expects that he would set an example by setting his slaves free even if they could not be granted equal opportunities. If this was untenable, he would have at least treated them differently. However, his behavior as a politician and farmer was not particularly different from that of other white slaveholders. For example, the workload of his slaves was comparable to that of other whites in Virginia. Meanwhile, his conduct when dealing with runaways or selling slaves was identical to the common practice. Jefferson, just like the rest, used any means to protect what they considered to be their property.
Throughout his adult life, Jefferson employed slave catchers to watch and recapture runaways. He also asked his neighbors to keep an eye over his thralls to raise an alarm when his slaves attempted to escape. In a particular case, James Hubbard, a stout slave that worked at Jefferson’s plantation nail factory made an elaborate plan to escape in 1805. His plan was successful at first. However, he was captured and returned to the farm. After about five years, he made another escape. This time, he was not apprehended immediately. After about a year, Jefferson learnt that his former slave was living in Lexington. He promptly dispatched a search team to the area to look for the fugitive. Unfortunately for him, Hubbard had left some few days earlier to an unknown location.
Jefferson had a conviction to recapture Hubbard in order to teach him a lesson. Thus, he gave his slave catcher 25 dollars as a bonus if he captured the fugitive. As fate would have it, Hubbard was rearrested and brought back to his master in irons. Jefferson ordered for a severe flogging in front of his other slaves as a warning. After that, he vowed that Hubbard would not work for another man as a slave. Plans to sell Hubbard backfired after he disappeared for the third time. This behavior was unbecoming for a man that was supposedly fighting for the abolition of slavery and humane treatment of blacks.
Another contradicting element of Jefferson’s advocacy emerged from his approach towards slave trade. During his stint in Virginia legislature, he made it clear that it was unethical for a man to own another and that it was wrong to sell another man. In many accounts, he expressed his distaste for this type of commerce. However, this did not deter him from engaging in it. While in many cases he sold his slaves when they misbehaved or at their own request, he developed a habit of meeting his cash demands by selling some of them. In such instances, the wishes of slaves did not matter. In this regard, he actively engaged in a vice that he publicly disliked so much.
Some scholars have defended Jefferson for engaging in slave trade by arguing that it was a necessary way of uniting slave families or paying off debts. However, this is far from the truth. In 1805, he once made his intention of purchasing young black men to work in his farm public. This shows that his motives for holding slaves and buying them were similar to those of other slaveholders. Moreover, his treatment of enslaved Africans does not suggest that he was any better than other whites. As an entrepreneur, Jefferson was always concerned with expanding his capital assets: land and slaves. Considering that he was normally short of cash, he never made attempts at increasing his land. Thus, he made elaborate plans to ensure that his other commodity, slaves, never diminished. Slave labor and trade was one of his vital sources of income. His most effective way of maintaining the slave population was creating a group of breeding women. From 1810 to 1822, these women gave birth to around 100 more slaves.
Another contradicting feature of Jefferson’s advocacy was his reluctance to emancipate slaves. For a man that publicly disliked the practice of slaveholding, one would think that he was humane enough to set free a significant number of his slaves. However, this is not the case. It is estimated that Jefferson emancipated only two slaves throughout his lifetime. Even then, one of them bought his own freedom. This implies that he freed only one slave in his life. When he died in 1826, he manumitted five slaves. The rest, numbering more than 260, were willed to his heirs. Out of the seven slaves that he freed, five came from a mulatto family, which directly descended from his father in law. This family was always favored. Recent findings have showed that the Jefferson’s had sexual relations with members of this family. This means that Jefferson freed only one person.
Thomas Jefferson was a man of multiple dimensions. Thus, any explanation of his conduct and approach towards slavery contains a variety of contradictions. For example, he appeared to be a sincere and committed opponent to slave trade. However, he sold and bought slaves whenever he found it necessary. He also believed that all men had a right to life and freedom irrespective of their natural abilities; yet he ran after those slaves that had the audacity to take their rights by escaping. He even punished them for doing this. Jefferson always believed that slavery was politically and morally wrong but still wrote a slave code for Virginia. He also made a proposal that would condone slavery and allow it to take root in his region before it is reconsidered for implementation. When he was the US president, he did not make dedicated efforts to establish a law that would ban slavery. Considering that this had been campaign even before he joined the state legislature, he was disappointing in this regard. He even had a slave-breeding program that would ensure the continuity of slavery in his own farm.
Jefferson’s ironical proslavery behavior is as a result of a complex set of factors. This included his belief in black inferiority, his ownership of a large piece of land that he inherited from his two parents (father and father in law) and an environment that took for granted the act of enslaving another race. These factors meant that even though he publicly disliked the practice, he could not possibly do without it. His status, wealth, and political position were founded on the system of slavery. Therefore, his conviction to the abolition movement was shaky.
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 David Davis, B, Inhuman Bondage The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 398.
 Philip Schwartz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865 (Union, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 1998), p. 197.
 William Cohen ‘Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery’, The Journal of American History, Vol 56, 3 (1969), 503-26 (p. 506).
 William, p. 506.
 Fliegelman Jay and American Council of Learned Societies, Declaring Independence : Jefferson, Natural Language & the Culture of Performance (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993).
 William, p. 507.
 Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, ed. by Michael Hardt (London: Verso, 2007), p. 13.
 Annie Qaiser, How to Analyze the Works of Thomas Jefferson (Minneapolis: ABDO Publishing Company, 2013), p. 58.
 Fawn Brodie, M., Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York : London: Norton, 1974), p. 499.
 Ari Helo, and Peter Onuf. ‘Jefferson, morality, and the problem of slavery.’ The William and Mary Quarterly 60. 3 (2003), 583-614 (p. 585).
 Francis Cogliano, Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (1st paperback ed. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), p. 201.
 William, p. 508.
 Merrill Jensen, English Historical Documents (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955), p. 480.
 William, p. 509.
 Freehling, William, ‘The Founding Fathers and Slavery’, The American Historical Review, 77.1 (1972), 81-93 (p. 84).
 Rick Halpem and Enrico Dal Lago. Slavery and Emancipation (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), p. 108.
 Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), p. 123.
 David Davis, B., Was Thomas Jefferson an authentic enemy of slavery? An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford on 18 February (1970. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970), p. 2.
 Noble Cunningham, E., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 1st Ballantine Books ed ( New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 124.
 Charles Sanford B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1988), p. 80.
 Don Kales, ‘Abolition, Deportation, Integration: Attitudes toward Slavery in the Early Republic’, The Journal of Negro History, 53.1 (1968), 33-47 (p. 45).
 Finkelman, Paul, ‘Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery: The Myth Goes On’, The Virginia Magazine History and Biography, 102. 2 (1994), 193-228 (p. 206).
 Joseph J Ellis., American Sphinx (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), p. 59.
 Thomas Jefferson The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. by Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: The Modern library, 1944), p. 243.
 Thomas Jefferson and Magnis E., Nicholas, ‘Thomas Jefferson and Slavery: An Analysis of His Racist Thinking as Revealed by His Writings and Political Behavior’, Journal of Black Studies, 29. 4 (1999), 491-509 (p. 494).
 William, p. 513.
 Charles Miller, A., Jefferson and Nature: An Interpretation (London: Baltimore, Md and Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 2.
 John Diggins, ‘Slavery, Race, and Equality: Jefferson and the Pathos of the Enlightenment,’ American Quarterly, 28.2, (1976), 206-228 (p. 214).
 John Miller, C, The Wolf By the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), p. 5.
 Larry Madaras and James SoRelle, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in American History (New York: McGraw Hill, 408), p. 173.
 Alastair Sweeney, Fire Along the Frontier: Great Battles of the War of 1812 (Toronto: Dundurn Publishers, 2012), p. 258.
 Thomas Jefferson, ‘Query XIV, Laws’, Notes On the State of Virginia, ed. by William Peden (New York: Norton, 1972), p. 123.
 Jo-Ann Morgan, Uncle Tom’s Cabin As Visual Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007), p. 117.
 Sneed Collard, Thomas Jefferson: Let Freedom Ring! (New York: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2009), p. 26.
 Annette Gordon Reed. ‘Engaging Jefferson: Blacks and the Founding Father’, The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 57.1 (2000), 171-182 (p. 177).