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Jefferson and His Views on Slavery

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(Editor’s note: This history lesson on Thomas Jefferson and his views and actions concerning slavery is worth reading.)

Recently, leaders of the Democratic Party of Connecticut voted unanimously to delete the name of Thomas Jefferson from their annual fundraising dinner. Jefferson was, after all, a slave owner. Democrats in other states are reportedly considering similar action.

Hopefully, we can all agree that both slavery and racism are wrong. On Dec. 6 we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery throughout America. But racism will likely continue so long as there is ignorance, and all Americans have a shared interest in eradicating that.

Yet the assumption that Thomas Jefferson was pro-slavery is not close to the truth. Indeed, when the Thirteenth Amendment was introduced into the U.S. Senate in 1864, the sponsors explained that — in order to honor Jefferson’s courageous struggle against slavery — they had chosen for their amendment language Jefferson had proposed eight decades earlier while drafting rules on behalf of the Second Continental Congress for the governance of the Western Territory (which Virginia had given to the new nation).
Jefferson wrote in 1784:

“That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been convicted to have been personally guilty.”

Sadly, Jefferson’s effort failed by a single vote, leading him to later lament: “heaven was silent in that awful moment!” He denounced slavery as “an abominable crime,” and struggled for decades to eliminate it.

Jefferson has been called America’s first abolitionist because in 1769 he made an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Virginia legislature to permit slave owners to free their slaves. (He had inherited slaves from his father and father-in-law, and for most of his life freeing them was illegal in Virginia without formal approval of the governor and his council for exceptional services rendered.)

Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence said of King George III: “He has waged 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, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.” Sadly, the language was deleted to retain the support of South Carolina and Georgia and to appease northern delegates who represented merchants profiting from the slave trade.

Like virtually everyone in his generation, Jefferson was a racist and questioned the intellectual capacity of black slaves. But he was a reluctant racist, declaring that no one would be happier

than himself to see his tentative conclusions disproven. He noted his observations might well be the consequence of being held in human bondage, and declared: “Whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights.”

In contrast, George Washington never once spoke out against slavery during his public life, nor did Lincoln until 1854.

Some have noted that, unlike Washington, Jefferson did not free his slaves in his will. First of all, since Washington fathered no children, providing in his will that his slaves would be emancipated after he and Martha died was hardly a sacrifice. Jefferson died more than $100,000 in debt — millions in today’s dollars, much of it inherited along with slaves — and Section 54 of the 1818 Revised Code of Virginia prohibited the emancipation of slaves until the decedent’s debts had been satisfied.

The story that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemings is almost certainly a myth. DNA tests in 1998 showed that one of the more than two dozen Jefferson males in Virginia in 1807 likely fathered Sally’s son Eston, but no DNA sample from Thomas Jefferson was available for testing. Eston’s descendants passed down the story he was the son of a Jefferson “uncle,” and the president’s brother Randolph — documented by a slave account to have spent his nights at Monticello playing his fiddle and “dancing half the night” with the president’s slaves — was widely known as “Uncle Randolph.” A yearlong examination of all of the evidence by more than a dozen senior scholars from across the country concluded, with but a single mild dissent, that the story is probably false.

Hopefully, today most Americans of both parties recognize the evils of slavery and the correlation between racism and ignorance. It is both ironic and sad for the Connecticut Democratic Party to display its own ignorance by removing the name of Thomas Jefferson from this annual event.

(This column first ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch on August 10, 2015)

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