Jefferson on Slavery

Our society has come to believe that Thomas Jefferson was a racist who actually supported the institution of slavery.  Unfortunately, the historic record is a lot less clear on this issue than we are today, but then, given the process by which we have come to hold this opinion of Jefferson, it is not unexpected that the actual record would fifer with our opinions: we care more today about bending history to support our political agenda than we do for understanding it.

I have tried to read what was written at the time of our founders, and to understand the times as well as the men, themselves.  This has led me to read as much as I can find from that time period (I will admit I seldom trust modern sources).  What I have found has convinced me that, while he may have held some personal positions that we would call racist today, the accusations against Jefferson do not hold up to what I have discovered.  Perhaps you will allow me to share with you just how easy it is to find the truth for yourself?

 It starts with Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating

it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of

a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying

them to slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable

death in their transportations thither. 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 & sold, he has prostituted his negative for

suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain

determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold

this excrable commerce ^ and that this assemblage of horrors might

want no fact of distiguished die, he is now exciting those very

people to rise in arms against us, and to purchase that liberty

of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom

he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes which he

urges them to commit against the lives of another.

And continues with a simple Google search for “Jefferson anti-slavery:”

Then you just start reading and you will find:

Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery throughout his life.[1]   He considered it contrary to the laws of nature that decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. He called the institution an “abominable crime,” a “moral depravity,” a “hideous blot,” and a “fatal stain” that deformed “what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts.”

Early in his political career Jefferson took actions that he hoped would end in slavery’s abolition. He drafted the Virginia law of 1778 prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784 he proposed an ordinance banning slavery in the new territories of the Northwest. From the mid-1770s he advocated a plan of gradual emancipation, by which all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free.

“The Abolition of Slavery, the Great Object of Desire in these Colonies”

–by Thomas Jefferson

Keep looking into this issue and you will discover that Jefferson could not free his slaves: it was against the law at the time.  You will also find he tried to change these laws – many times.  He also helped in the anti-slavery effort in this nation his entire life.  Look long enough and, eventually, your search will end up at the quote on the Jefferson memorial in Washington D.C.:

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have removed their only firm basis: a conviction in the minds of men that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

Now, many people know this quote, but how many are aware that these words were uttered in connection to Jefferson’s opposition to slavery?  You see, Jefferson foresaw that the national rift over the issue of slavery would eventually lead to conflict and he feared for our nation as a result.

Jefferson was a divided man.  He often lived in what appears to be contradiction to his stated beliefs.  Unfortunately, we have lost our understanding of who this great American hero actually was, what he believed and why.  Jefferson possesses a strong sense of duty and servitude that compelled him to do things with which he did not agree because of his beliefs about the proper role of the public servant.  If you bother to look, you’ll find abundant evidence of this.  In fact, the whole issue of separating Church and State is connected to this characteristic of Jefferson’s personal nature.

This is literally just a taste of what I have found.  I have so much more but, honestly, if this does not change the reader’s mind, nothing I can do or say and no amount of historic evidence I present will manage to do so.  One either holds an allegiance to the truth, or to their personal and political agenda.  I just thank you for allowing me the opportunity to present the evidence behind my understanding of Jefferson and his position on slavery.

36 thoughts on “Jefferson on Slavery

  1. WELL DONE. This all seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember where I read or learned it…. Seriously. I am pretty sure I do know what I was doing at the time I read these things, my attention was directed and focused on other aspects of “learning” at the time…. : )

    • Why does it matter?
      Thomas Jefferson was a visionary. He was writing and urging LIBERTY for ALL.

      Your question pre-supposes B’s “alcoholic” argument logic. If an alcoholic points out that alcoholism is bad, is the fact that an alcoholic is the one who pointed out that alcoholism is bad, make alcoholism NOT BAD?

      • Oftentimes, those who have actually lived mistakes, are best able to articulate and “see” a new and better solution and recognize the pitfalls of the past.

        • This is why people need to actually do some research on their own and be skeptical of anything the media and even supposed experts claim about Jefferson: THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE THAT JEFFERSON FATHERED A CHILD WITH SALLY HEMINGS!

          The Case of Jefferson and Hemings
          A review of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed
          and In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal, by William G. Hyland, Jr.

          In the new introduction to her 1997 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, she was careful to note that “the DNA test does not prove that the descendant of Eston Hemings [Sally’s youngest child] was a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson,” and she maintained this disclaimer all the way through the most recent printing in 2009. But in her newest book, The Hemingses of Monticello (2008), she succumbs, returning again and again to the assumption that Thomas Jefferson fathered all seven of the Hemings children. ”

          If you take the time to look, you will find that the majority of the supposed ‘studies’ that have claimed to have proven Jefferson fathered Heming’s child were later retracted. It is just that they were retracted quietly, and usually months after the press heralded the story. The effect is to leave the public believing that a lie is the truth. It is difficult to accept that this is anything but intentional, or that the purpose is any but to destroy the reputation of Jefferson so as to undermine the importance of his work and the principles he championed so as to make room for the secular humanist agenda. But it would require another post to show these connections and, as has been proven here, those who do not already know the situation will not accept the evidence I provide, so i am little motivated to spend the time and energy necessary to tilt at windmills.

          • I don’t think him fathering children from Sally in any way destroys his reputation. It’s not like that wasn’t a common thing in slave owners to take concubines. That’s supposedly how Sally was born to TJ’s father in law. Sally’s mother has been said to be John Wayles (TJ’s wife’s dad) concubine.

            The race mixing started somewhere and right there is as good a place as any. The only issue that I see with it is that if it’s true that her oldest daughter is from TJ himself or any of his kin then they were banging a 14-15 yr old. Again that wouldn’t be uncommon for that time but still a bit young for my liking.

            TJ could have easily had an affair with Sally or any of the other female slaves. He was a widower at this point. So could have his brothers or nephews. I’ve read where some say no and where some say yes. Whether it’s true or not, it is what it is and that shouldn’t take away from Jefferson’s message or his actions. It would just prove him to be a human man. The DNA test, I believe on her youngest child was flawed from what I’ve read but that doesn’t dismiss the oldest daughter or any of the others as his. Nothing has been “proven” as far as I know about whether the kids are or aren’t his but what’s the big deal if they were?

            • As I understand this issue, what you state is correct. HOWEVER, as we do not have DNA from Jefferson’s mother, we will never know the true paternity of any of Hemings’ children. the best we can determine with certainty is that a male member of Jefferson’s immediate family is involved in the lineage.

              That said, much of the work I have read that seems to be concerned with the truth suggests that one of Jefferson’s brothers was the most likely candidate. There are also some questions about whether or not TJ and Hemings were physically together at the necessary time for TJ to be her oldest son’s father, which is where this whole issue derives as the Hemings family claims their family lore says he is the one fathered by a Jefferson.

              On the other hand, such an action would be totally out of character with the greater body of what is known of the man and how he lived.

              In the end, the only thing that concerns me is the claim that proof TJ fathered a child with Sally exists when it does not.

              • Agreed. I’ve also read about maybe his brother being the father. When you say her oldest son do you mean the one that died? The one that she was supposedly impregnated while in France? My understanding was the she lost that child and her oldest was her daughter, Harriet?

                • If memory serves (a matter open to question right now), yes, he is the son I am thinking about. I have read a tight timeline of where Hemings and Jefferson both were while she was in France and it would seem she could not have gotten pregnant by him while she was there. Again, I claim fuzzy memory, but I believe he was somewhere else in Europe, which is why Jefferson sent for her: to help in his absence.

        • B has provided us with evidence that there is NO evidence that Thomas Jefferson created offspring with his slave(s). The DNA evidence shows this allegation to be false. In today’s world convicted murderers and “rapists” walk free with DNA evidence such as.

          The real question is, who started these lies and WHY?

          • It’s not about the DNA evidence it’s the lack thereof. The tests and handling was done all wrong and also misread. Plus, the DNA test was only done on her youngest son which wouldn’t be the most accurate.

            I wouldn’t say that it totally dismisses the case of him being the father of one or more of her children it’s more of a case of that it can’t be and never was proven that he was. It’s kinda like being proven not guilty but not saying a person on trial is innocent. The rumors were around way before any DNA testing came along.

            • I am not claiming we can dismiss the possibility. All I said is that my understanding of DNA testing suggests you have to have maternal DNA to prove definitive relations. Paternal can only show family affiliation. Perhaps someone here will be more knowledgeable of DNA testing and can shed some more light on this issue?

      • Some historians believe that Jefferson actually freed some of his slaves via manumission and also upon his death. Which was legal at that time. Some also believe that he would have freed them all but he was heavily in debt and ordered them sold to free the estate of it’s debt.

        • The laws changed several times during Jefferson life. At one point, he could not free them. At others, he could have done so, but ONLY if he also paid to support them for their entire life.

          There is also substantial evidence to suggest that part of Jefferson’s problems with debt was the direct result of paying his slaves for their work. Some may argue this is open to interpretation, but the evidence in favor of this is along the lines of personal letters that confirm Jefferson paid his slaves for the produce they grew and other goods/services that they produced and he consumed.

          Today, it is seldom mentioned that great men in American history have repeatedly cited Jefferson’s life-long efforts to end slavery in support of their own efforts against the institution – including Abraham Lincoln.

          • You are either a slave or you are “hired” help. He had slaves. I’m still stickin with hypocrite.

            What is illegal and what is immoral, and where did he take the stand between the two?

            • Oh he definitely had slaves. It’s pretty certain that Sally got paid. Her brothers did too. They were more like personal aides to TJ….for whatever reason. Some claim it’s because they had very European looks to them and very fair skin. Therefore, they had the premium jobs closer or inside the house and not out as field hands. Remember, Sally was supposedly TJ’s wife’s half sister as a product of her father and his concubine, Sally’s mother. If that were true, maybe they looked out for her and her kids.

              No doubt though, the act of slavery is immoral, and he definitely participated in it. Does he get props for not actually purchasing slaves since his wife inherited those they had? Sure. Could he have done more as far as releasing the ones he had? Maybe. I can’t speak for what he was thinking or what the slaves were. I know a couple of Sally’s daughters left and he never pursued them. They went on to blend into society as “white women” and lived an otherwise normal life. His will never freed the remaining slaves that he had and even Sally was freed by his daughter. But as long as TJ was living, she really had no reason to leave, rumor has it. Her and his daughter pretty much grew up together.

              • Although my sick and twisted mind is thinkin on a different kinda slave right now, (Avec un bain à remous ……. nu …. ) I got to thinkin on the DNA…. Was any of it mitochondrial? Do you boys know? I don’t, and I’m curious…

      • I missed the part where Black ‘proves ‘ this to be the case, Tex. And he did free two slaves who were related to the slave girl Sally Hemmings.

        • Mr. Gates ably explains above why my statement was incorrect. The dna testing did not show TJ to be a father, but the dna testing was also not “complete or done under ideal circumstances, or with the desired donor samples”.

          • That is correct and the form they used couldn’t have proven TJ to be the father anyway. It could only point to a blood line or in that case a “Jefferson male”. That’s why it’s been said that Sally’s kids could have been from his brother or nephews. Plus the testing method was supposedly flawed therefore pretty much discarded as inaccurate.

            Black is correct stating maternal gives a more positive match which they didn’t have.

          • The children of Sally Hemmings all gave interviews late in life, each claimed Thomas Jefferson as their Father. Here is a quote from Madison …. She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston–three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born. We all married and have raised families. here is the link to the interviews, they are quite convincing..http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873march.html

  2. The Manumission Law of 1782 made it easy for a Virginian slave-owner to free his slaves. But Jefferson did not take advantage of this opportunity, he only freed seven slaves in his lifetime. The law was repealed in 1806.

    There was another law that pertained to the care of freed slaves who were unable to take care of themselves. The intent of this law was to keep a slave-owner from freeing a slave who was ill or dying, thus shedding himself of the costs.

  3. You know, the more I read, the better I understand TJ’s mindset; he considered His slaves family, and was reluctant to do anything to break it up. From all accounts, he was popular with his slaves, and I could only find find one instance of a whipping, on a repeat offender.
    In short, I understand the split between TJ’s actions as a slaveowner and his words denouncing the practice, he was doing right by his family, best as he saw fit.

      • No, they were slaves, but treated real well, if that matters. But the only thing TJ had to gain from keeping his people enslaved was familial stability, as most were being recompensed anyway.

    • I also think along those lines. I have never necessarily studied TJ’s life but was actually doing a paper called “Blacks: The struggle with Hypertension” and my research led me in that direction oddly enough.

      It seemed as if there was definitely some bond between the Hemings and the Jeffersons regardless of whether it was blood or not. But as you said, there isn’t any proof that he’s not the father, of any of her kids, just as there’s no proof presently that he is. At least none that I know of.

  4. I thought this might add to the conversation and assist the reader in determining for themself whether or not Jefferson did not take advantage of any legal abilities he may have had to free his slaves.

    In 1723, Virginia passed a law that forbade the freeing of slaves under any condition. It stayed in effect until 1782.

    In 1782, VA passed a law that read (in part):

    “Those persons whoa re disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered to do so and…it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament,…to emancipate and set free his or her slaves.” (VA: Act XXI. An act to authorize the manumission of slaves.”)

    This law allowed Washington to free his slaves upon his death in 1799.

    in 1806, VA repealed this law (Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time: The Sage of Monticello, vol. 6 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981), pg 319). This new law made it technically legal to free slaves, but included this wording which made it all but impossible to do so:

    in regard to slaves who are young, old, weak, or infirm “shall respectively be supported and maintained by the person so liberating them, or by his or her estate.” (The revised code of the Laws of Virginia, vol. 1 (Richmond: Thomas Ritcher, 1819), pg 434)

    This same law also required the freed slave to immediately leave the State or re-enter slavery. This made it virtually impossible for a freed slave to remain near his/her family (were they not freed as well)

    In 1814, Jefferson lamented to an abolitionist minister in Illinois:

    “[t]he laws do not permit us to turn them loose.” (Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, vol 11 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1905), pg 238)

  5. For whatever it may be worth to those who value truth over agenda:

    The oral tradition in the Hemings family that holds Thomas Jefferson fathered Hemings’ eldest son, Thomas Woodson, stems from Tom Woodson’s claims. Woodson claimed that his proof was that he was born in 1790, shortly after Jefferson and Hemings retunred from France, and that Hemings named him Thomas. This story was later repeated in a news paper story published in Ohio in 1873. In this story, Hemings’ 4th son, Madison, who was born in 1805.

    As I have already noted, if one traces the timelines involved while Jefferson and Hemings were both in France together, it makes it nearly impossible for Jefferson to be the father of Sally’s eldest son. But, more importantly, the stories that point out the Hemings’ family claim Thomas Jefferson was Thomas Woodson’s father always omit the fact that DNA testing has proven beyond doubt that there is no Jefferson family bloodline in Thomas Woodson:

    “The DNA data did rule Jefferson out as the father of Thomas Woodson, the eldest of Sally’s sons, and shed no light on the rest. That leaves a scenario in which Jefferson’s sexual liaison with his slave [that produced Eston] is estimated to have begun when he was 65. Possible certainly, but likely?”
    William Warren Sweet, The Story of Religion in America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950), pg 61.)

    Now, this does not mean that the Jefferson family bloodline did not mix with Hemings: it did. It just means we do not have any substantial evidence to prove it was Thomas Jefferson. In fact, we have this from a blue-ribbon commission comprised of professors – all department heads – from schools such as Harvard, the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina and others:

    By unanimous agreement:

    “[T]he circumstantial case that Eston Hemings was fathered by the President’s younger brother is many times stronger than the case against the President himself. Among the considerations which might point to Randolph are:”
    39, John Fiske, Civil Governemtn in the United States Considered with some Reference to Its Origins (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1890), pg 147-148, 192)

    Among the evidence they go on to list is substantial evidence that Randolph visited TJ’s estate frequently about the correct times to have fathered Eston; Hemings’ family evidence that Randolph had other colored children of his own; and, until Fawn Brodie [recently] persuaded the descendants of the Eston Hemings family that President Jefferson was his father, their family oral history had passed down that Eston was fathered by “Thomas Jefferson’s uncle.” This was not possible, but Hemings family members have supported the claim that Randolph was known as “Uncle Randolph.”

    Those who have been following this thread should note several things at this point:

    1- This study was written in 1890, and specifically mentions that Fawn Brodie persuaded the Eston Hemings family that their family tradition to that time was wrong and that Thomas Jefferson was actually Eston’s father. (I told you I knew where the modern myth of Jefferson fathering Eston came from).
    2- The entire case against TJ is based on Hemings family lore, primarily steming from the claim that TJ fathered Thomas Woodson. DNA testing has proven no Jefferson male could have fathered Woodson.
    3- To date, no surviving members of the Eston Hemings family have agreed to DNA testing.

    I also find it interesting that the same people who will attack someone on this blog for using what they claim to be hearsay – even when it is from sources close to the issue – are now claiming hearsay evidence that, though from a source close to the issue, has been shown to be suspect because of meddling in the family lore by people who had an agenda against Jefferson over 110 years ago.

    But you decide for yourself: I’ve presented all the evidence I care to repeat (there’s more, but I’ll leave it to you to go find).

  6. Found this on Thomas Jefferson this evening:
    While president, Jefferson’s principles were tested in many ways. For example, in order to purchase the Louisiana Territory from France he was willing to expand his narrow interpretation of the Constitution. But Jefferson stood firm in ending the importation of slaves and maintaining his view of the separation of church and state. In the end, Jefferson completed two full and eventful terms as president. He also paved the way for James Madison and James Monroe, his political protégés, to succeed him in the presidency.
    http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefffed.html

  7. agreed, i was concentrating on the slavery issue: scroll down in link and check out Virginia’s “seal”:

    “Rebellion to tyrants is obediance to God”

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