New York’s Rebuke of Jefferson: A Grave Injustice Against a Lifelong Abolitionist and Anti-Racist
By Paul Dowling
Beginning a sentence with a capital letter – other than in the use of the word “I” or in the use of proper nouns – had, in Jefferson’s day, not yet been standardized as the proper style of writing in all instances, to include personal letters to acquaintances and rough drafts of documents. While many textbooks have updated Jefferson for modern readers in the editing of him, the National Archives and others who hold original copies of Jefferson’s writings often have not done so, choosing instead to transcribe Jefferson with fidelity to the originals. This author has chosen to quote Jefferson in conformity with the sources used for this article, without seeking to update or improve. Thank you.
“Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was publicly a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot,’ he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation. Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. These views were radical in a world where unfree labor was the norm.” – Monticello.Org, in “Jefferson’s Attitudes Towards Slavery”
A Councilmember Rejoices at the Removal of a Great Man’s Statue
Indeed. It should be an honor to sit in the presence of Thomas Jefferson’s likeness.
But, according to a report by CNN News, New York City Councilmember Adrienne Adams, in celebration of the removal of Thomas Jefferson’s statue from New York City Hall, made this simplistic and misleading statement, rebuking the Founder of America’s creed that “all men are created equal”: “Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder who owned over 600 human beings. It makes me deeply uncomfortable knowing that we sit in the presence of a statue that pays homage to a slaveholder who fundamentally believed that people who look like me were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence, and were not worthy of freedom or right.” The problem with Adams’ simplism is that, while Jefferson did own over 600 slaves, the rest of her claim is easily refuted by anyone caring to do basic research into the Founding Father’s biography.
To examine the first part of Adams’ statement, the reason Jefferson initially became a holder of slaves was that his father had left him slaves as an inheritance. It is also true, according to the research of James D. Agresti and Amanda Read Sheik, that Jefferson “later inherited slaves from his father-in-law and bought about 20 slaves in order to reunite families and fulfill labor needs. Jefferson owned about 600 slaves, freed two of them during his lifetime, freed five more in his will, and effectively freed three others by letting them escape.” Even if it had been a simple matter to manumit slaves in Jefferson’s day (which it was not), Jefferson had “heard about the ill fate of other freed slaves and [due to] his view that slavery robbed people of the self-reliance needed to survive in that era, it may have been that Jefferson felt trapped between his disdain for slavery and the hard realities of life at the time.” On April 22, 1820, Jefferson wrote a letter to John Holmes, wherein he said, “I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought.”
With regard to the second claim by Adams – that Jefferson “fundamentally believed that people who look like me [a person of color] were inherently inferior, lacked intelligence, and were not worthy of freedom or right” – there is nothing like going to original sources to make refutation. While writing to one Edward Coles, in a letter of August 25, 1814, Jefferson said the following: “For men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young.” Here, Jefferson speaks of human beings as being rendered infantile whenever and wherever they find themselves dependent on others for their care, generalizing to the population at large from the known example of enslaved black people. What makes their example relevant is, of course, that they are – according to Jefferson’s own words – “created equal” to all other human beings.
But Wait: There’s More
Another letter which – by the creative editing of the sound-bite media – is often falsified says this: “A man’s moral sense must be unusually strong, if slavery does not make him a thief. He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own, can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force. These slaves chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work. They became public nuisances, and in most instances were reduced to slavery again.” This letter written to Edward Bancroft, on January 26, 1789, discussed slaves who were allowed by a Quaker community to reside on their lands as tenants. In essence, Jefferson is saying that, to respect property, as tenant farmers must, people must first be allowed to own property. Slaves, as a rule, possess no property. So, was it really a good idea to give people who were used to living by dependency on others a farm tenancy with the expectation that, completely untutored, they could conform to cultural norms of freedom and responsibility that are completely founded on an understanding of property rights?
Further along, in the same letter, Jefferson posits the following social experiment: “Notwithstanding the discouraging result of these experiments, I am decided on my final return to America to try this one. I shall endeavor to import as many Germans as I have grown slaves. I will settle them and my slaves, on farms of 50 acres each, intermingled, and place all on the footing of the Metayers [sharecroppers] of Europe. Their children shall be brought up, as others are, in habits of property and foresight, and I have no doubt but that they will be good citizens.” Here, Jefferson expresses optimism that – without regard to skin color – all human beings given the same upbringing are capable of living together as “good citizens.”
According to the research of Agresti and Sheik, “[r]egarding the claim that Jefferson said blacks are ‘inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind,’ he actually said this was his ‘suspicion only.’ . . . However, he expressed skepticism about many of his conclusions and later wrote that he wished to see a ‘complete refutation’ of them and find that black and white people are ‘on a par.’” In Jefferson’s day, the word “suspicion” was used to mean what one was obligated to imagine in the absence of proof. Jefferson, who possessed a scientific outlook requiring him to observe a thing in fact before stating it to be true, would eventually testify from his own experience that blacks were indeed “on par” with whites.
Jefferson Encounters the Ingenious Mind of Benjamin Banneker
Already, by 1791, Jefferson was able to learn of the brilliance to which a black man might attain, if free. In a letter to the Marquis de Condorcet, of the French Academy of Sciences, on August 30, 1791, Jefferson made the following comments:
I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro [named Benjamin Banneker], the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, and in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an Almanac for the next year, which he sent me in his own handwriting, and which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. Add to this that he is a very worthy and respectable member of society. He is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.
In the letter, Jefferson mentions having hired a black mathematician, Benjamin Banneker, to help lay out Washington, DC, the new “federal city” on the Potomac. So, apparently, Jefferson was quite open to accepting any qualified person, without respect to race, when it came to employing only the best people for the creation of what would become his nation’s capital. His acquaintance with Banneker allowed Jefferson to prove to his scientific mind, by observation, that his bold declaration that “all men are created equal” was true on the intellectual level, as well as on the grounds of natural law. This reality had become an observable and measurable fact to Jefferson that he was more than happy to share with others – therefore his enthusiastic letter on the topic to the French Academy of Sciences.
Flashback: In the Virginia of Jefferson’s Birth, Slavery Was the Rule, Not the Exception
A law was passed in Thomas Jefferson’s home state of Virginia in 1691, long before he was born, that banned the freeing of slaves, stating that “no Negro or mulatto” could be freed, unless the emancipator was willing to send the new freeman out of the country within six months’ time. The power to manumit slaves, as of 1723, then devolved to the “governor and council.” This put the Virginia government – at that time an extension of the British Crown – fully in charge of what had grown into the peculiar institution of chattel slavery.
Prior to 1654, there was no legal recognition in Virginia of any form of bondage other than indentured servitude; however, “[b]y 1680 slaves were treated as chattel, property that could be bought, sold or willed to another and had no legal rights, such as owning property or voting.” It is ironic that the first legal owner of a chattel slave – a servant to his owner in perpetuity, with no property rights of his own – was Anthony Johnson, a black freeman who was once an indentured servant himself. By the time of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, in 1743, slavery was the rule, not the exception, in the British Empire and around the world. It would take the antislavery vision of Jefferson and his revolutionary peers to plant the seeds of freedom for all in the founding documents of what would become a great American republic – exceptional in its colorblind guarantees of liberty, justice, and equal protection under law.
Jefferson Was Already on Record as an Opponent of Slavery by His Mid-20s
While Jefferson was a member of Virginia’s General Assembly, in 1769, he was “able to influence an older member to propose the emancipation of the slaves. Jefferson recorded later in his autobiography that he ‘made one effort . . . for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected.’” It is also true that Jefferson sought to help Samuel Howell, a “man of mixed race who was bound out (placed in servitude) under a 1705 law. This law provided that a child born out of wedlock to a white woman and a negro or mulatto would be bound out to the churchwardens until the person reached 31 years. A subsequent amendment in 1723 provided that if such a person in servitude also had a child out of wedlock, that child shall also be ‘bound out.’” Howell’s grandmother had been “bound out,” causing her daughter to be enslaved as well. An extract from Jefferson’s argument in the case goes like this: “Under the law of nature, all men are born free, every one comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the author of nature, because necessary for his own sustenance.”
Jefferson roundly condemned the human trafficking of King George III, stating in his Summary View of the Rights of British America, in 1774, which was submitted to the Continental Congress, that “[t]he abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies . . . and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.” That same year, the Continental Congress actually placed a ban on all imports and exports with Great Britain, including the trafficking of slaves, in an attempt to force Great Britain to rescind the Intolerable Acts. It was likely this action by Congress that encouraged Jefferson, subsequently, to write an anti-slavery clause into his first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Given this context, it is interesting to note that, sometime before June 13, 1776, immediately prior to his drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s antislavery clause in his second draft of the Virginia Constitution was rejected. It had contained the following phrase: “No person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.”
Jefferson’s Attempt to Denounce Slavery in the Declaration of Independence
Jefferson continued his fight to abolish chattel slavery by famously denouncing, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, King George III’s unprincipled support of the peculiar institution:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation 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 this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die [honorable (skin) color], he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
Of course, by stating unequivocally in the opening words of his original draft of the Declaration that “all men are created equal & independant [sic],” Jefferson had indicated his intention, prior to his antislavery clause within the same document, to abolish slavery once and for all by making the bold claim that not only are all of God’s children created equal, but that they are also created independent – which means that forcing someone to be the servant of anyone other than oneself is a violation of natural law. In the final draft of the Declaration, less controversial wording was chosen, claiming only that “all men are created equal” – deëmphasizing Jefferson’s desire that each person be considered “independant” [sic] as well.
In his notes of the proceedings of the Continental Congress, dated July 2, , Jefferson set down these observations and contemplations:
Congress proceeded the same day to consider the declaration of Independance which had been reported & laid on the table the Friday preceding and on Monday referred to a commee [sic] of the whole. the pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. for this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. the clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina & Georgia who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. our Northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.
Jefferson Ultimately Succeeded in Banning the Importation of Slaves into Virginia
Although, in the end, Jefferson did succeed in getting the claim that “all men are created equal” into the Declaration, he would not succeed as governor of Virginia in his goal of freeing his state’s slaves; however, already in 1778, Jefferson had “drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.” The legal language of the act stipulated “that all persons who shall be hereafter imported into this Commonwealth by Sea or by Land whether they were bond or free in their native Country upon their taking the Oath of Fidelity to this Commonwealth shall from thenceforth become free and absolutely exempted from all Slavery or Bondage to which they had been subjected in any other State or Country whatsoever.” So, ultimately, Jefferson did play an important role in making Virginia one of the first jurisdictions worldwide to ban the lawful trafficking of slaves.
Jefferson the Abolitionist
During his term as President of the United States, it was Jefferson – and none other – who, on March 2, 1807, would sign into law the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, which would take effect by January 1, 1808, in line with the 1808 Clause of the Constitution. This action – in concert with England’s decision to follow suit, on March 25, 1807 – would, in effect, put the final nail in the coffin of the international slave trade.
All Honor to Jefferson
In a letter to “Messrs. Henry L. Pierce, & others,” dated April 6, 1859, Abraham Lincoln made the following remarks about Thomas Jefferson:
The democracy [a reference to the Democrat Party] of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar . . .. The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society . . .. All honor to Jefferson – to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence have echoed to us down through the ages, out of the mouths of personages as notable as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King. Those words remain the founding creed of the American nation, since July 4, 1776. Indeed, it is the author of this promissory note of freedom for all whose vision still guides Americans to this day. It is a vision of equal protection, of equal justice, in a colorblind world where skin color shall be regarded as no more important than hair color or eye color. It is Jefferson’s colorblind words whose truths are held as self-evident by American patriots to this day: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
All honor to Jefferson. Indeed.