Thomas Jefferson's Opposition to Slavery
Censoring Jefferson to Safeguard Ignorance: President's Legacy Misunderstood
Robert F. Turner Nov 27, 2016
(Oped reprinted with the permission of
The Charlottesville Daily Progress)
The recent demand by nearly 500 faculty members and students that University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan stop quoting UVa founder Thomas Jefferson in her emails reminds us that, when ignorance and arrogance join hands, the results are seldom pretty.
To her credit, President Sullivan did not succumb to the pressure.
And, to be fair, the ignorance of the letter’s signers should not be surprising. We are all ignorant about many important things, and prominent historians have achieved fame and fortune — including prestigious book awards — for their efforts to bring down the man professor Joseph Ellis has described as “the Dead White Male who matters most” and “the most valued trophy in the cultural wars.”
The signers of the letter complain that Jefferson “owned slaves” and held “racist views.” Virtually everyone during Jefferson’s era held racist views (as did Abraham Lincoln decades later); and until the Virginia legislature enacted a 1782 statute — initially drafted by Jefferson 13 years earlier — permitting the manumission of slaves, it was unlawful for him to free the roughly 175 slaves he had inherited from his father and father-in-law.
Philip Foner, editor of “The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine,” noted that the characterization of Paine as “the first American abolitionist” was inaccurate, due to Jefferson’s 1769 effort to legalize the manumission of Virginia slaves.
President Sullivan’s critics appear oblivious to the reality that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong opponent of slavery. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself” on “a distant people who never offended him” by “carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere.”
Writing for a British abolitionist newspaper in 1843, former President John Quincy Adams noted that this language was too strong for the many other signers of the Declaration who also owned slaves, and at their insistence the language was removed. But the draft was preserved, where Adams declared: “It stands, an unanswerable testimonial to posterity, that on the roll of American abolitionists, first and foremost after the name of George Washington, is that of Thomas Jefferson.” (In reality, Washington never once spoke out publicly against slavery.)
Upon returning to Virginia after drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson prepared a law prohibiting the importation of new slaves into Virginia, which was enacted two years later.
The Constitution prohibited Congress from enacting any law restricting the slave trade until 1808. In 1806, President Jefferson sent a letter to Congress congratulating it on the approaching opportunity “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 interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.” Congress complied.
Writing in his only book, “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1783), Jefferson once again eloquently denounced slavery: “[C]an the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of 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 for ever. … The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
When called upon in 1784 by his colleagues in the Second Continental Congress to draft rules to govern the Northwest Territories, Jefferson provided in Article Six: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
It failed by a single vote. Jefferson later lamented: “God was silent in that awful moment.”
But seven decades later, following the Civil War, the authors of the Thirteenth Amendment selected this language for its text to honor Jefferson’s courageous struggle against slavery. (Would those who wish to censor Jefferson’s words strike down the constitutional ban against slavery?)
In addition to the fact that he “owned slaves,” Jefferson’s critics like to remind us that 1998 DNA tests proved he fathered children by the enslaved child Sally Hemings. Wrong again.
I had the honor of taking part in the most thorough examination of all of the evidence on that issue in 2000-2001, when a team of more than a dozen Jefferson scholars from across the nation spent a year looking at all of the evidence and published a 400-page book (“The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission”) concluding with but a single mild dissent that the story is likely false.
They noted that historical evidence had been altered, and that the widely misunderstood DNA tests did not even involve genetic material from Thomas Jefferson. The tests showed merely that one of the more than two-dozen Jefferson men in Virginia at the time likely fathered Sally’s youngest child, Eston. Based solely on the DNA tests, the odds that Eston’s father was President Jefferson were no greater than 4 percent.
Eston’s descendants passed down the story that he was not the president’s child but the son of an “uncle.” The president’s much younger brother Randolph was invited to visit Monticello 15 days before Eston’s likely conception date to see his beloved twin sister, who had just arrived following an extended absence. Because of his relationship to daughter Martha — who ran Monticello while her father was in the White House — he was known as “Uncle Randolph” at Monticello.
In the book “Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,” former blacksmith Isaac Granger stated that Randolph spent his evenings at Monticello playing his fiddle and “dancing half the night” with the president’s slaves. There is no evidence of President Jefferson socializing with slaves.
Days before concluding his second term as president and returning to his beloved Monticello, Jefferson wrote in a Feb. 25, 1809, letter to Henri Grégoire that no person would be more pleased than himself to see a refutation of the doubts he had expressed about the intellectual abilities of black slaves — a distinction he repeatedly acknowledged might be but a consequence of their circumstances.
He added: “[W]hatever be their degree of talent, it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”
When Jefferson traveled to Paris in 1784, he took with him a servant named James Hemings to be trained as a French chef. Among the most talented servants at Monticello, James was manumitted in 1796 — and within five years had turned to alcohol and committed suicide. The news caused great sadness at Monticello, and likely reinforced Jefferson’s view that — until what he termed “this moral and political depravity” could be outlawed — freeing individual slaves did them no service.
Historian Joseph Ellis expressed the view in his prize-winning biography “American Sphinx” that Jefferson could have passed a polygraph test confirming his conviction that his own slaves “were more content and better off as members of his extended family than under any other imaginable circumstances.”
In an 1814 letter to fellow Albemarle County abolitionist Edward Coles, Jefferson wrote about the duties owed to slaves: “My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.”
Much has been made of the fact that Jefferson did not free his slaves in his will. The simple explanation is that during Jefferson’s life, African slaves were treated under the law as chattel property (like cattle), and Section 54 of the Revised Virginia Code of 1819 protected the rights of creditors. Jefferson died deeply in debt, and thus freeing his slaves in his will was not a legal option.
As the world confronts religious extremists who brutally behead and burn alive those who refuse to embrace their theology, we should remember that Jefferson also authored the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom — protecting our right to worship the God of our choice (or none at all).
He also championed the cause of what he called “Native Americans” (a term primarily used at the time to refer to people of European ancestry born in the New World), and acknowledged in 1785 they were in body and mind “equal to the white man.” The following year he declared: “The want of attention to their rights is a principal source of dishonor to the American character.”
Indeed, Jefferson’s primary criticism of Native Americans was that they subjected their women to “unjust drudgery,” which he contended was the case “with every barbarous people.”
“[F]orce is law,” he said. “The stronger sex imposes on the weaker.”
Was Jefferson perfect? Certainly not. But he was ahead of his time in so many ways.
Rather than promoting ignorance by censoring his thoughts and writings, UVa faculty and students should feel honored to have the opportunity to teach and study at the remarkable university he founded nearly two centuries ago.
I have repeatedly offered to debate as many as three critics of Jefferson at a time on these issues — UVa faculty or from elsewhere. Thus far, there have been no takers. The offer remains open.
Professor Robert F. Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the University of Virginia Law School and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for National Security Law. He is the editor of “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission” (2011), and has taught at UVa for 29 years.