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Thomas Jefferson & Slavery

His Thoughts Taken from "Notes on the State of Virginia"


Thomas Jefferson wrote a book entitled "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1781 and published in 1787.  

Jefferson's position on slavery was that it created social and moral problems for the country. At a spiritual level he wondered if a just God could tolerate the injustice of slavery over time. To him, there were no easy solutions to this problem; negroes were biologically inferior, harbored a deep hatred of whites, and would use their freedom to exterminate the white race. The only plausible solution seemed to be to take slave children from their parents, educate them and then send them to colonize a distant land while bringing in whites from overseas to replace the lost labor of the expelled blacks. Jefferson knew his moral arguments were on shaky ground and he expressed his concern for the future of the country due to the slavery issue.


Jefferson made clear that there were physical and moral differences that made blacks and whites incompatible (pages 149 - 152). His narrative on the racial inferiority of blacks was couched in terms of his "suspicion only" that it was true but he goes on to say that the apparent inferiority manifested in color "and perhaps faculty" is an obstacle to their emancipation. (p. 155) While Roman slaves, which were white, would blend back into their societies, freedom for blacks born the threat that their liberation might result in the "staining" of the master's blood. In cataloging the traits of blacks compared to whites, Jefferson cites biological differences (less hair, less secretions, more tolerant to heat, superficial emotions, reduced faculty for grief (and one assumes deep love). In memory and imagination, Jefferson believes blacks are equal to whites but inferior in their ability to reason and in artistic skills but excel in music: "Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry." (pp. 150 - 152).


Edmund Burke and other philosophers of the day cited the inherent right of man to pursue happiness and Jefferson did not exclude this right on its face from slaves -- but he could not see a future in which freed slaves could live in harmony with whites.Jefferson described the legal condition of slaves as that of property under Virginia law (page 145 & 148 ) and as such were subject to inheritance laws and were categorized as "other moveables." In trying to deal with the legal distinction of slavery, Jefferson cited the draft code of law meant to replace English Common Law in the United States. He cited an amendment to the code that would have all emancipated all children born of slaves after its enactment. These "free" children of slave parents would be trained in "tillage, arts and sciences" until they were old enough to be sent out to form new colonies under the temporary protection of the United States. Whites would be brought in from other countries to replace deported blacks.To the arguments that this expense could be avoided by keeping the free children of slaves in the United States, Jefferson wrote that "... deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained ... will divide us (and) produce convulsions, which will never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."


In terms of the cultural impact of slavery, Jefferson makes clear in Query XVIII - Manners that there is an "unhappy influence ... produced by the existence of slavery among us." Slavery involves despotism on the part of masters and degrading submissions on the part of slaves -- and this situation provides an example to children who learn by imitating their parents. The injustice of this system made Jefferson tremble in his reflection "that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever." Clearly, Jefferson wished that slavery could disappear but, other than deportation, he did not know how the slave situation could be resolved.

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