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Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

32. Racial Policy

In spite of the fact that he owned slaves himself, as was common with plantation owners of his time, Jefferson spoke out tirelessly throughout his life against the institution of slavery and for the right of black people to be free. Apparently there were many factors, financial, social and political, that prevented him from freeing his own slaves. In a letter to Edward Coles (Aug 25, 1814), he wrote, "The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good." To Edward Bancroft he wrote (in 1788), "As far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children." (ME 19:41) Thus, he seems to have sincerely believed that merely freeing the slaves was not the best solution, and that the most important step to take was the elimination of the real source of this injustice, which was the institution of slavery itself. Thus he wrote to Edward Rutledge (in 1787), "I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your State, for suspending the importation of slaves, and for the glory you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it forever. This abomination must have an end. And there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it." (ME 6:173) His overall solution to the slavery problem was to return the blacks to their own African homeland or to some land where they could live as "a free and independent people," and to provide them with implements and skills to establish their own nation.

"Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [blacks] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:72

"Do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am not justifying the wrongs we have committed on a foreign people... On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, 1814. ME 14:184

"Nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition, not only of the trade, but of the condition of slavery; and certainly, nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object." --Thomas Jefferson to Brissot de Warville, 1788. ME 6:428

"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." --Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:249

"I congratulate you, fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, 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." --Thomas Jefferson: 6th Annual Message, 1806. ME 3:421

32.1 The Consequences of Slavery

"With what execration should the statesman be loaded who, permitting one half the citizens... to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amore patriae of the other... With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVII, 1782. ME 2:226

"The rights of human nature [are] deeply wounded by this infamous practice [of slavery]." --Thomas Jefferson: Rights of British America, 1774. ME 1:201, Papers 1:130

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XVIII, 1782. ME 2:227

"As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." --Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:249

32.2 Comparing Black and White

"I have supposed the black man in his present state might not be [equal to the white man]; but it would be hazardous to affirm that equally cultivated for a few generations, he would not become so." --Thomas Jefferson to Chastellux, 1785. ME 5:6, Papers 8:186

"The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life." Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:197

"Nobody wishes more than I do to see... proofs [exhibited] that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America. I can add with truth that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker, 1791. ME 8:241

"This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:201

"An opinion is hazarded by some, but proved by none, that moral urgencies are not sufficient to induce [the man of color] to labor; that nothing can do this but physical coercion... It would be a solecism to suppose a race of animals created, without sufficient foresight and energy to preserve their own existence. It is disproved, too, by the fact that they exist, and have existed through all the ages of history." --Thomas Jefferson to Frances Wright, 1825. ME 16:120

32.3 Talent is No Measure of Right

"Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to [the Negro] by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them therefore with great hesitation; but whatever 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. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family." --Thomas Jefferson to Henri Gregoire, 1809. ME 12:255

"What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment and death itself in vindication of his own liberty and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:103

32.4 A Plan for Resolution

"The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if in that way a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be." --Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:249

"Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:201

"My opinion on the proposition... to take measures for procuring on the coast of Africa, an establishment to which the people of color of these States might, from time to time, be colonized, under the auspices of different governments [is]: Having long ago made up my mind on this subject, I have no hesitation in saying that I have ever thought it the most desirable measure which could be adopted for gradually drawing off this part of our population, most advantageous for themselves as well as for us. Going from a country possessing all the useful arts, they might be the means of transplanting them among the inhabitants of Africa, and would thus carry back to the country of their origin the seeds of civilization which might render their sojournment and sufferings here a blessing in the end to that country." --Thomas Jefferson to John Lynch, 1811. ME 13:10

"In the disposition of these unfortunate people, there are two rational objects to be distinctly kept in view. First. The establishment of a colony on the coast of Africa, which may introduce among the aborigines the arts of cultivated life, and the blessings of civilization and science. By doing this, we may make to them some retribution for the long course of injuries we have been committing on their population. And considering that these blessings will descend to the "nati natorum, et qui nascentur ab illis," we shall in the long run have rendered them perhaps more good than evil... The second object, and the most interesting to us, as coming home to our physical and moral characters, to our happiness and safety, is to provide an asylum to which we can, by degrees, send the whole of that population from among us, and establish them under our patronage and protection, as a separate, free and independent people, in some country and climate friendly to human life and happiness. That any place on the coast of Africa should answer the latter purpose, I have ever deemed entirely impossible." --Thomas Jefferson to Jared Sparks, 1824. ME 16:8

"I concur entirely in [the] leading principles of gradual emancipation, of establishment on the coast of Africa, and the patronage of our nation until the emigrants shall be able to protect themselves... Personally, I am ready and desirous to make any sacrifice which shall ensure their gradual but complete retirement from the State, and effectually, at the same time, establish them elsewhere in freedom and safety." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Humphreys, 1817. ME 15:102

"Indeed, nothing is more to be wished than that the United States would themselves undertake to make such an establishment on the coast of Africa. Exclusive of motives of humanity, the commercial advantages to be derived from it might repay all its expenses." --Thomas Jefferson to John Lynch, 1811. ME 13:12

"It may perhaps be doubted whether many of these people would voluntarily consent to such an exchange of situation, and very certain that few of those advanced to a certain age in habits of slavery would be capable of self-government. This should not, however, discourage the experiment, nor the early trial of it; and the proposition should be made with all the prudent cautions and attentions requisite to reconcile it to the interests, the safety and the prejudices of all parties." --Thomas Jefferson to John Lynch, 1811. ME 13:12

"It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the State [instead of colonizing them]? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained, new provocations, the real distinctions which nature has made, and many other circumstances will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIV, 1782. ME 2:192

32.5 Special Considerations

"It is material to observe that [slaves guilty of insurgency] are not felons, or common malefactors, but persons guilty of what the safety of society, under actual circumstances, obliges us to treat as a crime, but which their feelings may represent in a far different shape." --Thomas Jefferson to Rufus King, 1802. ME 10:327

"Both parties require long and difficult preparation. The mind of the master is to be apprised by reflection, and strengthened by the energies of conscience against the obstacles of self-interest to an acquiescence in the rights of others; that of the slave is to be prepared by instruction and habit for self-government, and for the honest pursuits of industry and social duty. Both of these courses of preparation require time, and the former must precede the latter." --Thomas Jefferson to David Barrow, 1815. ME 14:296

"All know that permitting the slaves of the South to spread into the West will not add one being to that unfortunate condition, that it will increase the happiness of those existing, and by spreading them over a larger surface, will dilute the evil everywhere and facilitate the means of getting finally rid of it, an event more anxiously wished by those on whom it presses than by the noisy pretenders to exclusive humanity." --Thomas Jefferson to Lafayette, 1820. ME 15:301

"Of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one State to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutors." --Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, 1820. ME 15:250

32.6 The Prospects for Resolution

"Are our slaves to be presented with freedom and a dagger? For if Congress has the power to regulate the condition of the inhabitants of the States within the States, it will be but another exercise of that power to declare that all shall be free. Are we then to see again Athenian and Lacedemonian confederacies? To wage another Peloponnesian war to settle the ascendency between them? Or is this the tocsin of merely a servile war?" --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1821. ME 15:308

"Actual property has been lawfully vested in that form [i.e., slave ownership], and who can lawfully take it from the possessors?" --Thomas Jefferson to Jared Sparks, 1824. ME 16:10

"The revolution in public opinion which this case requires is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also." --Thomas Jefferson to James Heaton, 1826.

"But we must await with patience the workings of an overruling Providence, and hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these, our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a God of justice will awaken to their distress and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not left to the guidance of blind fatality." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:103

"An unsuccessful effort, as too often happens, would only rivet still closer the chains of bondage, and retard the moment of delivery to this oppressed description of men." --Thomas Jefferson: Answers to de Meusnier Questions, 1786. ME 17:102

"I had always hoped that the younger generation receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth analogous to the motion of their blood and above the suggestions of avarice would have sympathized with oppression wherever found and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it. But my intercourse with them... has not been sufficient to ascertain that they had made towards this point the progress I had hoped. I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to every hope." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Coles, 1814. FE 9:478

"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 all 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." --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Coles, 1814. FE 9:479

"The moral duties which [the master] owes to the slave, in return for the benefits of his service, that is to say, of food, clothing, care in sickness, and maintenance under age and disability... [will] make him in fact as comfortable and more secure than the laboring man in most parts of the world; and the idea suggested of substituting free whites in all household occupations and manual arts, thus lessening the call for the other kind of labor... would increase the public security." --Thomas Jefferson to Clement Caine, 1811. ME 13:89

"Our only blot is becoming less offensive by the great improvement in the condition and civilization of that race, who can now more advantageously compare their situation with that of the laborers of Europe. Still it is a hideous blot, as well from the heteromorph peculiarities of the race, as that, with them, physical compulsion to action must be substituted for the moral necessity which constrains the free laborers to work equally hard. We feel and deplore it morally and politically, and we look without entire despair to some redeeming means not yet specifically foreseen. I am happy in believing that the conviction of the necessity of removing this evil gains ground with time. Their emigration to the westward lightens the difficulty by dividing it, and renders it more practicable on the whole. And the neighborhood of a government of their color promises a more accessible asylum than that from whence they came." --Thomas Jefferson to William Short, 1823. ME 15:469

"The sugar maple... yields a sugar equal to the best from the cane, yields it in great quantity, with no other labor than what the women and girls can bestow, who attend to the drawing off and boiling the liquor... What a blessing to substitute a sugar which requires only the labor of children, for that which is said to render the slavery of the blacks necessary." --Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan, 1790. ME 8:50

"Where the disease is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the Northern States it was merely superficial and easily corrected. In the Southern, it is incorporated with the whole system and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process. That it may finally be effected and its progress hastened, will be [my] last and fondest prayer." --Thomas Jefferson to David Barrow, 1815. ME 14:297

"The abolition of the evil is not impossible; it ought never therefore to be despaired of. Every plan should be adopted, every experiment tried, which may do something towards the ultimate object." --Thomas Jefferson to Frances Wright, 1825. ME 16:120

ME, FE = Memorial Edition, Ford Edition.   See Sources.

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