Thomas Jefferson, Racism, and Slavery
By James D. Agresti and Amanda Read Sheik
June 6, 2018
Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. Until recently, he was also one of the most widely revered people in U.S. history. Now, he is often spurned and reviled for racism, but the charges against him are highly misleading.
Abruptly Changing Views of Jefferson
For more than two centuries, the Democratic Party proudly traced its roots to Jefferson. In 2008, Wesley Clark, a former Democratic candidate for President of the United States, wrote: “Every year in most states, Democrats flock to their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinners. The emphasis is on Thomas Jefferson, of course, considered the founding father of the Democratic Party.”
From their very beginnings, Republicans also laid claim to Jefferson. The Republican Party, which was formed for the purpose of opposing slavery, was so-named because its founders considered their principles to be aligned with that of Jefferson and the party he formed, which was called the “Republicans.” and later the “Democratic Republicans.” The first Republican platform called for “restoring the action of the Federal Government to the principles of Washington and Jefferson….”
“All honor to Jefferson,” wrote Abraham Lincoln, for having “the coolness, forecast, and capacity, to introduce into” the Declaration of Independence the “truth” 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.”
The 2007 World Book Encyclopedia contains an article by Ph.D. historian Noble E. Cunningham that states: “Jefferson molded the American spirit and mind. Every later generation has turned to him for inspiration.”
A mere decade later, longstanding and widespread admiration for Jefferson has turned to rejection and scorn in some major segments of society. Jefferson is now under blistering attack from professors, students, and others who say he was a racist. In April, some of these people even vandalized a statue of Jefferson at the University of Virginia, the school that he founded.
As recently as 2007, the history page of the Democratic Party touted Jefferson as “the first Democratic President.” This page has since been scrubbed of any reference to Jefferson. Now, the earliest president it mentions is Woodrow Wilson, a staunch segregationist and supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 2017, the Democratic Party of Louisiana renamed its largest annual fundraiser from the “Jefferson-Jackson Dinner” to the “True Blue Gala” to “reflect the progress of the party and the changing times.” Likewise, the Democratic Parties of Connecticut, Arkansas, Iowa, Virginia, Missouri, and Colorado have all struck the names of Jefferson and Jackson from their major fundraising events since 2015.
In 2016, hundreds of professors and students at the University of Virginia condemned the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, for quoting Jefferson while calling for “cooperation and civility” after the election of Donald Trump. This group of scholars and pupils wrote that they were “deeply offended” and “incredibly disappointed” that Sullivan used Jefferson “as a moral compass,” because he “owned hundreds of slaves” and said that blacks are “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves” and are “inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind.”
Those snippets from Jefferson reveal far more about the people who quoted them than they do about Jefferson, because they grossly misrepresent him.
“Incapable as Children”
Regarding the claim that Jefferson said black people are “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves,” his actual words, written in an 1814 letter, say something very different in context:
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.
In a nutshell, Jefferson wrote that people of all races would likely be reduced to dependency by being raised in slavery. In a 1789 letter, Jefferson detailed why he thought 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 any thing but force.”
- “Many Quakers in Virginia seated their slaves on their lands as tenants. … These slaves chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work. They became public nuisances, and in most instances were reduced to slavery again.”
Jefferson emphasized that his understanding of these events was “imperfect,” because they occurred at a distance from him. Thus, he said he would be making a trip to investigate the situation in person.
In the same letter, Jefferson stated he had “no doubt” that black people “brought up, as others are, in habits of property and foresight” would be “good citizens.” This directly refutes the accusation that Jefferson viewed black people as incapable. In fact, he was commenting upon the harmful effects of slavery.
“Inferior to Whites”
Regarding 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.” In the same work, Jefferson did write degrading things about the “superior beauty” of whites, the “very strong and disagreeable odor” of blacks, and the “improvement of the blacks” when they mate with whites. 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.” He then added:
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.
Looking at these and other writings by Jefferson about race, it is clear that he struggled to make sense of the limited science and observations available to him. Furthermore, he was keenly aware that his knowledge was restricted, and hence, he largely avoided firm conclusions. As he wrote in a 1791 letter to the Secretary of the French Academy of Sciences:
I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, 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 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.
Some people are willing to look past Jefferson’s ownership of slaves, because he was a product of his time. This, however, does not tell the full story, because Jefferson was ahead of his time in this respect. In the world in which he lived, Jefferson and other founders of the U.S. were unique in that they opposed slavery, despite the fact that it was widely practiced throughout history and across cultures.
Barack Obama and many others say that slavery is America’s “original sin,” but there was nothing original about it. Per the Encyclopædia Britannica:
- “Slavery is known to have existed as early as the Shang dynasty (18th–12th century [BC]) in China. … Slavery continued to be a feature of Chinese society down to the 20th century.”
- “Slaves have been owned in black Africa throughout recorded history. In many areas there were large-scale slave societies, while in others there were slave-owning societies. Slavery was practiced everywhere even before the rise of Islam, and black slaves exported from Africa were widely traded throughout the Islamic world.”
- “Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia in the center to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east.”
- “Slavery existed in ancient India, where it is recorded in the Sanskrit Laws of Manu of the 1st century [BC]. The institution was little documented until the British colonials in the 19th century made it an object of study because of their desire to abolish it.”
- “Slavery was widely practiced in other areas of Asia as well. A quarter to a third of the population of some areas of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) were slaves in the 17th through the 19th centuries and in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, respectively.”
- “Slaves were also prominent in Scandinavia during the Viking era, 800–1050 [AD], when slaves for use at home and for sale in the international slave markets were a major object of raids. Slaves also were present in significant numbers in Scandinavia both before and after the Viking era.”
- “Slavery was much in evidence in the Middle East from the beginning of recorded history. It was treated as a prominent institution in the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi of about 750 [BC].”
As John Jay, president of the Continental Congress, wrote, “Prior to the great revolution, the great majority or rather the great body of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves, that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”
In stark contrast to most of the world, Jefferson and other founding fathers saw slavery as evil and began a process of eradicating it.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson called the slave trade “a cruel war against human nature itself” that violated its “most sacred rights of life & liberty.” He accused the king of England of “suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.” However, the Continental Congress removed Jefferson’s anti-slavery language to preserve enough unity among the northern and southern colonies to survive a war against Great Britain.
In the early 1780s, Jefferson supported a plan to end slavery in Virginia, even though he felt that the peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites was not practical there because of “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites,” and “ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained.” Thus, he proposed to:
- “emancipate all slaves born after passing the act.”
- keep them “with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses.”
- equip them “with arms, implements of household and of the handicraft arts, feeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, etc.”
- settle them in “such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper.”
- “extend to them our alliance and protection.”
In 1784, Jefferson drafted a law to prohibit slavery in all of the western states. It lost by one vote, and Jefferson wrote, “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country.”
Two years later, Jefferson lamented:
What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, & 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.
As president in 1807, Jefferson signed into law an act “to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.” The law also prohibited any U.S. citizen from building, fitting, equipping, loading, or otherwise preparing a slave ship.
Why, then, did Jefferson own slaves? He was born into a slaveholding family and inherited about 40 slaves when he was only 14 years old, because his father died. He 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.
Scholars have speculated as to why Jefferson did not free all of his slaves, but given what he heard about the ill fate of other freed slaves and 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. To that effect, in 1820 he wrote:
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.
A year before he died, Jefferson wrote that slavery was one of the “greatest anxieties” of his lifetime, but “the march of events has not been such” to end it “within the limits of time allotted to me.” Hence, he left this task to “the work of another generation.”
Four decades later, Jefferson’s vision became a reality when the U.S. Constitution was amended to prohibit slavery. The amendment, which banned “slavery” and “involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” echoed the words that Jefferson drafted to ban slavery in the west:
That after the year 1800, there shall be neither slavery or involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of a crime, whereof the party shall have been convicted to have been personally guilty.
Many years later, Jefferson’s desire to see a “complete refutation” of the view that there are fundamental biological differences between human races came to pass due to the advances of modern science:
- The science of physiology proved that all races have the same coloring pigment in their skin (melanin), and differences in skin color stem merely from the quantity of it.
- The science of genetics showed that there is more genetic variation among the people of any race than there is between one race and another.
- Medical experience demonstrated that the “transplantation of organs across racial groups can be performed without fear of an additional problem occurring as a result of some inherent difference between the donor and recipient races.”
- Nationally representative tests on the mental capacities of children found “only minor racial differences” that “disappear with the inclusion of a limited set of controls.”
- Standardized tests revealed that people of all races excel intellectually when they have competent schooling.
Jefferson didn’t have this scientific data, but his words and deeds still moved the causes of universal freedom and racial equality forward. Ironically, the same factions of society that slander Jefferson revere others who came after him and set these causes backwards. A prime example is Charles Darwin and his early supporters, who routinely declared that blacks were evolutionarily inferior to whites. For example, in an 1871 book entitled The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous [human-like] apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
In the words of a Harvard University Press book written by Stephen Jay Gould, one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the 20th century:
Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859 [when Darwin’s Origin of Species was published], but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.
This continues to the current day. A 2015 serial work about academic theories on Africa describes “a significant body of modern scientific literature” from “comparative and evolutionary psychology” claiming that “sub-Saharan African populations have, on average, very low intelligence….” This book also:
- states that it is “by no means outside the mainstream in some fields of scientific research to claim that Africans are cognitively and/or culturally inferior specimens of humanity not fully evolved from earlier forms or left behind in the course of recent and rapid biological and cultural evolution.”
- cites six sources to document that the “evidentiary basis” of such conclusions are “extremely poor….”
Yet, the University of Virginia celebrates a “Darwin Day,” and the first 100 Google results for Darwin Day University of Virginia show no criticism of this event. This, in conjunction with professors’ and students’ deceitful attacks on Jefferson, beg the question of the real basis of these attacks.
Given the leftist and anti-U.S. attitudes that prevail on many college campuses and in other segments of the public, and given the facts that Jefferson “molded the American spirit and mind,” wrote that people’s rights don’t come from government but from “their Creator,” stated that government should “not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned,” and declared that the U.S. Constitution does not allow the federal government to create social welfare programs, it is understandable how Jefferson would become the object of their hatred and slander.
Addendum (6/22/18): In addition to Jefferson’s anti-slavery actions listed above, in 1783, he drafted a constitution for the state of Virginia that would have immediately stopped “the introduction of any more slaves to reside in this state” and outlawed the enslavement of anyone born after December 31, 1800.
Very glad to see this article on Jefferson, he was a man born before his time.
I have read elsewhere that one of the reasons Jefferson did not free his slaves was because it was unlawful except under very narrow circumstances. I admit to having no direct research into this.
I also should have stated thank you for this timely and important Just Facts article.
Jefferson sought measure after measure, both at the state and national level, to end slavery. He even became involved in international efforts to end slavery. Two weeks before his death, Jefferson was still saying slavery had to end.
Those who fail to know and UNDERSTAND history, are ignorant.
For Daniel Clark.
Judging history in the context of our own time instead of the context that prevailed is a common mistake by neophyte, novato, readers of history who more often than not have NOT even so much as visited the area. Thus much of the mistaken ‘truths’ are founded in ignorance Another great amount are founded on intentional falsification.
Any student of history who has perceived the need to walk carefully if to be congratulated in this day and age of history as fiction versus history as fact.
Thank you for this article. I’ll pass it on so that it might be to used it to clarify President Jefferson’s attitude towards slavery for unfortunate souls who are brainwashed by so many of our “institutions of higher learning”.
A very insightful and informative article. This is a piece that needs shared across the internet.
Such anachronistic ignorance on the part of “learned professors” and “students” who should be studying not “demonstrating”.
The arguments laid out in this article are specious and dangerous. While I would agree that we cannot accurately assess historical figures outside of their era, slavery has always been wrong. Thomas Jefferson knew it, wrote it down, talked about it. Yet, he hid behind “harsh realities of his time” and continued buying HUMAN BEINGS to “meet labor needs.” My main concern, however, is with the way this article seeks to refute assertions of Jefferson’s racism. For example, the author states: “Regarding 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.'” Does that somehow make the inferiority statement more acceptable? That this was merely a suspicion on Jefferson’s part? If you actually read the entire quote, to which the article provides a link, Jefferson advances his suspicion so far as to say that the emancipation of black people would cause them to “mix” with the blood of their (white) masters — the horror! In no way can his statements be construed as anything but racist, and the authors should be ashamed for trying to rationalize them.
I cannot dispute the laudable accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson, but he was a complicated individual — as are we all. He laid the cornerstones of modern-day democracy, but he also owned 600 humans to whom democratic rights were denied. He publicly championed the idea of emancipation, but he suspected that black people’s inherent inferiority would be a “powerful obstacle” to their freedom. A website called “Just Facts” should take all of this information together and present it fairly. Let’s not blindly lionize people like Thomas Jefferson without being fully aware of their faults along with their feats.
Your comments amount to nothing more than saying “I don’t want to hear some of these facts. I only want facts that conform to my opinion.” You also falsely claim that I try to “rationalize” Jefferson’s statements. Wrong, I simply presented them in context and exposed those who took them out of context.
Well worth reading. The article did clarify a number of complaints about Jefferson, but it did not deal with his relationship with Sally Hemmings. I think a lot of the criticism aimed at him comes from that relationship. How does that relationship fit your analysis? Their surviving children were freed at different times. Were those the slaves you mention in the article? What has happened to his reputation is a disgrace. He was a genius. Even the term “founding father” does not fully explain his importance to us. But he was also a man with frailties.