In Defense of Thomas Jefferson

Last week in New York City, the author of the Declaration of Independence became the latest target of the statue wreckers as elected officials formally asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to remove the statue of Thomas Jefferson from City Hall. 

Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-Staten Island), representing the anarchists, said: “[Jefferson’s] words are ‘all men are created equal’ but they were not matched by his action, which included the ability to sell, buy, mortgage and lease human beings.”

Rose’s argument, as so many others who have criticized America’s third president for owning slaves, is trivial at best, since his positions on slavery underwent several evolutions. 

Jefferson, in fact, always spoke out against institutional slavery throughout his political career.  For example:

  • In his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785), Jefferson held: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.”
  • In his letter to Brissot de Warville, February 11, 1788, Jefferson wrote: “You know that 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.”

Jefferson not only condemned institutional slavery but he followed up on it:

  • in 1783 he submitted a bill to Congress that would free all slaves by 1800;
  • in 1807 he signed into legislation elminating the Atlantic slave trade, the law that outlawed the importation of African slaves. Although it did not end slavery, this significant piece of legislation highlighted Jefferson’s opposition to slavery.

The question remains, if Thomas Jefferson was against the practice of slavery, why did he not free his slaves?  As David Barton explained in his New York Times Bestseller The Jefferson Lies, unlike George Washington, who liberated his slaves on his death in 1799, the law of Virginia prevented him from doing so.

While he did free five slaves on the Monticello estate in his will upon his death in 1826 -- 130 enslaved individuals from the estate were sold later in 1827 -- Jefferson was unable to do so because of his massive debts incurred by himself, his parents and his father-in-law after the American Revolution, which at his death stood at $107,000 ($2 million in today’s dollars).  Under Virginia statutes, since slaves were valued considered property, creditors could seize them from their debtors to satisfy debts.  This is why he capitalized on the increasing number and value of his slaves to achieve two things -- increase his access to capital and protect his slaves from sale. 

To prevent his bondspeople from being sold to absolve, for example the Wayles debt,  Jefferson first mortgaged 52 slaves to Henderson, McCaul & Company, and then gave as collateral 98 other slaves to several friends and the Dutch firm of Van Staphorst & Hubbard.  These mortgages demonstrated that an indebted Jefferson was trying to circumvent a legal obstacle -- slaveholders could not use verbal conveyances, or emancipation, to prevent slaves from being seized by creditors.  His solution was to give mortgages to friendly creditors who were unlikely to take his slaves.

Jefferson’s principle, as opined by Ari Helo in Thomas Jefferson’s Ethics and the Politics of Human Progress, “was that, even if black people were inferior to white, it was contrary to human morality to hold them in bondage. Slavery prevented its victims from ever acquiring moral accountability as individuals.  As human beings, they had to be given freedom to take their destiny in their own hands, even if outside America,” which in a politically shortsighted manner he thought would resolve the slave dilemma.

This is primarily why he advocated the expansion of slavery into the Louisiana territory he purchased from the Emperor Napoleon in 1803, hoping that it would hasten emancipation -- in his utopian mindset, he thought that deporting black Americans to Sierra Leone, for example, would provide them a sovereign and independent land of their own.  His “rationale was that spreading the institution to the West would increase the number of taxpayers, who would cover the costs of the deportation.”

Jefferson, nevertheless, remained relatively silent on the issue towards the end of his life. Author M. Andrew Holowchak explains that his reluctance to continue tackling slavery was “because of his belief that to act then would be to act before the time was ripe for appropriate action.  Action on slavery at the wrong time might result in more harm -- that is separation of the union [which eventually happened] -- than good.” 

Jefferson realized that it would be hypocritical to help found a nation on the principle “all men are created equal” as long as some its people were enslaved by others.  Hence, the reason why the original draft of the Declaration of Independence rejected slavery -- Jefferson accused King George III of waging a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”

Southern delegates, however, who represented the interests of slaveholders aligned with northern delegates representing the interests of slave-trading merchants, and together they succeeded in excluding Jefferson’s original terminology from the Declaration.  Their motivation was obvious: eliminating slavery would diminish their wealth.  They, specifically from North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, held up the vote for independence until they got their way.  Jefferson eventually felt best to leave the slavery issue to be resolved by a future generation.

To categorize Jefferson as a criminal oppressor of an enslaved people as the liberals are depicting him is not just a far stretch but unmerited. Notwithstanding his shortcomings, he should continually be honored for leaving us a great legacy for without him we would be void of the most fundamental rights contained in the First Amendement to the U.S. Constitution: freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, as well as the separation of church from state. 

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