Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Thomas Jefferson's Great Dilemma

By Jared Frederick

The beliefs of Thomas Jefferson and his thoughts of slavery have long been elusive, contradicting, and highly debated. How could the author of American creation, who proclaimed that all were equal before God, own 175 slaves? If the founding fathers, including Jefferson, truly believed this, why did the majority of them own slaves or believe the other races to be morally or intellectually inferior? Answers to these questions are still being sought over 230 years later. Contradictions regarding the peculiar institution can be seen in more than one case. Thomas Jefferson himself confided to his friend John Adams that “slavery is an abomination.” Yet Jefferson How can we begin to explain this paradox? owned slaves until his dying day, manumitting very few of them upon his death.

Jefferson and Colonial historian Andrew Burstein offers one unique perspective in his book, Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello; “Jefferson used the nonracial variant of slavery in his 1774 Summary View of the Rights of British America, to decry Parliament’s ‘systematical plan’ of political oppression; and when he got around to drafting the Declaration of Independence, he directly blamed King George III for encumbering his colonies with an African slave trade they would have preferred to abolish on their own. He and his fellows wished to imagine that their antislavery statements moderated their actual failure as emancipators of African Americans” (Burstein, 118).

Even the most vehement critics of slavery amongst the founding fathers could do little to end it, including those who owned slaves themselves. Like George Washington, Jefferson claimed opposition to slavery. However, they both (at some point at least) believed the journey toward emancipation would have to be gradual. The southern economy, agriculture, and the financial elite depended too heavily upon the necessity for chattel slavery within their society. Nevertheless, Jefferson feared the intense sectional divides brought about by slavery would eventually bring civil war upon the young nation, and he was right.

At times, we simply cannot translate Jefferson’s true feelings. His mixed emotions are seen in his 1821 Autobiography: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” Yet, he goes on to say, “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, and opinion had drawn indelible lines of distinction between them” (139).


As Jefferson aged, he seemed to become more removed from abolitionist thought and holds a more racist point of view. He noted blacks were “brought up from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, [they] are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” Furthermore, he states, “They secrete less by the kidneys and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor. They seem to require less sleep.... Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to whites....and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.... The Indians will astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, and their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration...”

So what were Jefferson’s true feelings? Was he a reluctant slave owner and founding father ahead of his time? Or was he a bigoted businessman who took advantage of his slaves? Well, the conclusion could very well be both. The truth of the matter is that we may never fully know these answers. The only thing we are sure of is that we never cease learning new things about Jefferson and how conflicted his life’s work really was.

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