What the slave apparently didn’t know about Jefferson was the many years he had wrestled with the problem of slavery, much as today we see groups making demands without first demanding of themselves a fuller understanding of the circumstances that has led to their perception of the underlying challenge.
In November of 1808, President Thomas Jefferson was gearing his mind away from the U.S. Capitol and back toward his beloved home in Virginia. Monticello was to be Jefferson’s greatest project later in his life. He doted on the property as if it were a spouse, designing and redesigning the grounds and the residence over the course of 40 years.
Monticello stands today as a monument to Jefferson’s insatiable curiosity and devotion to the sciences and to organizing efficiency. But more than those things, Monticello was a labor of love.
“I am as happy no where else and in no other society,” Jefferson once wrote, “and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”
Closer Examination Of Jefferson’s Actions Reveals Repeated Examples Of His Consistent Courage
Maintained through the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Monticello is today a destination for 450,000 visitors per year. The estate is a window into the workings of everyday life of a time when men, like Jefferson, would often take years away from directly managing their personal properties to devote themselves to public service.
Over the course of the past several decades the staff of Monticello and the directors of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation have made strong efforts to introduce more information about the lives of slaves at the plantation. In 2016, Monticello along with the University of Virginia, hosted a public race-summit for thousands on the West Lawn of Jefferson’s famous home. The summit, “Memory, Mourning, Mobilization: Legacies of Slavery and Freedom,” was the culmination of years of previous work at the historic plantation that began way back in 1950.
In the irony of all ironies, it is this man who wrote one of the most important documents in all of history, the Declaration of Independence, who also owned by way of inheritance over 600 slaves. Despite his personal belief in liberty, Jefferson was never fully able to divest himself of the use of slave labor. Although, the political realities of the day, and being unable to ensure the safety of those under his care were both also major road blocks to doing so.
It would be easy to assume, as many do, that Jefferson probably wasn’t all that keen on doing away with the servants he owned.
Those who would like nothing more than to remove Constitutional protections and further centralize power within the federal government today love to point to this with claims of “hypocrisy”. They use it as a device to discredit and build a low information, circumstancial case against natural rights as a legitimate standard of law. Because it helps the immediate political goal of winning an argument, and the more long-range goals of discrediting our countries founding, it is perhaps to convince others that only perfect people are capable of profound and important accomplishments. Our current day society is inexplicably driven to discredit and reject our history as a means to reinvent a new world created in their own image.
The charges of insufficient individual virtue of historical figures is, of course, a ridiculous stretch by those who refuse to fully comprehend the age in which these individuals lived. Detractors rarely open the doors to history wide enough to gather anything more than the material necessary to develop tactics to encourage a public rejection. These charges are then presented by way of a childish political argument.
Christian teachings have admonished us to remember imperfections as one of humanity’s most commonly shared traits. If our leaders must only be perfectly unblemished souls then striving for virtuous life is neither necessary nor worth the time. In this worldview, the character building lessons we all encounter are viewed as a revelation of a persons closeted hypocrisy, discrediting any and all attempts at striving toward greater accomplishment. When virtues become redefined as unattainable standards then it becomes far easier to argue for equality of outcome over equality of opportunity, and that all are deserving of equal reward regardless of their efforts or the value of their work.
Jefferson: The Nations First Abolitionist?
Twelve of the first eighteen American presidents owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. Jefferson’s first draft of the declaration included strong words against slavery. But under the fear of dividing the fragile new nation, Jefferson was forced to remove the passage.
Few people know that Jefferson inherited the slaves in his care, and fewer still understand his treatment of those slaves who lived and worked at Monticello. They were considered as family.
Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot.” He believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation. Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty. These views were radical in Jefferson’s time in a world where unfree labor was the norm.
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition. In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans. In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories.
But Jefferson always maintained that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process; abolition would be stymied until slaveowners consented to free their human property together in a large-scale act of emancipation. To Jefferson, it was anti-democratic and contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition or for only a few planters to free their slaves.
Although Jefferson continued to advocate for abolition, the reality was that slavery was becoming more entrenched. The slave population in Virginia alone jumped from 292,627 in 1790 to 469,757 in 1830. Jefferson had assumed that the abolition of the slave trade would weaken slavery and hasten its end. Instead, slavery became more widespread and profitable. In an attempt to erode Virginians’ support for slavery, he discouraged the cultivation of crops heavily dependent on slave labor—specifically tobacco—and encouraged the introduction of crops that needed little or no slave labor—wheat, sugar maples, short-grained rice, olive trees, and wine grapes. Nevertheless, by the 1800s, Virginia’s most valuable commodity and export was neither crops nor land, but slaves. This made dealing with the Constitutional inconsistency untenable for the country.
Most of the details about Jefferson’s decades long battle for abolition weren’t any more known by the general public in his day than they are understood by people in our own time. The lack of a full knowledge of our understanding doesn’t often give pause in our present day from widespread condemnation. Challenges such as Jefferson’s slavery conundrum weren’t likely to be subject to the same such quick social judgement.
But the impatience of an individual looking for his or her reward in life, while a much more prominent modern tendency, wasn’t a complete anomaly in Jefferson’s day.
A Slave Makes Threatening Demands
And so it was when the President Jefferson received a letter in 1808 from an anonymous slave boldly demanded that the Chief Executive lend his voice to the cause of abolition. Historian Anthony Comegna writes that it is not known whether the author was a former or current slave; nor do we know the author’s gender.
But, as Comegna summarizes, the writer maintains in the letter a singular focus on the “moral and practical necessity” of abolition, “especially given Jefferson’s own world-famous philosophy of universal, equal human rights. The author apparently wrote in response to recent speeches and writings by William Duane of Philadelphia, former editor of the Democratic-Republican Aurora and an important figure in the Jeffersonian political coalition of southern yeomen and northern workingmen.”
The anonymous slave, whose letter is now part of the collection of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson at the Library of Congress in Washington, held nothing back in addressing the President. In the disapproving declaration, the slave “desecrated the idols of ‘American exceptionalism,’ and the moral supremacy of American democracy, arguing that from the slave’s perspective, whites had merely democratized the institution of aristocracy by legally protecting the rights of a privileged class of men to own others.”
“Rather than representing an exceptional break with Old World feudalism, Americans had merely extended participation in the ruling class to a wider group of white men. While the Revolution indeed threw off the Old World’s shackles on countless white men, the American project for Liberty ended with Washington’s victory at Yorktown. From that day in 1781, the newly-freed white population prosecuted a deliberate counterrevolution to curtail the slave population’s ability to achieve their freedom in turn.”
Most ominously, the slave calls upon Jefferson’s “naturalistic, rationalistic philosophy to convince him that American slave-owners must either renounce their iniquitous claims on their fellow human beings, pay them back wages to November, 1781, and recognize them as moral and political equals or face devastating (though decidedly natural) wars of servile insurrection. The slave threatened Jefferson’s life in particular, though by the end of his two terms, the president was assuredly used to this sort of rhetoric.”
The anonymous slave argues, ultimately, that the “physical and political power of the slave-holders cannot stand against the fact of universal human rights and individual liberty. The author concludes with a final plea that Jefferson embrace the truths of human nature he himself had become so famous for articulating, and begin a movement of all Americans to abolish tyrants and tyranny of all kinds.”
What the slave apparently didn’t know about Jefferson was his years of wrestling with the problem of slavery, much as today we see groups making demands without first demanding of themselves a fuller understanding of the circumstances that has led to their perception of injustice. The glaring difference being, of course, Jefferson’s inquisitor was presumably an actual slave undergoing the real life experience that came with that lot in life, and not merely demanding a “right” of his own creation, as is the case today.
The full letter is below.
Our burdens are heavy & call loud for justice! call loud for mercy! I Therefore, take the liberty Sir, to address you myself upon the subject of slavery, and ask you a few questions respecting Mr. Duane’s politicks. What does he mean by this? Young as our country is, in the political world, says he, it has furnish’d a world of useful experience; and that we are, thank Providence, the only nation that has yet profited by our education. If to spit in the face, cudgel in the streets, fight dewils, quarrel in the law, make laws & violate them, oppress & enslave mankind, take away all the honest labours & genius of one part of the community to riot upon, and to aggrandize the rest, gamble, drink to excess, wallow in debauchery, violate the chastity of women, betray publick trust, waist the funds, deceive the people, bely other nations, enslave their citizens, & your own, aggrandize one part of the citizens at the expence of the others, nurse, educate, & exercise children in tyranny and oppression, support a knot of idle hypocritical priests & rapacious lawyers, to lounge & strut about the country, divide the people into supersticious hostile sectaries; then setting these poor ignorant people to quarrel in the law one with the other, that they may fall an easy prey to their rapacity; and many more vices of a like heinous nature; can be said to be a world of useful experience, & a profitable education, America can vie with any nation on earth.
Yet, with all these vices staring him bold in the face, he has the vanity to say, that we are, thank Providence, the only nation that has yet improved by our education; & the impiety to call out to God to save his country from the afflictions of war; but above all from the example of England.—
What is this mighty uproar about England? Was there ever any thing in her example, more inhuman, irreligious, or damning, than slavery? Is any nation capable of committing a more heinous crime in the sight of God, or more insulting to fellow-man?
What said Mr. Wilkinson respecting slavery in ’95? why, believing, said he, that a faithful history of slavery with all its consequences, would be of all others, the darkest pages in the annals of mankind. What said you sir, in ’81? see notes on Virginia. Well then, if as Wm. asserts, Britain has got three thousand American citizens in slavery on board her ships of war: Has not America, likewise, got in slavery 2,000000 of the former citizens of Africa? If 1,000000 of the subjects of Britain are starving in her work-houses; are not 2,000000 of the citizens of America, running almost naked, starved and abused in a most inhuman and brutal manner, in her fields & kitchens. If Britain takes away one fifth of the labour of her subjects for taxes: Does not the tyrants of America take away the whole of the labour of 2,000000 of the most industrious citizens to riot upon?
I cannot give you a fairer picture of our unfortunate condition sir, then in the words of Esqr. Pigott. Among men, says he, you see the ninety and nine toiling to git a heap of superfluities for One; gitting nothing for themselves all this while, but a little of the coarsest of the provisions which their own labour produces; and this One too, oftentimes is the worst of the whole set; a child, a woman, a madman or a fool; looking quiettly on while they see the fruits of all their labours spent on spoiled; and if one of them take a single particle of it, the others join against, and hang him for the theft. What say you sir, to this? can you plead ignorance in these vices and follies; and in this inhuman slavery? If not, what can be your reasons (since you have been rais’d to the highest office in the government) for suffering us to be used in this brutal manner? Can any man who is not over-aw’d by a tyrant, sway’d by prejudice, in love with slavery & oppression, or who lives him self in idleness, drunkenness & debauchery, say, that there is either, honour, honesty, humanity, piety, charity, virtue, or religion in such conduct? O! merciful God, is this humanity?…To prove our human-nature, sir, and our rights as citizens of these states, we have only to appeal to the Declaration of Independence, which says…that all men, (not all white men) are created equal…with inherent & unalienable rights…What think you now sir, are we men, or are we beasts? If this is not sufficient to prove our human-nature; our right and our citizenship, take another section from the original draft of the same authority: In speaking of the outrages committed by the king of England you say, He has waged cruel war against human-nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captuating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or incur miserable death in their transportation thither: this piratical warfare, the approbum of infidel powers, in the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain—Determined to keep open a market where MAN shall be bought and sold. This is sufficient one would suppose, to convince any unprejudiced mind; but it seem that it has not carried conviction into the flinty hearts of the sainted pilgrims in America, & I fear nothing will but the sword.
Whatever may be the mode of any government, either civil or religious, says the friend of justice & mercy, if it cannot exist and prosper without affecting the peace & harmony of a neighbouring nation, is unjust: Much more must that government be unjust, which aggrandizes one half, or less, of a community, at the expence of the other. The monarchies & aristocracies which have been so often decried by polititions, as oppressive and violent, are states of independence in comparison of that state of bondage in which the American black-man is kept…
Again, in the midst of all these complicated horrors, Wm. has the affrontry to call upon the farmers of this land, and upon all the simple honest labouring classes of people, to look at this happy country, and be proud that there is no lord or lordlings to put them from their path of industry, nor to tare from them the fruits of their honest labour and genius.
In the name of God! what does Wm. mean by this? Where has he spent his time? In what cellar has he been shut since the year ‘76? Does he not know nor did he never hear, that the greatest part of all the manual labour that is done in the southern states is performed by slaves, and that they in general git nothing for it (except kicks and curses) and that their haughty lordling masters live in idleness, drunkenness and debauchery, and aggrandize themselves and families at the expense of the honest labours of the unfortunate people? Can he plead ignorance in all this? If not, by what name does he call such men, who have got four of five hundred slaves at their heels? whom they beat, scourge and abuse in a most inhuman manner, and take away all their honest labours and industry to riot upon?…
Slavery is unjust, because it destroys the rights of women & children. It is a mere state of barbarism, in which neither the delicacy and chastity of sex, nor the debility & ignorance of little children are regarded. The situation of the female slave is more deplorable & degrading than that of the untutored savage. For little as savages respect the rights of women & children, their women have exemption from labour, & protection from insult during those delicate & painful periods which are peculiar to their sex; & their children are instructed in all the knowledge which is by them deem either useful or ornamental. The degree of servitude to which savage women are bound, is trifling in comparison with the task of a female slave; and inasmuch as their husbands & children reap the fruits of their labour, & in some measure repay it by acquiring a superior skill in hunting & war, their labour becomes rather a pleasure than a burden. But what is to mitigate the labour of the poor female slave, with the precious burden of her affections at her breast? Slavery is unjust, as it destroys all the physical & commercial distinctions of labour & property. It is a mere monopoly of men, and all their abilities and services.
He who contributes by manual labour to the great stock of wealth, must in justice be entitled to some reward; but in vain does the wretched slave fell the forests, clear the grounds, prepare them for seed; watch & cultivate the tender plant, reap down & gather in the harvest, & bear it to the market.—…
This sufficiently proves my assertions, and justifies me in saying, that a majority of the American agents in the Southern States, are a set of inhuman scoundrils, and ought to be tar’d and feather’d and tyed to the tail end of a dung cart, and horse-whipt throughout the country, from state to state, and forever after banished from human society.
If slavery has become so firmly established in this country, as not to be avoided or guarded against, or is such a pleasing object, as to be no longer odious and irreligious, but a source of happiness and prosperity, its high time for America to give up all pretentions to liberty & freedom, & acknowledge herself at once, a joint heir with Jon Bull.
But we have not lost all hopes; we can’t yet believe, sir, that you have become so deprav’d as to be in love with slavery, or have done reflecting upon the wrath of a just God, or that his justice cannot sleep forever. Yet there appears to me something in your administration, sir, very mysterious. What your reasons can be for keeping open that execrable market where MAN shall be bought and sold, which you wrote so warmly against in the year ’76, and condemn’d as a mark of disgrace, of the deepest dye in the Christian king of G. Britain, I cannot conceive. Is a crime of this execrable nature any more criminal in the Christian Crown of Britain, than in the Christian Executive of America? If not, what are your reasons, sir, for suffering us since 30th. Nov. ’81 to be trodden under foot & abused in such an inhuman & brutal manner? Are not Our rites as well secured to us by every law of nature’s God as any man’s in the universe? we think so; therefore, sir, we consider ourselves, entitled to our yearly wages from that very hour, and no man in the government (except a tyrant) can dispute our demand a single moment. And you may depend on this sir, that we shall never be reconciled to this government till we git it, & our freedom with it.—I think sir, you can’t do yourself & your country a greater honour, nor your unfortunate country men a greater piece of justice and mercy, then by freeing your slaves & paying them their yearly wages from ’81 to this day. And then, if any slave-holder in America shall here after refuse or neglect so to do, let him or them be made an example of, and their heads be hung in gibbets for an everlasting monument; & a terror to tyrants & evil doers. O! Thomas, you have had a long nap, and spent a great number of years in ease & plenty, upon our hard earned property, while we have been in the mean time, smarting under the cow-hide and sweating in the fields to raise provision to nurse tyrants to cut your throat and perpetuate our own bonds.
Why you should wish, in a free republic, to nurse, educate and exercise your children in such a tyrannical manner, I cannot conceive; since you so early saw, and confes’d the error; and must long ere this most severely have felt the effects of your folly. If not, fold your arms, and lull yourself into a slumber a little longer, and then see how the pig will eat the grapes.—…
Its high time for you sir, to decide, whether or not you will any longer use us in this brutal manner, or adopt us as brethren, for, in our opinion; or this single circumstance alone, depends the future prosperity, or destruction of these states, and the safety of your own life in particular…
Yea, it has come to this, that our lives are no longer safe, for our inhuman masters and over-seers, publickly say that they would as soon take away our lives as that of a dog’s, and that they will do it, if we should happen to offend them again, even in the most trifling offence. And the right of over wives, during those delicate & painful periods which are peculiar to their sex, and which the most savage nations respect, are disregarded by our cruel masters, over-seers, & even by our mistresses, & are driven like cattle from their beds in the morning at early dawn, & forced into the fields almost naked, & there obliged to labour in the heat of the scorching sun during the whole live long day, and many times, even in these painful moment, when eight or nine months gone in pregnancy, they are beaten down & trodden under foot in a most inhuman manner.
These are painful truths which no person can deny, who has ever lived three months among slave-holders. This being our unhappy condition, we humbly beseech you, sir, to lay our cause before the agents of this government, & request them to interpose between us & our inhuman tyrants, or other-wise, necessity will ere long oblige us to seek our own safety, by taking away the lives of our tyrants, & freeing ourselves at once from such inhuman monsters…
Let me once more request you sir, to lay our grievances before the sovereign people of these states—Don’t neglect it sir, unless you take delight in tyranny & oppression, or are thirsting after blood—if you be, your appetite may ere long git glutted. God forbid that I should have such a thought; or should live to see another drop of human blood unjustly spilt in America.
O! rouse up the brave sons of ’76, and the children of those heroes who bleed & died to free their country from foreign foes, & from bondage, that we & our children might live free from foreign, as well as domestick tyrants—Don’t let their labours be lost—Don’t let so much blood be spilt in vain, and so much treasure be bartered for a whistle—for Spanish folly, or for British knavery and pride. O! rouse, rouse quickly, and snatch your weapons, & unite your strength, & let us banish all tyrants, tyranny and oppression from North America, and let us who surv[ive] the fatal shock, “form but one society, one great family.” “And since human-nature has but one constitution, let there in future (at least in America) exist but one law; that of nature; but one code; that of reason; but one throne; that of justice and but one alter; that of union. Then might the sons and daughters of America set under their vines and fruit-trees, and enjoy the fruits of their labour, and the friendship of the whole human family…