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Thomas Jefferson - A MAN of CONTRADICTIONS

           

Thomas Jefferson was a man of contraditions.  He introduced a bill to end slavery, in 1779, yet he owned, and used, slaves at Monticello.  Image is an excerpt of the language he used for the 1779 bill to end slavery in Virginia. 

 

In 1779, while governor of Virginia, Jefferson introduced a bill to end slavery in his state. He thought that slaves, once free, would have to return to their own countries in order to live as free and independent people. In Notes, he explains why:

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 ...

Mr. Jefferson - especially in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV - expressed his opinions about racial differences. He hedged his comments by saying his thoughts were based on his own observations, leaving open that he was wrong.

He was adamant, however, that all men had equal rights, drawing the comparison between Sir Isaac Newton (an enormously gifted person whom Jefferson greatly admired) and most other men (who did not come close to Newton's intellectual prowess):

My doubts [about the abilities of blacks] 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. (Thomas Jefferson to Henri Gregoire, 25 February 1809.)

It is fair to ask: If Jefferson abhorred slavery, why didn't he free his own slaves? Scholars have provided potential answers, including that he was financially unable to do so.

Jefferson had inherited land, slaves and a great deal of debt. His debts were secured by the value of his slaves. Had he attempted to free them - thereby eliminating the collateral for his debts - there is little doubt his creditors would have repossessed them.

Additionally, Virginia's law required that a freed slave must leave the state within one year after emancipation. Jefferson expressed concerns that families would thus be split up. Even so, after he died, Jefferson's home and slaves had to be sold to satisfy his many debts. As a result, some of the families who had lived and worked at Monticello did not remain together.

Added to the Jeffersonian conundrum is Sally Hemmings, a Monticello slave. Recent DNA studies show that years after Mrs. Jefferson died, at least one of Sally's children was fathered by a Jefferson. Was it Thomas himself? The Jefferson Foundation (click on "Domestic Life at Monticello") believes it was. Other Jeffersonian scholars have expressed their doubts.

The issue itself has a tendency to polarize discussion about the Declaration's writer, casting a cloud over the rest of Jefferson's life and work.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5124stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 01, 2008

Updated Last Revision: Oct 05, 2016


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