Thomas Jefferson’s Dreadful Failure on Slavery and Its Lessons for Us

In a post- romp through blog world, I stumbled upon the director’s cut of the Declaration of Independence. It includes a paragraph that Thomas Jefferson wrote in his initial draft but that was omitted from the copy that eventually got signed and sent to the King:

He [the King] has waged 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. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Jefferson frequently attacked the evil of slavery, not only because of the obvious evil that it was against those enslaved, but also because of how it degraded everyone in the civilization by presenting a despotic institution as natural and reasonable. In one of his musings on slavery, he wrote: “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. 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.”

If you asked him, he’d tell you that nobody hated slavery as much as him. In fact, he said as much, when he apologetically declined to join an abolitionist society (because he was representing the U.S. government in France at the time). “You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade, but of the condition of slavery.”

Thomas Jefferson owned 187 people, enslaved to him. When he died, he emancipated a small handful. The others were auctioned off to pay his debts.

Jefferson was a giant force in both the rhetoric and in the practical work of extending the reach of liberty. He is also a cautionary tale about good intentions and convenient justifications.

His writings on slavery are a mix of high-minded declarations of liberty and emancipation on the one hand, and a hodge-podge of bizarre racial theories on the other. I imagine him trying out one theory after the other to explain to himself why slavery was unjust, and yet it would be unwise for his own slaves to taste liberty just yet.

I’ve talked with some friends in recent weeks who say that they agree with me that our government has become dangerous and terrible, but while they understand the problem, they don’t see any solution that involves them personally. They’re eager to hear of some plan to “educate the people” or “build a movement” or “get money out of the election process.” They hope for a charismatic leader who will articulate all of the things they feel in a way that will charm the masses. They have science fiction daydreams about technological breakthroughs with which a freedom-thirsty people might wrest control of their destinies from an unexpecting plutocracy.

They aren’t interested in hearing how they, personally, right here and now, can take the small, human, mortal, individual steps necessary to actually start working for us instead of for the government that would crush us.

Jefferson, in spite of his prophetic vision, his zeal, and the effectiveness of his many efforts, could not and did not end slavery in America. He could have, and didn’t, return liberty to his 187 slaves.

How many of us, I wonder, are waiting like Jefferson — willing to spend our entire lives waiting for the critical mass, the Hollywood Gandhi, the benevolent aliens from Atlantis, the paradigm shift, the next election, the Sign From God, the one impossible thing that needs to happen before we can actually do what we know is right and free our slaves.

There is a lot more to the Jefferson/slavery issue than I was able to do justice to in my summary here. People continue to discover and/or invent new justifications for his holding people in slavery. Most of these strike me as poor excuses, exaggerated into faux reasons by people who (like me) want to admire Jefferson and would rather not feel ashamed about it. They aren’t much more convincing than Jefferson’s own off-the-cuff racial theories. One of the more articulate defenses of Jefferson was published in The Atlantic a while back: Thomas Jefferson and the Character Issue.