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Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence condemned slavery

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Updated: 2008/02/11 PM 8:27:08   Comment

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Original Draft of the Declaration of Independence

Although Thomas Jefferson kept slaves himself, he apparently thought it an abhorrent practice and attempted to condemn it in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence.  While it was a hypocritical position for him to take, it reveals the inner conflict he had about his own practice:

http://www.duke.edu/eng169s2/group1/lex3/roughpl.htm

   "He [King George III] 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 INFIDEL powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce. 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 for 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."

--Thomas Jefferson 1776

(note:) This paragraph was omitted by the Congressional delegates while approving the final draft.

Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Jefferson owned many slaves over his lifetime. Some find it baffling that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves yet was outspoken in saying that slavery was immoral and it should be abolished. Biographers point out that Jefferson was deep in debt and had encumbered his slaves by notes and mortgages; he chose not to free them until he finally was debt-free, which he never was.[1] Jefferson seems to have suffered pangs and trials of conscience as a result.[58] He wrote about slavery, "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."[2]

During his long career in public office, Jefferson attempted numerous times to abolish or limit the advance of slavery. According to a biographer, Jefferson "believed that it was the responsibility of the state and society to free all slaves."[3] In 1769, as a member of the House of Burgesses, Jefferson proposed for that body to emancipate slaves in Virginia, but he was unsuccessful.[4] In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned the British crown for sponsoring the importation of slavery to the colonies, charging that the crown "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 & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere." However, this language was dropped from the Declaration at the request of delegates from South Carolina and Georgia.

In 1778, the legislature passed a bill he proposed to ban further importation of slaves into Virginia; although this did not bring complete emancipation, in his words, it "stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication." In 1784, Jefferson's draft of what became the Northwest Ordinance stipulated that "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" in any of the new states admitted to the Union from the Northwest Territory.[5] In 1807, he signed a bill abolishing the slave trade. Jefferson attacked the institution of slavery in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784):

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.[6]

In this same work, Jefferson advanced his suspicion that black people were inferior to white people "in the endowments both of body and mind."[7] However, Jefferson did also write in this same that a black person could have the right to live free in any country where people judge them by their nature and not as just being good for labor as well.[8] He also wrote, "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. [But] the two races...cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them."[13] According to historian Stephen Ambrose: "Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many other white members of American society, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property. Jefferson, the genius of politics, could see no way for African-Americans to live in society as free people."[9] His solution seems to have been for slaves to be freed then deported peacefully, failing which the same result would be imposed by war and that, in Jefferson's words, "human nature must shudder at the prospect held up [by war]. We should in vain look for an example in the Spanish deportation or deletion of the Moors. This precedent [the Spanish deportation or deletion] would fall far short of our case."[10].

On February 25, 1809, Jefferson repudiated his earlier view, writing in a letter to Abbé Grégoire:

Sir,--I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind to send me on the "Literature of Negroes." Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunity 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. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making toward their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you therefore to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief; and to be assured of the sentiments of high and just esteem and consideration which I tender to yourself with all sincerity.[11]

The downturn in land prices after 1819 pushed Jefferson further into debt. Jefferson finally emancipated his five most trusted slaves; the others were sold after his death to pay his debts.[12]

Sources:

  1. (Hitchens 2005, p. 48)
  2. Miller, John Chester (1977). The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York: Free Press, p. 241. The letter, dated April 22, 1820, was written to John Holmes, former senator from Maine.
  3. Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life. p 593.
  4. The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes at the Library of Congress.
  5. Ordinance of 1787 Lalor Cyclopædia of Political Science
  6. Notes on the State of Virginia, Ch 18.
  7. Notes on the State of Virginia Query 14
  8.   'Jefferson, Thomas, 1743-1826 . Notes on the State of Virginia ' at University of Virginia Library]
  9. Flawed Founders by Stephen E. Ambrose.
  10. (Hitchens 2005, pp. 34–35)
  11. Letter of February 25, 1809 from Thomas Jefferson to French author Monsieur Gregoire, from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (H. A. Worthington, ed.), Volume V, p. 429. Citation and quote from Morris Kominsky, The Hoaxers, pp. 110–111.
  12. (Peterson 1975, pp. 991–992, 1007)
  13. 'Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)' at the University of Virginia
Thomas Jefferson. (2008, February 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:18, February 12, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thomas_Jefferson&oldid=190449829



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