This Execrable Commerce -- Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

A Paper by Greg Warnusz, Saint Louis, MO, USA, Summer, 1990

With a very modest addendum, July 4, 2012, about "distinguished die"

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In what Julian Boyd calls the "Composition Draft of that Part of the Declaration of Independence Containing the Charges against the Crown," Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Whereas George Guelph King of Great Britain & Ireland and Elector of Hanover, heretofore entrusted with the exercise of the Kingly office in this government, hath endeavored to pervert the same into a detestable & insupportable tyranny . . .

12. by prompting our negroes to rise in arms among us; those very negroes whom by an inhuman use of his negative he hath <from time to time> refused us permission to exclude by law:(1)

Boyd remarks that of the sixteen charges in the so-called Composition Draft, this gets the most embellishment by the time it appears in the document Jefferson called his "original Rough draft."(2) That draft charges "his present majesty" with eighteen "injuries and usurpations," one of which is expanded into eight additional charges. The above reference to "our negroes" is indeed embellished, and in the "Rough draft" Jefferson makes it the last, so that the crescendo of indictments of the king shouts from the page:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's 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, 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 & 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 on 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.(3)

Jefferson's committee wanted to keep this passionate paragraph, and Adams considered it the best part. But Congress struck it from the Declaration, substituting the vague and self-serving charge "He has excited domestic insurrections among us."(4) So the passage is unknown to most Americans. One doesn't hear it on National Public Radio on the Fourth of July, nor read it in the appendix of dictionaries. In a book meant for coffee tables or junior high school libraries, but nonetheless thorough, Dumas Malone gives it cursory treatment, and reproduces it only in facsimile within Jefferson's four-page manuscript.(5) When Congress, four decades after its composition, first cited the Declaration in its debates about slavery, this paragraph wasn't quoted.(6)

The great contrast between Jefferson's rhetoric here and his subsequent behavior, as slaveholder, statesman, and philosopher, prompts this paper. For the simple facts are that while Jefferson clearly and consistently wanted slavery abolished, he also shared the contemporary belief, based on the least persuasive grounds, that blacks were inferior to whites in potential for citizenship, and he wanted them all deported. We'll look for explanations of why and how such a single-minded advocate of justice could hold most of his slaves all of his life, and how such a careful thinker could maintain a stance about people of African origin that, to us, is just racist. We'll summarize most of the standard arguments, and speculate about another possible one. But first, let's worry this text some more.

The objective reader might object that Jefferson was being unfair to his Britannic majesty in blaming him exclusively for American slavery. If slavery was a crime, the king had many co-conspirators, American and British, including the owners of two thousand slave ships plying the Atlantic. John Chester Miller points out that the hypocrisy here is tactical, for a political end:

There was a compelling reason for Jefferson's efforts to fix the responsibility for the perpetuation of slavery upon the British monarch. Jefferson and other American patriots had repeatedly accused the British government of trying to reduce them to "slavery." If it could be shown that white Americans--the very citizenry who had taken up arms in defense of freedom--had, for their own profit, reduced hundreds of thousands of Africans to a real state of slavery, the appeal to a candid world might fall very flat indeed. Already, Dr. Samuel Johnson had, in fact, raised the embarrassing question: "How is it," he asked, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?"(7)

Edwin Gittleman goes further, asserting that the whole Declaration is a "slave narrative." He says it was conventional in eighteenth century political polemic to draw upon slave imagery to dramatize the loss of freedom under despotic governments. "Suppressed elsewhere [than in the paragraph in question] in the Declaration, the word 'slavery' nevertheless informs each of its sentences, its structure as a whole, and of course its fundamental but implicit meaning: 'Under no circumstances will the American colonies continue to permit their [own] enslavement.'"(8) The deleted grievance about literal chattel slavery, Gittleman says, was meant not only to climax Jefferson's litany of royal abuses, but to recapitulate the whole, to say it literally about Negroes and so reinforce the implied charge of enslaving Americans.

Indeed there are echoes of the prior (preserved) paragraphs. Notions about cruelty, nature, rights, war, murder, death, forced transport, captivity, life and liberty reappear. But note the differences: While the Americans have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the king is accused of violating the Negroes' rights only to life and liberty. Furthermore, they are a "distant people" whom nature meant for another hemisphere. Of Jefferson's inability to bring himself closer to consistency, Gittleman finds evidence in the very wording:

The curious loss of control over the syntax toward the end of the first sentence--a lapse occurring nowhere else in the draft Declaration--by which an infinitive phrase appears in place of a parallel participial construction, is a discontinuity as much emotional as syntactic. This solecism (justified perhaps by the dislocation it literally expresses), and mutually exclusive double-meaning of the archaic form of the verb for capturing ("taking captive" and irresistibly appealing"), are both indicative of Jefferson's ambivalence [his opposition to slavery but his maintenance of Negro inferiority].(9)

Carl Becker writes off the content of this charge because "here the discrepancy between fact and representation is too flagrant." Then he cavils for ten pages about how Jefferson's writing, everywhere but especially here, reveals a passionless soul. I grant Becker a telling point when he contrasts Lincoln's second Inaugural with the present philippic, and says they differ as light from darkness:

Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

But Becker's book is only about the Declaration, not about the larger questions of Jefferson's racism or its causes.(10) To those vexing questions, at last, we turn.

Earlier I declared that the facts of the case were simple: that Jefferson abhorred slavery, held the Negro inferior, at least mentally, to the white and so unfit for citizenship, saw no possibility of integrating the races in America (in part because whites weren't ready for it) and therefore preferred the deportation of the blacks. Controversy arises in attempts to discover Jefferson's reasons for these positions. Writers universally seem to give Jefferson the benefit of the doubt, that he was not being merely arbitrary or prejudiced, and they seek to justify much of what he said and did, if only on Jefferson's own terms and those of his society. We'll examine the record, and some of the scholarly attempts to probe it, letting the scholars occasionally provide citations of the record itself.(11)

William Cohen gives a thorough review of the literature to his time (1969), including perceptive remarks about Winthrop Jordan's 1968 study, White over Black. He then goes into how Jefferson actually interacted with slaves on his properties. Cohen details how Jefferson owned twenty slaves in 1757, forty-two by 1774 when he acquired (through his wife's inheritance) 135 more slaves. In 1783, despite loss of thirty slaves to the British, Jefferson owned 204 Negroes. He soon sold fifty to pay debts, but his holdings increased to 197 in 1810, and 267 by the year 1822. Cohen also discusses how Jefferson participated in various legislative attempts to restrict the slave trade, permit manumission, and ameliorate the slaves' conditions. He calls the most significant of these his "writing a clause for the Ordinance of 1784 which would have barred slavery from the western territory (North and South) after 1800. ... Jefferson was seeking to protect whites from the baneful effects of slavery."(12) The chief baneful effects of slave-ownership were to make the owner less industrious, so less fit for republican citizenship, and to make his children surly.(13)

On why neither race would benefit from simple abolition, Jefferson wrote in 1782:

Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinction which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.--To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral.(14)

Let us examine the high hopes Jefferson had (and shared with his contemporaries) for America, for another possible reason he may have thought integration inadvisable or impossible. Of the American democratic experiment, Tom Paine said there had been no comparable opportunity presented to mankind "since the days of Noah." Jack Greene describes the resources already at hand for Americans when they embarked on self-government:

a society that had already undergone extensive political development and had at its command impressive political resources in the form of experienced and acknowledged leaders, tested institutions, and a politically conscious and socialized electorate.(15)

The notion of sovereignty residing in the people, not in a Parliament and King or any governing body, was truly unprecedented. Madison held the incipient hope that maybe the new country could get by without great public virtue, that private vices of enough competitive persons and groups would provide the energy of true freedom.

Michel-Guillaumme Jean de Crevecoeur observed that whereas in the Old World many, probably most, of the colonists had been

"as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould, and refreshing showers" and had been mowed down by want, hunger, and war," in America as a result of transplantation they had, "like all other plants ... taken root and flourished." "From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, and useless labour," they "passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence." As Crevecoeur observed, this "great metamorphosis" had a double effect": first, it extinguished "all ... European prejudices," encouraged men to forget "that mechanism of subordination, that servility of disposition which poverty had taught" them in the old world, and nourished a jealous sense of personal independence, marked impatience with restraint, and profound antagonism to any barriers to the pursuit of individual happiness; second, it greatly enlarged their expectations for themselves and their children and prompted them to form "schemes of future prosperity," to marry earlier and produce more children to fill up the vast open spaces, to endeavor to educate their children in preparation for the bright new world they had before them, and to develop "an ardor for labour" unknown in the old world.(16)

John Chester Miller says of Jefferson's participation in this radical agenda:

He never supposed that the American Revolution consisted merely of the severance of the political ties that united the colonies to Great Britain or that it was an effort to maintain liberties already enjoyed in full plenitude by Americans. Among other things, Jefferson proposed to destroy in Virginia the last vestiges of "artificial aristocracy" based upon wealth and family connections and to bring to the fore the talents and virtues that lay submerged and fallow in the lower strata of society. Even though he was born into the aristocracy, Jefferson put his hope of a new order in the "plebeian interest." Without the abolition of slavery, Jefferson realized that the attainment of a society based upon freedom and equality of opportunity would forever elude the American people.(17)

But at the same time this writer is drawn to the conclusion that Jefferson didn't think the American experiment was robust enough to support a multi-racial society. And too much was at stake. Providence had placed the Indians here first, then led the English hither. This may be what made Jefferson speak with forked tongue about the red people; praising them and their potential for membership in republican society, while dealing them out of their lands. Providence had had no part in the arrival of the Africans. And nature--whether Jefferson's science proved it or not, he believed it--had ordained insurmountable and unmixable differences between the black and white races. Jefferson could be inconsistent in attributing some conditions among the blacks to nature, and some to the conditions imposed on them. Consider his notion that the improvement shown by blacks upon their "mixture" [miscegenation] with whites proved it was nature, not environment, that rendered unmixed blacks inferior. But he could attribute to them no deficiency of moral sense. He could be similarly inconsistent about the Indians.

Lee Quinby discerns in Jefferson's writings a complex "aesthetics of virtue" of which the above-mentioned sense of right and wrong is only a part. The possibility of virtue depends also on one's sensibility to beauty, one's rationality, memory, and imagination. And it also depends on one's appreciation of nature, willingness to be awed by it, and willingness to work with it. Thus Quinby explains why, in Jefferson' view, farmers have the moral edge. More interestingly, Quinby thinks he has found here a way to make Jefferson's views on both the equality and inferiority of blacks "less paradoxical":

His belief in every human being's innate Moral Sense led him to accept the equality and natural rights of all and, therefore, to call for the emancipation of slaves. Blacks have no "depravity of the Moral Sense," he stated emphatically.32 And yet, he argued, there is a difference "fixed in nature"--namely, that whites possess the greater "share of beauty in the two races."33 Blacks lack beauty,he asserted, having instead that "eternal monotony," that "immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions." To one for whom emotions carried significant weight in cultivating virtue, such cloaking was a serious matter. But his speculations on the differences in mental faculties is even more crucial. "Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination," he wrote, "in memory they are equal to whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigation of Euclid; and ... in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous." By way of contrast, he assigned to native Americans a "reason and sentiment strong" and an "imagination glowing and elevated." But nowhere," he insisted, had he found a black who "had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration"; never had he seen "even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture" or poetry. As for love, theirs is "ardent," he admitted, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination." It is not their enslavement that accounts for these deficiencies, he added, for among the Romans "their slaves were often their rarest artists."34

Doubtless Jefferson's racism prompted him to distinguish among whites, blacks, and native Americans, a prejudice that, in turn, blunted his ability to assess black artistry. But the rationale for his racism is perfectly consonant with his concept of virtue as the confluence of sentiment, memory, reason, and imagination. Because he saw blacks as inferior in reason and as dull and tasteless in imagination, Jefferson concluded that they constituted an obstacle to the creation of virtue, clearly a danger for the developing Moral sense of the newly independent white Americans. His solution entailed gauging what he perceived to be the common good for both whites and blacks and proposing what he considered to be reasonable policies: education, emancipation, and recolonization of the former slaves.

________ Note: The inline footnotes, numbers 32-24, are Quinby's

32 Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 142 [ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill, 1954)].

33"It is not against experience to suppose," Jefferson wrote, "that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? Notes on the State of Virginia, 143.

34 Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 138-42. (18)

________ Note: End Quinby's inline footnotes

We have looked at two possible explanations of the paradox of Jefferson's thought and action on slavery, one based on early Americans' high hopes and self-estimates, one based on Jefferson's whole epistemology. We have passed over in silence the well known—and, to this writer, unconvincing—psychologizing explanations of Winthrop Jordan(19) and Fawn Brodie. The threat of war over the issue--the American war most bloody, which came mercifully after Jefferson's death and ironically between blue and grey armies of white soldiers--depressed Jefferson since before he penned the Notes on Virginia. I doubt that this could have been avoided even if Jefferson had reasoned his way to a more equalitarian stance. Who would have believed him or heeded him? History might then have become more kind to Jefferson, but not necessarily to the slaves, their masters, or the descendants of both.


Addendum, July 4, 2012: What did Jefferson mean by the obscure phrase "might want no fact of distinguished die." For "die" think the singular of "dice," which was correct usage as early as my childhood, in the 1950's. Think of how a whittler would make such a die in 1776. He'd use a long stick that he could easily strap down, and carve five facets on the free end (is "fact" singular for, or a misprint of the singular of "facets"?). Then he would separate (distinguish) the die from the stick, and finish the job on the sixth facet. To want no fact of distinguished di[c]e, then, is a metaphor for completeness. The case is stronger if we think the king's assemblage of horrors comprised five offenses before listing the promotion of slavery, an arguable reading.

This is just a guess, without resort to the O.E.D. or primary sources, but I can't find anything better online. I proposed this in an email to National Public Radio several years ago, when they still broadcast a reading of the Declaration on July 4, and got no response. Here's your chance:

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1. Thomas Jefferson, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1, 1760-1776, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1950) 417-418.

2. Ibid., 420.

3. Ibid., 426. The capitalization, spellings and punctuation are sic.

4. Jefferson much later said of the deletion: "Severe strictures on the conduct of the British King, in negativing our repeated repeals of the law which permitted the importation of slaves, were disapproved by some southern gentlemen, whose reflections were not yet matured to the full abhorrence of that traffic." 4 Dec 1818 letter to Robert Walsh, in Saul K. Padover, ed., A Jefferson Profile: As Revealed in his Letters. (New York, 1956) 300.

5. Congress "eliminated the most extravagantly worded of all the charges--the one about the foreign slave trade. This trade richly deserved condemnation, and the British government had certainly imposed obstacles when the province of Virginia had sought to stop it, but the inhumane traffic and its train of evils could not be so exclusively blamed on George III. The South Carolinians and Georgians were not ready to end it, and the New Englanders were not unaware of the lucrative share they had in it. The Declaration became stronger and fairer when Jefferson's most eloquent passage was left out; this overstrained rhetoric would actually have weakened it." Dumas Malone, The Story of the Declaration of Independence (New York: Oxford, 1954), 77.

6. Philip F. Detweiler, "Congressional Debate on Slavery and the Declaration of Independence, 1819-1821," American Historical Review 63 (April 1958): 598-616

7. John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York: Free Press, 1977), 8.

8. Edwin Gittleman, "Jefferson's `Slave Narrative': The Declaration of Independence as a Literary Text," Early American Literature 8 (1974): 239-256, p. 252.

9. Ibid., 253.

10. Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas (New York: Knopf, 1953), 213-223.

11. Jefferson's most concentrated and comprehensive treatment of this is in Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV. In the edition of Merrill D. Peterson, The Portable Thomas Jefferson (New York: Viking Penguin, 1975, and Penguin, 1977), see 182-194.

12. William Cohen, "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery," Journal of American History 56, no. 3 (1969): 503-526, p. 510.

13. For an insight on Jefferson's ideas about personal industry and republican virtue, consider the out-and-out sumptuary laws he proposed for Virginians when he learned, while he was in France, that they were using British credit to buy high-fashion goods. For such an advocate of limited government, this extravagance must have seemed a real emergency.

14. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Peterson, 186.

15. Jack P. Greene, "Values and Society in Revolutionary America," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 426 (1976), 53-69, p. 56.

16. Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, 1782, cited in Willard Thorp, et al, eds., American Issues, vol 1, The Social Record (Philadelphia, 1941) pp. 104-106, cited in Greene, op. cit.,


17. John Chester Miller, op. cit., 2.

18. Lee Quinby, "Thomas Jefferson: The Virtue of Aesthetics and the Aesthetics of Virtue," American Historical Review 87, no. 2 (1982): 337-356, 351-352

19. Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968) 429-481. Most of this chapter I find very good, but the attempt to probe Jefferson's psyche, carried out on pages 470-471, is, to put it kindly, counter-intuitive.