Notes and Letters of Thomas Jefferson Regarding Slavery

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Jefferson is a man of unwavering convictions. Through his letters it is clear that he devoted much of his time and political resources to the promotion of his viewpoints on slavery and the mental capacity of black people. In the span of thirty-two years, Jefferson sent and received numerous letters from individuals that shared his point of view regarding slavery. He also exchanged letters with men like Henri Gregoire and Benjamin Banneker who did not fully agree with his writings. Regardless of who he wrote to, Jefferson’s views remained consistent. He believed slavery was morally wrong, slaves should be colonized separate from whites, and black people were mentally and physically inferior to white people.

In Jefferson’s notes on the State of Virginia he proposed the idea that black people should be separated in some way from whites. He cited that the ill memories of slavery in the minds of black people and the long-held prejudices of whites would inevitably lead to a race war. Jefferson did not elaborate on the matter because he believed that this subject would be a bit too radical for his intended audience. The educated and socially powerful white men that would read his notes most likely owned slaves and would not react well to someone mentioning that money should be spent to free their ‘property’ and move them away.

In his private letters, Jefferson was more willing to express his ideas about the relocation of the freed slaves. In his letter to James Monroe, nearly nineteen years after he published his Notes, Jefferson showed that he still held his views. He lamented to Monroe that he did not believe that the land above Ohio would be a suitable place to relocate the freed slaves, citing that it would be too cold and too close to the United States. He went further to say that the West Indies would be the most ideal place because the climate there was warm and black people already lived there. He mentioned to Monroe that the West Indies island of St. Domingo would be most ideal. Eight years later, in a letter to Joel Barlow, Jefferson still held out for the possibility for a relocating the freed slaves to St. Domingo. In his letter to John Lynch in 1811, Jefferson affirmed that he still held to his long-standing belief that the best course of action would be for black people to be removed from the United States.

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Jefferson consistently sited morality as a reason why slaves should be freed. Though his Notes mostly focuses on observation, Jefferson does take the time to point out that the way the slaves were treated made the country look bad. Children saw the way that their parents would treat slaves and the children would mimic their parent’s behavior, thus continuing the cycle. He mentioned these reasons in his notes but does not elaborate. Though he did not mention morally much in his letters to others, he did show in his letter to Edward Coles in 1814 that he was still concerned with the moral conundrum that slavery introduces. Jefferson lamented that many years had passed and there had not been a solid effort made to free slaves, let alone improve slavery conditions. Jefferson told Coles that he should continue the work that has been started as it pertains to the slavery problem in the United States and that he “will be supported by the religious precept, ‘be not weary in well-doing.’”

Jefferson consistently disagreed with the notion that black people had the same mental capacity as whites. When confronted with proof, or alternative thought, on the mental capacity of black people, Jefferson dismissed the evidence as unreliable. In Jefferson’s Notes he devoted many paragraphs to illustrate that black people were inferior. Jefferson claimed that black people had inferior looks, ‘faculty’, and imagination. Jefferson most likely expected educated and influential men to read his notes, so he attempted to make an argument that was backed up with proof from his own observations and from history. He drew comparisons of slavery that occurred in Rome and in the time of Homer to show that white slaves showed more mental capacity than black slaves.

In a letter to Marquis de Chastellux, Jefferson wrote that he read a trusted account of enslaved people in South America developing higher mental capabilities. Even though he trusted the source of this information, Jefferson believed that the current black people were not equal in “body and mind” to white men. Jefferson further stated that he believed it would take many years of ‘cultivation’ for them to reach a comparable mental level.

A letter to Jefferson written by a feed slave named Benjamin Banneker proved that black people were presently capable of being smart. Banneker sent the letter in response to Jefferson’s Note on the State of Virginia. In his response, Banneker eloquently refuted many of the stances that Jefferson took in his Notes. Banneker cited himself as proof that black people were capable of brilliance. In response Jefferson sent a short and passive letter back to Banneker that seemed to only serve the purpose of pacifying Banneker. Eighteen years after he sent his response to Banneker, Jefferson wrote to Joel Barlow that Banneker was only successful because of the help of a white man, Banneker’s neighbor and friend, Ellicot. Jefferson was given a book by Bishop Henri Gregoire that was made up of literature by black people, but Jefferson dismissed this book because Gregoire did not and the book of literature by black people. Even when replying to Banneker and Gregoire, Jefferson held to his beliefs about the inferiority of black people, even though his replies were ‘sugary’.

It is evident by his letters that the abolishment of slavery was a passion throughout later years in life. His relentless views are what made him able to set the framework for what he thought was the best course of action for black people and the United States as a nation. Though Jefferson’s stance did not change he used his political power to incite change in the conditions of slavery.

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