Reply To: the Unpleasant Question


I realize I’m beating a dead horse here, but I’m curious what your thoughts are.

Though I am aware of his statements and actions in opposition to slavery at times, when we went to Monticello last year, I left with a jaded view of him. The guide, named Virginia McDonald (I recommend her for the behind the scenes tour for anyone who hasn’t done it) told us when I asked her about it that Jefferson used his slaves as collateral for mortgages. I was disillusioned by the fact that he could have freed them before doing this and either sent them to another country (like Britain, since France was in upheaval) or set them up with land elsewhere as compensation for his crimes against them (like Coles did), but instead chose to make them collateral on a loan, which would make it illegal to free them due to the fact that there was a lien on them. I understand that he was indebted, but the fact that he didn’t sell his estate to pay those debts and instead chose to forfeit his right to free them in order to keep living in that opulent mansion while he kept his slaves out of sight on that mulberry row seems disgusting to me, regardless of his wonderful views on most other things.

Also shocking was seeing his childrens’ names on lists of inventory, and the fact that he allowed his children to live as slaves until they were in their late 20’s. I couldn’t help but think that that behavior was incompatible with someone being a good man.

In your interview with Tom on the NR article about Hamilton, you point out that he tried to end slavery as a young member of the House of Burgesses, condemned slavery in the first draft of the Declaration, and assured Edward Coles that he was antislavery and thought that Coles should keep trying to achieve success in bringing an end to slavery in Virginia.

But later in that letter to Edward Coles, he advises Coles NOT to move away to a different state where he can more easily free his slaves because it would lead to “amalgamation” (bi-racialism) which “produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent”. To me, that letter seems like he is talking out of both sides of his mouth because on the one hand he says it is a Christian thing to do to fight to end slavery, but on the other he says to not actually free the slaves Coles owned because it would have a negative effect on society due to blacks’ inferiority.

Because of these facts and his participation in it, I am not convinced that he was genuine in his desire to see slavery end. It almost seems to me like he had idealism in his youth but then succumbed to the perverse self-serving interest of being a slave owner later in his life when faced with the idea of actually tending to his own sustenance rather than sitting in his study etc. I don’t get the impression that he was simply hemmed into being a slave owner by virtue of the laws in his state or by his inheritance, as people who rightly admire him in other respects often suggest. His participation in the American Colonization Society seems admirable, but if he was truly dedicated to the idea that people ought not be owned, why didn’t he take steps in his own life to get rid of it?

Do you think he was really sincere about slavery? If so, how can we reconcile the fact that he participated in it and didn’t actually act on his words while he had contemporaries who did?