Friday, August 17, 2012

Question on Jefferson and His Slaves

I sometimes so hyperfocus on the religion issue regarding America's Founders that I miss others. But I won't shooting my mouth off as though I am an expert in those areas only to have someone call out my errors. So someone please correct my understanding if I am wrong. My understanding of Jefferson and freeing his slaves is I think he desired to free his slaves like other founders did, but the problem was his spendthrift nature. He left his estate such debt problems that he ended up not being able to afford to free his slaves.

Is that a fair assessment?


J. L. Bell said...

Jefferson often wrote in the abstract about ending slavery, and participated in the U.S. government's action to bar slavery from the Northwest Territory. However, when other men approached him with their plans to free their own slaves, he was usually unsupportive. His writings in NOTES ON THE STATE OF VIRGINIA suggest an anti-black racism that went beyond the thinking of other men of his generation. Finally, Jefferson didn't write much about the strictures of his indebtedness in his later years, probably because he saw that as an embarrassing failing.

I think it's possible to interpret that evidence as you express it above, but it's also valid to argue that for all of Jefferson's writing about liberty he didn't see freeing his slaves as a good thing and therefore made it a low priority, much lower than buying more wine or more books. And it's quite possible that he had a mix of feelings on the matter, some not fully conscious.

bpabbott said...


I think there are two questions. (1) Did Jefferson desire to free is slaves? and (2) Was he able to free his slaves?

My understanding was that he was unable. Whether he was willing or desired their freedom, I have no idea.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Both thanks.

Yeah, Notes on the State of VA. have some shocking sections on race. Though I'm not sure how "shocking" those passages would have been to contemporaries. The past was a foreign country. What was far more controversial, back then, was the "no God or 20 Gods" line which we libertarians embrace.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"All men are created equal" is a toughie, and Jefferson wrote the damn thing.

To the Platonic or Aristotelian mind, its quite obvious all men are NOT created equal.

Only to the Christian heart are all men created equal, that we are all God's children. {Or any heart that also sees us a God's children, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights...}