Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jefferson on Traveling with Your Slaves Outside America

Frequent readers know I'm no fan of Thomas Jefferson the person. Here's the Great Man advising a pal how to slip a slave into France without losing his um, property.  HT: Latham's Quarterly via our friend John Fea:

From Thomas Jefferson to Paul Bentalou, 

25 August 1786

To Paul Bentalou

Paris Aug. 25. 1786.
I am honoured with your favour of the 9th. inst. and am to thank you for your care of the packet from Mr. McHenry, and congratulate yourself and Mrs. Bentalou on your safe arrival in France. I have made enquiries on the subject of the negro boy you have brought, and find that the laws of France give him freedom if he claims it, and that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to interrupt the course of the law. Nevertheless I have known an instance where a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it, has not been disturbed in his possession. I think it will be easier in your case to pursue the same plan, as the boy is so young that it is not probable he will think of claiming freedom. This plan is the more adviseable, as an unsuccessful attempt to procure a dispensation from the law might produce orders which otherwise would not be thought of. Nevertheless should you find that you shall lose the possession of the boy unless protected in it, if you will be so good as to inform me of the facts, I will try whether a dispensation can be obtained. I would rather avoid asking this if you can, by any means, keep the boy without it. I have the honour to be with sentiments of much respect, Sir, your most obedient humble servant,
Th: Jefferson


jimmiraybob said...

It's hard to see how this tarnishes Jefferson without tarnishing Washington, S. Adams, Madison, etc. etc.; e.g., colonial America and early post-Constitution America. You have to wonder what George Whitefield was thinking storming around the country side preaching Jesus' words and then advocating for legal institutional slavery in Georgia.

Perhaps you could do some work and post again with something more substantive about entrenched political-economic (racist) systems and the problems faced by the staunchest of opponents of slavery during this period.

From my vantage point - today - slavery was, and still is, reprehensible. From their writings, I gather that Jefferson, Washington, S. Adams, Madison, etc. , also thought that the institution and practice was reprehensible. At least they worked to give us a political system and moral philosophy with which to frame the issue - the broadly appealing "all men are created equal" - that forced sober reflection on the extant contradiction between the ideal of freedom and the reality of non-freedom and what it means to be human.

As someone recently said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

Well, hopefully.

I can't help to think that the Jeffersons and Washingtons and Madisons of the founding/framing era, as flawed as they and their peculiar institutions were at the time, helped bend that arc in the right direction. (Certainly gave Lincoln, MLK Jr., and the gang something to work with.)

(OK, OK, "...something with which to work."}

So, I guess that your point is that Jefferson, although conflicted and living in a foreign land (the past), was a great founding father and leader of the nation. Cool.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No. Jefferson was telling his pal how to evade French law, but if he got caught, offered to fix it with the authorities.

Unlike Jefferson, what Washington did was legal.


jimmiraybob said...

Oh, I see. You're judging by positive law and not natural law. I thought that it would be the other way around.

As to Jefferson's defiance of French law (1):

"On the same day Jefferson assumed his diplomatic role he wrote to his future secretary William Short that he wished to take his servant James with him to France "for a particular purpose." He asked Short to notify James, and if possible to bring James with him when Short traveled to Philadelphia to meet Jefferson. If that was not possible then Short was to direct James to "immediately come on to me at Philadelphia."[12] The particular purpose Jefferson had in mind was to have James trained in the art of French cookery.[13]"

"James was nineteen when he sailed from Boston with Jefferson and his daughter Martha, familiarly called Patsy, early on the morning of July 5, 1784.[14] The cross-Atlantic trip was uneventful and the trio, after five days on the Isle of Wight, arrived at Le Havre on July 31. Jefferson gave James money to travel alone to Rouen and arrange for their lodgings in that city. Although not knowing the language, the young servant apparently accomplished his task efficiently, since he later returned some of the money to Jefferson.[15] The early experiences of the Hemings males while in Virginia and when traveling through other parts of the country, in the words of one historian, likely "taught them how to function - and that they could function - in the world outside of slavery at Monticello."[16] James continued to learn these lessons in France where he again enjoyed freedom of movement and acquired skills that one day would earn him a living as a free man."


"On February 5, 1796, Jefferson signed a deed of manumission for James Hemings.[30] He was thirty-one years of age. The freed slave left an inventory of kitchen utensils in beautiful script and departed Monticello toward the end of the month.[31]"

While I'm not condoning slavery or the breaking of national laws, it appears that Jefferson's motivation was two fold, 1) one of personal interest - as Hemings performs tasks as a slave, and 2) to give Hemings a personal advantage before manumission.

As I said, conflicted. C'est la vie.

1) http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/james-hemings

Tom Van Dyke said...

No, I was talking about Jefferson telling his pal how to evade French law, and if he got caught, offering to fix it with the authorities.

jimmiraybob said...

"...offering to fix it with the authorities."

Or, as Jefferson wrote, "...I will try whether a dispensation can be obtained."

While initially warning that circumventing the law via a dispensation would be "difficult, if not impossible," he then says that he would, if it was necessary, see what he could do to obtain a dispensation. There's no offer to "fix."

A note at the national archives page, where this letter appears, says that (1), "According to French law, even TJ’s status as a diplomat would not have permitted him to retain ownership of a slave on French soil if the issue had been raised." It's doubtful that Jefferson thought there was much recourse in the law.

It might be interesting to see what was being asked of Jefferson (2),

”Your Excellency’s Benevolence is so well known that I am Imboldened to Intreat your Patronage, in Order to Obtain a permission from the french Ministry for Mrs. Bentalou, who hath accompanied me in this voyage, to keep her Little Negro-Boy, while she Remains in the Kingdom, which will not Exceed Eighteen Month! and I’ll be Ready to Give security if Required for the Complyance thereof. The boy is between Eight or Nine years Old, not only very usefull to Mrs. Bentalou here, as at sea when she’ll Return to America but her feelings would be very much Hurt was she Obliged to send him back and Expose him to be used Ill by a Captain if not spoiled out of her sight by the Bad Example of sailors.

Two things that immediately stand out, 1) Bentalou was not asking for anything untoward and was willing to put up security for compliance with a dispensation (if any such thing were available), and 2) as with Jefferson, their motive was also two fold, 1) personal convenience, and 2) worry for the well-being of the boy should he be sent home post haste.

I wonder what the options would have been for the boy – “Eight or Nine years Old” - under French law? Emancipation and set adrift? Emancipation and designation as a ward of the state, whatever that would have been? Would the Bentalous have been forced to relinquish ownership but still have remained guardians? Answers to these questions would be interesting.

1) Letter: From Thomas Jefferson to Paul Bentalou, 25 August 1786, at:


2) Letter: To Thomas Jefferson from Paul Bentalou, 9 August 1786, at:


Ray Soller said...

George Washington had his own ruse when it came to preventing his household slaves at the Philadelphia "White House" from claiming their freedom. I wrote about it here at AC. It was picked up at the UShistory's website, President's House in Philadelphia

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, but it was legal, previously linked above.


Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I have linked to this post, here:

New blog on the kid : Freedom if he claims