Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Pathetic Decline of Thomas Jefferson

At the beginning of his new book A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic, George William Van Cleve juxtaposes earlier and later letters of Thomas Jefferson on slavery.

Jefferson wrote the first letter on August 7, 1785 to Richard Price, an English radical. Price had published a pamphlet earlier that year, entitled Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution, in which he had, among other things, argued that the logic of the American Revolution required the abandonment of slavery:
The negro trade cannot be censured in language too severe. It is a traffic which, as it has been hitherto carried on, is shocking to humanity, cruel, wicked, and diabolical. I am happy to find that the united states are entering into measures for discountenancing it and for abolishing the odious slavery which it has introduced. Till they have done this, it will not appear they deserve the liberty for which they have been contending. For it is self-evident that if there are any men whom they have a right to hold in slavery, there may be others who have had a right to hold them in slavery. I am sensible, however, that this is a work which they cannot accomplish at once. The emancipation of the negroes must, I suppose, be left in some measure to be the effect of time and of manners. But nothing can excuse the united states if it is not done with as much speed, and at the same time with as much effect, as their particular circumstances and situation will allow. I rejoice that on this occasion I can recommend to them the example of my own country. In Britain, a negro becomes a freeman the moment he sets his foot on British ground.
In writing to Price, Jefferson positioned himself as a sympathetic ally who expected that most enlightened Americans would eventually come to see the correctness of Price's argument (paragraph breaks added):

From my acquaintance with that country [America] I think I am able to judge with some degree of certainty of the manner in which it [Price's pamphlet, in which he argued that the continued existence of slavery was inconsistent with the American Revolution] will have been received. Southward of the Chesapeak it will find but few readers concurring with it in sentiment on the subject of slavery.

From the mouth to the head of the Chesapeak, the bulk of the people will approve it in theory, and it will find a respectable minority ready to adopt it in practice, a minority which for weight and worth of character preponderates against the greater number, who have not the courage to divest their families of a property which however keeps their consciences inquiet.

Northward of the Chesapeak you may find here and there an opponent to your doctrine as you may find here and there a robber and a murderer, but in no great number. In that part of America, there being but few slaves, they can easily disencumber themselves of them, and emancipation is put into such a train that in a few years there will be no slaves Northward of Maryland.

In Maryland I do not find such a disposition to begin the redress of this enormity as in Virginia. This is the next state to which we may turn our eyes for the interesting spectacle of justice in conflict with avarice and oppression: a conflict wherein the sacred side is gaining daily recruits from the influx into office of young men grown and growing up. These have sucked in the principles of liberty as it were with their mother's milk, and it is to them I look with anxiety to turn the fate of this question.
Thirty-five years later, however, in his famous April 22, 1820 letter to John Holmes, Jefferson was inveighing against those who advocated restriction of slavery in Missouri as guilty of "treason against the hopes of the world":
If they [the advocates of restriction] would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.
And the following year, in a February 13, 1821 letter to John W. Taylor (which I cannot find online), Jefferson was reduced to fulminating against advocates of restriction as "Northern bears [who] seem bristling up to maintain the empire of force."

The illustration, entitled Smelling Out a Rat, "shows Richard Price seated at a desk, he turns to look over his right shoulder at a vision of an enormous Edmund Burke, his spectacles, nose, and hands emerge from the haze, a crown in one hand and a cross in the other, on his head an open copy of his 'Reflections on the Revolution in France....' Hanging on the wall is an illustration of the beheading of Charles I titled, 'Death of Charles I, or the Glory of Great Britain.'"


  1. Van Cleve has come to the almost universal conclusion among modern academics that the Constitution is a proslavery document. Which begs the question: why did the slave states abrogate it?

  2. Incidentally, somehow I doubt Burke would have been too flattered by this likeness.


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