Writers for Conservatives, 71: The Wolf by the Ears — Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, by J. C. Miller
The title, an image used by Jefferson to express the dilemma of Southerners who wanted to abolish slavery but couldn’t find ways to do it, is an apt summary of this book, a thorough account of Jefferson’s thinking on the subject from the 1780s until his death in 1826. The history of the period, before slavery (thanks to Calhoun) was regarded as a positive good, makes for very sad reading because abolition had more support then than it had later, and prominent men, like Washington, were known to despise it.
Jefferson’s role in the arguments of the time begins with his “Summary View of the Rights of British America” (1774), publication of which may have led to his being picked to write the Declaration of Independence. In the “Summary View” he claimed that slavery had been forced on Americans by George III. His belaboring of the issue in the first draft of the Declaration was cut out by his collaborators. Later, his draft of a constitution for Virginia, advocating gradual abolition, was rejected, and so was the same project in his contemplated revision of the laws of Virginia. The Continental Congress’s Ordinance of 1784, prohibiting slavery in the territories ceded to the government by the states, was lost by one vote (the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 banned slavery north of the Ohio River in the territories).
After peace was established and stringencies of wartime were relaxed, Jefferson was dismayed to see that the ostentation and self-indulgence he had deplored before the war, and which he had attributed to the “demoralizing influence of monarchial government and slavery,” had returned, and he preached “frugality, temperance, and the simple life of the American farmer.” He blamed the credit advanced by British merchants. His thinking on this point — he maintained his prejudice against Great Britain and “Monarchism” to the end — was not merely simple-minded but almost hallucinatory.
From 1785 to 1790 he lived in Paris as the minister to France, and he wrote Notes on Virginia in which he had his full say in print, for the first and last time, on slavery. At first the book was circulated in manuscript because it was intended only for the eyes of French savants. It was only when a pirated edition was published that he agreed to its publication, and then only anonymously with limited circulation. In it he condemned the Virginia constitution of 1776, expressed his abhorrence of slavery, and asserted the inferiority of Negroes’ intelligence. He feared that his condemnation of slavery would be premature and would strengthen resistance to its abolition. This was to be a constant theme throughout his life.
The point should be made that Jefferson was mainly concerned, not so much with the slaves, but with the effect of slavery on the white masters, insisting that it debased them. He thought Negroes were inferior and when they were freed should be banished from America, because he feared race war and miscegenation.
I should say something about the Sally Heming story, presuming that my readers will know about it, or at least Fawn Brodie’s version of it. In fact, the story was started by James Callender, an amazingly scurrilous writer (he can hardly be called a journalist) who had fled from Great Britain after publishing a diatribe against his country, a book which confirmed Jefferson’s worst prejudices and inspired him to call Callender a “man of genius.” He gave the rogue money and promised to further his publishing career. Jefferson was then Vice President in Adams’ Federalist administration. Callender published a book attacking the Federalists. Jefferson bought fifteen copies. Then Callender wrote The Prospect Before Us, blacking the reputations of Hamilton, Washington, and Adams, a book which Jefferson read in proof. After Jefferson became President in 1800, Callender, for reasons too involved to explain here, turned against him, made a Richmond paper into an anti-Jefferson scandal sheet, and invented the Sally Heming story. Miller devotes a chapter to it and to my mind, convinces me of its falsity (and the falsity of Fawn Brodie’s account as well). Incidentally, we are mistaken if we think the bitterly partisan tenor of the media today is unprecedented, as even a cursory glimpse of the newspapers of Jefferson’s time will show. The Sally Heming story (complete with a “dusky harem”) was printed in a Richmond paper. Talk about “fake news”!
Controversy erupted in 1819 over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. Southerners wanted it because it affected the balance of power in the Senate, but a group of Northern Jeffersonian Republicans broke away from the domination of the Virginian dynasty to sponsor the Tallmadge amendment forbidding slavery there. After all, Missouri was north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Amendment passed the House, but lost in the Senate. What interests us is Jefferson’s reaction. He saw the Amendment as an attempt by Northerners to use the federal government to crush the South, and he went so far as to advocate legalizing slavery in all the territories, arguing that by diffusing the ownership of slavery over such a vast area (he thought, for some reason that they would be small farms) in small groups, abolition would be easier. He was violent in his denunciations of what he thought of as Northern aggrandizement.
This account of Jefferson’s thinking about slavery, politics, and American prospects is depressing, but we should think of him and his choices in the context of his time. It is not generally realized how constrained Southerners, especially Virginians, were then, but once we know how Virginia was molded in the 17th century by the royal governor Berkeley (who ruled from 1641 to 1670) who was determined to make it a royalist colony by encouraging the immigration of royalists (willing to leave Great Britain at the time of their Civil War and Cromwell’s Commonwealth), the vigor and persistence of slavery is explained.
These royalists were granted extensive parcels of land for tobacco plantations, and of course, they were worked by slaves. Indentured servants, common then, soon gained their freedom and went off to small farms of their own, but slavery created a stable working class; they were going nowhere. Slavery was created to perpetuate the Southern system and it could not be abolished without destroying that system.
People, even historians as shrewd as Allan Nevins, often express the wish for an inspired leader who, in the decades before the Civil War, could have solved the great issue, but that could never be. It took 600,000 lives to begin the job and another century to finish it. *