Thomas Jefferson's Contradictory Views on Slavery

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  • 0:05 Jefferson & a Complex Issue
  • 1:04 Jefferson as a Slave Owner
  • 1:54 Jefferson's View on Slavery
  • 4:48 Slavery & the Legacy…
  • 5:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll examine Thomas Jefferson's contradictory views on slavery, including the contradiction between his stated view and his personal practice of owning slaves. We will explore the complexities involved with this issue.

Jefferson and a Complex Issue

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...'

These words, taken from the Declaration of Independence, have served to inspire millions of people. The core theme is the idea that all human beings deserve equality. And yet... how could the man who wrote these words have been a slave-owner? Thomas Jefferson's contradictory approach towards slavery has been the subject of intense scrutiny and debate among historians. In this lesson, we will explore this issue and attempt to provide some degree of resolution.

We will only be scratching the surface here. Entire books have been written on the subject, and given the highly controversial nature of this issue, there are a host of views and interpretations. Nevertheless, let's wade forward into the murky waters of Jefferson's views on slavery and see if we can't bring about some clarity.

Jefferson as a Slave Owner

Thomas Jefferson did indeed own slaves. Over the course of his lifetime, he owned some 600 African-American slaves. At his plantation home Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, slave labor was used in a variety of capacities, including the planting and harvesting of crops, construction, maintenance, manufacturing, house-keeping, and other areas. It is believed that Jefferson's slaves were generally well-treated compared to other slaves of the period who endured brutal beatings.

One of Jefferson's most well-known slaves was Sally Hemmings, who was racially mixed (European and African-American). Jefferson is believed to have carried on a long-term sexual relationship with her. He also owned Isaac Granger Jefferson, a blacksmith whose photo is still in existence.

Jefferson's View on Slavery

The irony is, despite being a slave-holder, Jefferson's writings seem to support the notion that he was opposed to slavery. Jefferson called slavery a 'moral depravity' and believed the institution ran contrary to the 'laws of nature, and of nature's God.' In fact, he desired to see slavery abolished.

For example, in 1778, Jefferson introduced legislation that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans to Virginia. A few years later he proposed legislation that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories, but this legislation failed to pass Congress by a single vote.

If you were to go through Jefferson's writings, you would find example after example in which he clearly identified slavery as a social evil that needed to be put to an end. In fact, he believed the institution of slavery threatened the very survival of the nation (which, as we know from the events of the 1860s, was not too far from reality).

Jefferson held racist ideas. He believed African-Americans were inferior to those of European descent. This was the commonly held view of his time. That doesn't make it right, but this was the accepted view of the day, and Jefferson certainly was not alone in holding to this view.

So how was all of this resolved in Jefferson's mind? If you pay attention to one thing in this lesson, pay attention to this statement: basically, Jefferson favored a gradual emancipation, meaning he believed slavery should be abolished in stages. He believed it would be dangerous to suddenly free all slaves at once. He feared racial conflict would erupt. He feared such a radical change would result in harm both to slaves and to white citizens. As a champion of democracy, and the 'will of the people,' he also believed the abolition of slavery should be initiated by the masses, not forced on the masses by a federal government.

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