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Thomas Jefferson: A Lifelong Enemy of Racial Equality and Black Freedom

The earliest memory held by Thomas Jefferson was of being handed to and carried by a slave in the direction of the Tuckahoe region of Virginia. Jefferson’s long dependence upon blacks included childhood play with the dozens of African American children on his father’s Tuckahoe plantation. Thomas Jefferson’s family had a long history of relying on bondsmen for the income that would build their wealth and social status as Jefferson’s grandfather, Isham Randolph, accumulated his fortune by slavetrading. Thomas Jefferson himself was given a slave body servant as a child on at least one for the remainder of his life. His special relationship with the Hemings family has been highlighted recently in the monumental works by Annette Gordon-Reed. By age twenty-one Jefferson had inherited 2,500 acres and thirty slaves and would gain 2,500 acres more when his mother died. Marrying Martha Skelton, who would soon inherit one hund red thirty-five additional slaves, Jefferson’s status as a large slaveholder, and, if he desired, a political leader, was secure. Despite these advantages, the that of hundreds of captive laborers, for much of his life, Jefferson faced the problem of personal debt. Given to extravangance and luxury to display the high status he was so proud of, Jefferson relied on wringing increased profits derived from slave labor and an increasing population of slaves he claimed ownership of.

Advising a friend to invest in blacks as slaves, Jefferson calculated that he could count on a four percent profit annually from the birth of slaves from the women he owned. Over the centuries Jefferson's biographers have portrayed a man born to slaveownership who was sincerely against slavery. Yet, even his earliest attempt to reform slavery was quite modest. Jefferson wrote in his autobiography that after he was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1769 he "made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves." The angry rejection of this effort to give more freedom to the individual slaveholder to free his slaves made a lasting impact on the young legislator. The legislation was introduced by his cousin Colonel Richard Bland, whom Jefferson described as a "one of the oldest, ablest, & most respected members" of the assembly. This respected member of the plantocracy was "denounced as an enemy of his country, & was treated with the grossest indecorum" in Jefferson's words.

In his Notes Jefferson impressed liberal French society by putting forth the outlines of a future plan for black emancipation. Teenage slaves would be trained, educated and given skills and resources and, then,sent away to an undetermined area and given land to settle on. Jefferson was convinced, at least at the level of theory, that Blacks had to be separated from whites for social peace. Jefferson famously wrote that:

"Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."

Everywhere he turned, Jefferson was faced with basic contradictions revolving around slaves and race, in his personal life, in his business affairs, and in his public life. In Jefferson's conception, to avoid "staining the blood" of whites, former slaves had to be relocated far from whites. Ideally a formidable geographical barrier would discourage their intermingling. Jefferson held these views despite his own thorough immersion in a "mixed" world. Henry Wiencek noted that Jefferson sold one of his slaves so that she could become the de facto wife of a well-to-do Charlottesville businessman. He wasn't distant from such "mixing" even apart from his own relationship with Sally Hemings. Two of the most talented craftsman at Monticello Joseph Fossett and John Hemings were sons of white men, and numerous other individuals that he would contact daily were involving in such race "mixing."

The slave children's labor was critically important to Jefferson's income. In his effort to modernize slavery, and thus perpetuate it, Jefferson planned a nail factory at Monticello. After he switched crops from tobacco to wheat and children were no longer used for the unpleasant tasks of killing tobacco worms, he established a nailery to take full advantage of their labor. Established in 1794, Jefferson took a personal hand in its operation. "I now employ a dozen little boys from 10 to 16 years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself." The compensation for the nail boys was that they received more food and sometimes better clothes. Illustrating that adequate food for slaves, even at Monticello, could not be taken for granted, much less expected, the nail boys received twice the food rations that adult field hands received. Jefferson celebrated the success of his nailery and was proud that "a nailery which I have established with my own negro boys now provides completely for the maintenance of my family."

Earlier historians in all likelihood covered up the human rights abuses that took place in the nailery, however. Jefferson's Farm Book, edited by one Edwin Betts in the 1950s, omitted a letter from Colonel Randolph to Jefferson that attributed the smooth functioning of the nailery to the whipping of the young boys who worked there. The nail boys, ranging roughly from 10 to 12 years of age, were required to be at the nailery before dawn in all types of weather. If the "small ones," were late they would be whipped "for truancy." Jefferson endorsed all of this and more, when profits from the nailery began to disappoint him he brought in a harsher overseer and let him have a free hand in restoring what he regarded as proper labor discipline to his child slave labor force at the nailery. Jefferson wrote that he felt that the boys, ". . . in truth they require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work." After one of the boys, pressured by this "vigour of discipline," snapped and smashed a hammer into the skull of one of his co-workers, the boy was duly shipped off to "negro purchasers" who would send him to the even harsher plantations of the Deep South. Jefferson ordered that the boy be sold to a place "so distant as never more to be heard of among us. It would to the others as if he were put out of the way by death." This terror would disuade similar acts in the future it was thought.

In contrast to Washington, whose attitude toward the use of black troops in the American Revolutionary War was always clear–-he initially banned them from the army but eventually accepted their presence—Jefferson feared arming Africans, whom he knew desperately wanted freedom. While Jefferson supported the recruitment of blacks in Virginia he refused to offer them freedom for their sacrifices. Hence, many were attracted by Lord Dunmore’s offer of emancipation in return for enlistment in the British army. Blacks in Virginia who were already free from chattel slavery were regarded as a potentially disloyal element vulnerable to the temptation to side with the British. Thirty of Jefferson’s slaves escaped to the British, while thousands of others in Virginia took advantage of the disunity among whites to free themselves. Jefferson himself estimated that roughly 30,000 blacks escaped slavery to the British during the war (but this is a gross exaggeration, Wiencek concludes that Jefferson multiplied the number of his own slaves loss by 100 to obtain this figure). Dunmore’s offer earned him the burning hatred of American revolutionaries such as Jefferson. Undermining the slaveowner’s authority with their slaves or offering an avenue of escape was regarded as the perhaps the lowest, most morally reprehensible act possible as it betrayed the sacred bonds of racial loyalty existing between American and British.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, written in durng the period around 1781 and 1782, and intended originally only to be disseminated among a small circle of French intellectuals, discussed “the deleterious effects of slavery.” Significantly, Jefferson’s concern centers on the negative impact the institution had on whites. Jefferson wrote that the:

. . . whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and degrading submissions on the other. . . The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. . . .

Yet, the most drastic move against slavery Jefferson would even entertain during his lifetime was a program of emancipation so glacial that slavery would remain viable for centuries. Like his slaveholding friends and neighbors, future presidents James Monroe and James Madison, his response to the dilemma facing him as a revolutionary republican and a slaveowner was to hide behind the facade of an hypothetical gradual emancipation program. Why didn’t he emancipate his slaves as did Robert Carter, a slaveowner who in 1791 gradually emancipated his 509 enslaved Africans over the course of a twenty two year period?

In Jefferson’s view the “real distinction” nature made resulted in blacks being distinctly inferior. One other reason he felt blacks must be removed from the country was to avoid racial intermixture which would pollute the white race, fouling its beauty and intellect. He thought the “fine mixtures of red and white” more attractive than “that immoveable veil of black.” His celebration of the beauty of whites can hardly be considered without the reminder that he apparently was attracted to at least some aspects of African physiognomy, as evidenced by his long relationship with the African American woman he claimed legal ownership of, Sally Hemings. Formally, however, he celebrated his ideal of white beauty citing the glory of whites’ “flowing hair” and “more elegant symmetry of form.” Additional evidence cited by Jefferson for the superiority of white physical appearance was that Africans too, regarded whites as such. This, in Jefferson's view, was analogous to what he described as the desire of lower primates for African women. He wrote of “the preferences of the Oran ootan for the black women over those of his own species,” seemingly regarding blacks as belonging to another species.

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Bannecker

Jefferson’s contradictions with regard to blacks and slavery were both numerous and complex containing many dimensions and aspects. In the personal, social, political, and intellectual sense the Founding Father failed in deed to live up to the high principles he could enunciate so eloquently. His exchange with the African American mathematician, surveyor, and astronomer, Benjamin Bannecker of Maryland, vividly illustrates this at the level of the president’s intellectual depth, sincerity, and principle with regard to the question of the level of innate African intelligence. In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote unfavorably of black intellect:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the white; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and hat in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. . . never yet could I find a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain abstraction. . .

Prior to his encounter with Thomas Jefferson, Bannecker apparently sought to use his personal achievements as a fulcrum to advance the cause of black freedom. His goal was to demonstrate the heights that blacks could attain intellectually, even while hampered by a pervasive racism that hemmed in every aspect of their lives as “free” blacks. Between 1792 and 1797, Bannecker published six almanacs in twenty eight editions that were widely distributed in the major cities of the eastern seaboard.

President Thomas Jefferson

President Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President 1801 to 1809

Birth: April 13, 1743, Shadwell, Virginia

Death: July 4, 1826

Education: College of William and Mary

Religion: Deist

Profession: Planter, Lawyer, Politician.

Political Party: Democratic-Republican

Primary Form of Relationship with African-Americans: Slaveowner

Secondary Form of Relationship with African-Americans: Pro-Slavery Politician

In 1791, Jefferson approved Bannecker’s appointment as an assistant to George Ellicott, who was to survey the newly planned American capital. Ellicott and Bannecker were old friends who had already collaborated on astronomical projects. Later that year, Bannecker wrote a letter to Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State. In a bold and courageous challenge to perhaps the most prominent living American, Bannecker expressed the hope that Jefferson would “readily embrace every opportunity” to destroy the “absurd and false ideas” contending that Africans were intellectually inferior. Bannecker told the future president that he was proud of his African heritage and realized his good fortune at not being yoked in the chains of slavery. He duly reminded Jefferson of the lofty phrases enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Bannecker’s anger seems barely contained, at one point it burst through decorum and politeness:

. . . but Sir how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the Same (sic) time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.

Bannecker continued to advise Jefferson to “wean” himself from “narrow prejudices” and to abide by a moral stricture akin to the Golden Rule. Bannecker finally presented Jefferson with the gift of his almanac, recounting that it was produced under “difficulties and disadvantages.”

Jefferson thanked Bannecker for the almanac and promised to examine it as he desired but again stated his doubts that blacks were equal despite his most fervent desire that they be so. However, in his subsequent correspondence, Jefferson seemed less than sincere with respect to his objectivity on the subject. For example, he writes to Joel Barlow three years after Bannecker’s death discussing the work of one Abbe Gregoire whom he had earlier corresponded with. He ridicules Gregoire’s work and comments:

. . . His credulity had made him gather up every story he could find of men of color (without distinguishing whether black, or of what degree of mixture), however slight the mention, or light the authority on which they are quoted. The whole do not amount in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves about Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicott, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed. . . .

The process of reasoning that allowed Jefferson to conclude from a single letter that Bannecker had “a mind of very common stature” remains unclear. Jefferson also seemed to express merely an intellectualized version of the basic slaveholder worldview when he dismissed the talents of black poet Phillis Wheatley. Although he had earlier confessed an inability to critically judge poetry, he confidently pronounced the “compositions published under her name” as “beneath the dignity” of his consideration. Wheatley’s work was defended, in contrast, by such prominent European critics as Voltaire.

Dumas Malone writes that Jefferson eventually was determined to be the most humane and considerate slave master possible. His refusal to emancipate his slaves, according to this view, was an expression of his kindness since they needed his guidance in a cruel world. A more likely explanation of why Jefferson chose to risk his place in history is based on economics. Following the heady and more idealistic phase of the American Revolution, Jefferson faced the reality that he was dependent financially on the production, and reproduction of his African slaves. The slippery and sophisticated Jefferson tended to deflect attention from himself by pointing to the reluctance of his fellow southern slaveowners to emancipate their slaves. He began to oppose even the most timid efforts to urge abolition or to improve the conditions of the enslaved and stood dead set against any federal intervention into the institution of slavery.

Late in life, Jefferson embraced the “states’ rights” position that defenders of slavery, and, later of Jim Crow, employed to argue against federal intervention on behalf of racial justice. Threatened by the legal principles of his political rival Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, also a slaveholder, Jefferson took a position later adopted by South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun. Jefferson’s fear of any possible federal plan to emancipate African slaves is revealing. Any such scenario, he grimly warned, would be catastrophic. He foresaw the wholesale evacuation of “all the whites south of the Potomac and Ohio” and “most fortunate those who can do it first.” With their freedom, he maintained, the blacks would be given a dagger that they would not hesitate to use on whites. For Jefferson black freedom evoked terrifying, horrible images in his mind. Moreover, his prophetic insights on the forces that would make for the American Civil War also suggests that he would have inevitably sided with the Confederacy against the Union.

Jefferson’s political spin on slavery resulted in his portrayal of the institution in the best possible light. In the final analysis his was clearly a mentality based upon slaveholder interests, reflecting their distaste for democracy, skewed moral values, and limited worldview. As a slaveowner, Jefferson strove to obtain the highest profits, and his moral malleability went as far as being able to sell men, women, and children breaking apart families or not allowing them to emerge. He embraced the use of black women as breeders viewing it favorably as a very profitable undertaking. As a politician who represented a slaveholding area Jefferson worked against black emancipation and free blacks throughout his career. As an essayist, thinker or theorist, Jefferson was hardly dispassionate in his consideration of race and slavery. His rationales and notions justifying slavery and black oppression became models for succeeding generations of slaveholder politicians including notably, Senator John C. Calhoun.

Jefferson favored the spread of slavery more openly late in his career, and brooked no federal interference with it. He viewed any prospect of abolition as an unmitigated disaster that threatened the horror of “racial mixture” which would lower the quality of the superior race. Jefferson derided the African mental, spiritual, artistic, musical and intellectual capacities. Moreover, he felt blacks were shortchanged on beauty and personality while being cursed with a naturally foul body odor. Completing the list of what came to be the stereotypic features of American racism was his assertion that blacks naturally desired whites sexually, just as the lower primates desired Africans. Thus, Jefferson as a social theorist elaborated what came to be substantial aspects of American racist ideology.


Brodie, Fawn. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (New York: Norton, 1974).

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia,1997).

Gordon-Reed, Annette. The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

Jefferson, Thomas. "Notes on Virginia" in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 2. (Washington, DC: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903).

Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812. (Baltimore, Penguin, 1969).

Kaplan, Sidney. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1770—1800. (Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, 1973).

Malone, Dumas. Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty, Volume 3 of Jefferson and His Time. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962).

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. (New York: Random House, 2012).

Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. (New York: The Free Press, 1977).

Washburne, Elihu Benjamin. Sketch of Edward Coles. (Chicago: Jansen, McClurg & Company, 1882).

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003).

Wiencek, Henry. Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and his Slaves. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).