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August 13th, 2020

thomas jefferson statueEARL WATT • Leader & Times


Historians have reported conflicting views of Jefferson and slavery, but a deep analysis shows Jefferson had a somewhat consistent position on the institution of slavery.

Jefferson was not a public speaker about this or other issues of his day. As president, he only gave two public speeches in eight years, and most of his contribution to the Revolution and the formation of the new government under the Constitution came behind the scenes.

During his lifetime, Jefferson owned 600 slaves as one of the largest planters in Virginia, and yet he was troubled by the institution he blamed on the British for ever allowing to be allowed in America in the first place.

He wrote often to friends and colleagues on the sins of slavery while also showing views that while he saw blacks as inferior, they still deserved their freedom.

“I congratulate you, my dear friend, on the law of your state [South Carolina] for suspending the importation of slaves, and for the glory you have justly acquired by endeavoring to prevent it for ever,” Jefferson wrote to his friend Edward Rutledge in 1787. “This abomination must have an end, and there is a superior bench reserved in heaven for those who hasten it.”

Without an education, Jefferson feared releasing slaves would lead to additional abuses of blacks and the inability of them to be able to earn a living.

Jefferson proposed repatriation to Africa and a colony for released slaves in Santo Domingo (present day Dominican Republic), but both failed.

He successfully ended the international slave trade while president, and he also attempted to limit slavery from new territory, but that, too, failed.

Jefferson routinely referred to slavery as “having the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

He also saw how freedom would continue to grow form the Revolution and lead to the end of slavery.

“The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also,” Jefferson said in a letter to James Heaton in 1826. “My sentiments have been 40 years before the public. Had I repeated them 40 times, they would only have become the more stale and threadbare. Although I shall not live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but living or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayer.”

Thirty-nine years later, slavery was abolished in the United States with the 13th Amendment in 1865.

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