Liberty Matters

Intentions, Context, and Principles: Jefferson’s Slavery Problem

The "new historians" of race and slavery call into question the foundational significance of the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence. They render a totalizing judgment on the American founding, discounting patriots' exalted aspirations and discovering their original, unarticulated intentions in the cruel consequences of their deeds. Breaking from Britain did not advance the cause of freedom and liberty. To the contrary, these critics assert, independence enabled enslavers to strengthen the institution of slavery and expand its domain, so making a mockery of the promises Thomas Jefferson and his fellow authors made to a "candid world" in their Declaration.
In the last few days of his life, Jefferson famously proclaimed that American independence was "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government" (Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826, in Peterson, 1984, 1517). Disenchanted critics turn Jefferson on his head. The new nation that the Continental Congress declared into existence in 1776 reinforced a pre-existing racial hierarchy, tightening the chains of an archaic and despotic-and peculiarly American-institution. The Revolution did not initiate a "new order for the ages" or a "new birth of freedom"; there is no progressive "arc" or idealized endpoint to the American story.
Hans Eicholz's analysis of Jefferson's thinking over the course of the Revolutionary crisis is a thoughtful and persuasive rejoinder to the new historians. Given their "highly structured and holistic conceptions of context," these writers banish contingency and collapse chronology, leaving no meaningful space for individual agency and discounting the very possibility of change over time. Because we already know everything that really matters, there is no good reason to waste our time seeking to reconstruct the past on its own terms or to plumb the obscure, never fully retrievable meanings, motives, or lived experiences of particular individuals or groups. They invert novelist L.P. Hartley's famous formulation, their "past is not "a foreign country." It is, instead, the all-too-familiar terrain of our own polarized moment (Hartley, 2002, 17).
By situating Jefferson's Declaration in a sequence of key texts, including his Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774) and Notes on Virginia (1781-1785), Eicholz restores our historical perspective, illuminating the rapidly changing and unpredictable succession of contexts that characterized a revolutionary age. The collapse of British rule authorized conflicting visions of the future, set into high relief by the violence and anarchic disorder of a protracted state of war. Whatever revolutionaries originally intended, the new nation's independence depended on popular political and military mobilization on an unprecedented, massive scale. Jefferson's career as Revolutionary statesman and wordsmith reflected the conceptual-and contextual-confusion of this highly contingent moment.
The "self-evident" principles he inscribed in the Declaration were shaped by its intended audiences in a feedback loop that obscured authorial originality. Jefferson did not aim "at originality of principle or sentiment," he told a late life correspondent, for "there was but one opinion on this side of the water" (Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, in Peterson, 1984, 1501). Of course, the civil war-in-progress belied Jefferson's premise. There was no single, monolithic "American mind" to express before Americans were forced to make the fateful choice for independence, an outcome that very few, if any patriots originally intended-and many still resisted. Jefferson invoked the "harmonizing sentiments of the day" as the source of the Declaration's authority, as if an American "public" already existed and were all of one mind. But "harmonizing" was a transitive verb, a protracted process of persuading and sometimes forcefully coercing more or less reluctant subjects of King George III to pledge allegiance to themselves as citizens of their new republics.
The claim to nationhood was aspirational, appealing beyond Britain to a "candid world" by invoking the law of nations and seeking recognition as an independent nation from "the powers of the earth." Reciprocal recognition among the new states was also critical to creating a "more perfect union" by appealing to the "higher reason" and shared interests of diverse "publics" across the continent. The need to forge alliances at home and abroad simultaneously fostered more universal, inclusive appeals-"rights-talk" in an exalted key-and down-to-earth negotiations and compromises to secure more immediate, material, and sometimes sordid interests-with "rights-talk" focusing on property claims of all sorts, including the ownership of enslaved people.
These are the multiple and proliferating contexts within which Jefferson thought and wrote about race and slavery. Without stipulating a multiplicity of "Jeffersons"-making him nothing more than the creature of these contexts-I would suggest that his acute sensitivity and responsiveness to his audiences shaped his evolving positions. Wise in their hindsight, contemporary critics read Jefferson's indictment of George III's failure to support provincial efforts to regulate the slave trade in his original draft of the Declaration as a laughably transparent exercise in blame-shifting, with white slaveowners imaginatively identifying with the Blacks they enslaved as fellow victims of his "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him." The problem with this controversial passage was one of timing, or what we might describe as contextual confusion.
Jefferson' complaint echoed the outdated logic of the imperial crisis, when George III supposedly still held "the balance of a great, if a well poised empire" and could render equal justice to all of his subjects throughout the empire-even including, at the very furthest stretch of the slaveholder's enlightened imagination, his own slaves. But the empire was beyond saving in the summer of 1776, and it was no longer possible to suggest-in an embarrassingly counter-suggestive rhetorical flourish-that justice could be done to the innocent victims of an unjust institution. With British liberators fomenting servile insurrections-"paying off former crimes against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urged them to commit against the LIVES of another"-reluctant Revolutionaries could only appeal to self-preservation, the first law of nature, and mobilize against an enslaved people's bid for freedom and independence. The conflation of contexts thus made the Declaration fundamentally incoherent. The universal, natural rights principles in its opening paragraphs enabled revolutionaries to promote patriotic mobilization and gain international recognition, but they also could justify counter-revolutionary mobilization of the enslaved. With that threat in mind, Congress's call to arms served as a declaration of war against the enslaved and of its determination to uphold the institution of slavery (Onuf, 2000; Parkinson, 2016).
Slavery came to the fore during the imperial crisis as one among many issues, but by no means the most prominent or contentious one. Had successful negotiations resolved controversies over taxation, representation, commercial regulation, and the distribution of authority in the empire, the institution of slavery would have emerged unscathed, if not strengthened. Jefferson's complaints about George III's failures to cooperate with colonial efforts to regulate the slave trade reflected his own genuine, if very limited antislavery sentiments, but primarily served to underscore a broader, continental argument for provincial rights. Patriots aspired to vindicate their rights and liberties as overseas Britons within the empire and under what they understood (or imagined) to be the imperial constitution (Greene, 2011). In that context, any grievance against any encroachment on provincial rights-and particularly threats to the law-making authority of colonial assemblies-added fuel to patriot fires. But as patriots reluctantly and belatedly recognized that no such constitution existed, resistance gave way to revolution and slavery became a different and much more compelling problem for post-imperial Americans. There could be no continental union-the great desideratum of American politics-without effective constitutional guarantees of property rights in enslaved people (Van Cleve, 2010).
The Declaration might be a model for national liberation and republican self-government that other peoples could follow, but its immediate purpose in post-imperial America, Jefferson explained, was to serve as "the fundamental act of union of these States" (Minutes of the Board of Visitors, University of Virginia, March 4, 1825, in Peterson, 1984, 479). That meant, as Jefferson had written in Notes on Virginia, perpetuating slavery until a better, more enlightened day dawned and masters agreed freely (as republican principles required) to emancipate the captive nation and "declare them a free and independant people" in a country of their own (Query XIV, Notes on Virginia, in Peterson, 1984, 264).
When Jefferson first engaged with the problem in the provincial and imperial context, he could contemplate less drastic, more moderate, incremental, and ameliorative policies that might eventually lead to the institution's demise. But where the Crown had once provided for the collective security and prosperity of its distant provinces, independent Americans now had to defend their own rights and interests-against foreign and domestic enemies, and even against the federal government itself. Jefferson hoped and prayed that Virginians and Americans would eventually, at some distant day, free themselves from the incubus of slavery. In the meantime, he came to terms with the existential threat an enslaved or captive nation posed to American independence in the post-imperial geopolitical context of chronic warfare. In these dire circumstances, Revolutionaries could not assume the moral high ground, for in the race war Jefferson anticipated, "the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a context." The very idea of "revolution" itself took on a new valence when he contemplated "a revolution in the wheel of fortune" that might reverse the racial order in Virginia and throughout plantation America, leaving Black over White (Query XVIII, Notes on Virginia, in Peterson, 1984, 289). Who could foresee the future in a radically insecure and unpredictable world at war?
Jefferson's solution to the problem of slavery that confronted the new nation can only seem cruelly and pathetically inadequate to us now. Emancipation and expatriation (or colonization) reinforced an insidious link between race and nationhood and blocked the way forward toward fulfilling the promise of equal rights and inclusive citizenship. But, by his own lights, Jefferson kept the faith, sustaining a commitment to antislavery-and therefore to the natural rights principles of the Declaration-even as he aided and abetted a hardening regime of racial hierarchy and the westward expansion of America's peculiar institution.
Principles are inextricably bound up with the contexts within which they were originally articulated and the interests they were meant to serve. Jefferson became conscious of the problem of slavery as an enlightened subject of George III in provincial Virginia. Swept up in a continental campaign to vindicate provincial claims to British rights and liberties within the empire, he began to think of slavery as an imperial problem requiring empire-wide solutions. But the failure of provincial patriots to vindicate their conception of the imperial constitution and the onset of war changed everything, including Jefferson's understanding of the existential threat slavery and the enslaved posed to the security and independence of Virginia and the other new American republics. Even as that threat grew, the need to preserve, much less perfect, a tenuous union of states-all implicated, some (like Jefferson's Virginia) deeply invested in and dependent on slavery-severely limited the capacity and will of the post-imperial federal regime to take effective steps toward eradicating the institution.
Perhaps if the American provinces had remained in the empire, having successfully negotiated constitutional guarantees of their rights and liberties, slavery could have set on a gradual and peaceful course toward its ultimate extinction. That counterfactual narrative seems highly unlikely. On the other hand, it does seem clear that the collapse of the empire created conditions-a context-optimally conducive to perpetuating and expanding the institution in the post-imperial United States, notwithstanding the commitment to universal, natural rights principles that animated so many patriots.
Yet it is also true that those principles have been and will be abstracted from the compromising contexts of American nation-making and inspire campaigns for emancipation and equal rights in America and around the world (Spahn, forthcoming). And if such campaigns do not reveal the progressive arc of our history-or of History generally-they do constitute a hopeful tradition to contemplate and cultivate, even in these disenchanted times.
Greene, Jack P., The Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
Hartley, L. P., The Go-Between (1953; New York: New York Review Press, 2002).
Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute, 2016)
Onuf, Peter, Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000)
Peterson, Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson Writings (New York: Library of America, 1984)
Spahn, Hannah, Ambidextrous Philosophy: The Jeffersonian Enlightenment in the African American Tradition (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, forthcoming).
Van Cleve, George William, A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).