Liberty Matters

Final Response


Hans Eicholz in his initial essay and Morel, Onuf, and Spahn in their responses have all presented approaches to the problem of Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration, and Slavery and detailed discussions that could go on far beyond the scope of this project. I have learned a lot and will be thinking about the issues raised well into the future. However, for my final response, I would like to return to Notes on the State of Virginia (1785/1999), because Jefferson's racial views, as expressed there, have become as much his legacy as the Declaration.
Hans Eicholz argues, in his lead article:
"In Notes there is both the attempt to square his own inconsistencies in the elements of his thoughts with himself and the European intellectual world he is addressing, but equally important, he is speaking as a Virginian to fellow Virginians. These considerations diverted him away from the higher public reason of the Declaration. The Notes certainly contain conflicting sentiments in the chapters on manners and laws, but they permit the kind of special pleading and political maneuvering that would have signaled to other Virginians that he was perhaps not so radical after all..."
I have no doubt that this assessment identifies a prime motivation that Jefferson had in calculating what he needed to do to assume office, for politics was as alive and well in the 18th century as it is today. But what is revealing in Jefferson's assessment of people of African descent (blacks) is how it reflects the attitudes of many Virginians and other southerners - attitudes that became institutionalized in southern culture and spread to American culture as a whole, forming much of the basis for the systemic racism that so many people want to deny. If Jefferson's words sound contemporaneous, that's because the ideas that he proffers in Query XIV of Notes reflect attitudes from that era that have been passed on from one generation to the next through American culture.
Jefferson believed that whites and blacks could not exist in the same national space, primarily because of those "deep rooted prejudices" by whites and "ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained (145)." And while this appears to be a reasonable assumption, in the text that follows, Jefferson reveals his own racial prejudices, and, finally, the real reason for this imagined incompatibility.
Jefferson elaborates on physical differences, such as "colour" as "a difference fixed in nature," which is responsible, according to Jefferson for the "greater or less share of beauty in the two races," plus the inability to see emotions in blacks because of their dark skins, while they show readily in blushing whites with their fair skins. To this Jefferson adds differences in hair and the supposed preference of blacks themselves for whites, which he disgustingly compares to the supposed preference of "Orantootan" (presumably Orangutan apes) for black women "over those of his own species (145)." Jefferson assigns "superior beauty" to whites. To this he adds less body hair on blacks and "a very strong and disagreeable odour," which he attributes to differing internal functions, along with more tolerance to heat and less to cold. He states that "they seem to require less sleep" since they stay up late after working hard all day, though later he will attribute the tendency to fall asleep to their lack of intellectual vigor (146).
While Jefferson attributes comparable braveness and adventurousness to blacks, he then undermines these attributes in blacks by stating that blacks lack the ability to assess dangers ahead of time. He also denies blacks the ability to love, stating that blacks mostly display desire. According to Jefferson, blacks also do not grieve as much or as long as whites, feeling much less and quickly forgetting their misfortunes. "In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course" (146).
The physical characteristics of blacks that Jefferson writes about remain a part of the stereotype of blacks in the United States, promoting their physical prowess, only to use it to intimate a more animalistic nature, or to add another item to the list of black inferiorities.
The following equations are established by Jefferson between blacks and whites: memory, equal to whites; reason, inferior to whites; imagination, "dull, tasteless, and anomalous." But Jefferson also holds to the mistaken notion that black qualities are improved to the extent that they mix (read interbreed) with whites. "The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by everyone, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life" (148).
Jefferson then reiterates the necessity of removing blacks to a separate place from whites: "When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture" (151). Thus, the real reason why Jefferson thought blacks and whites needed to be separated. Anti-miscegenation laws reflecting this idea persisted in many states until shot down in Loving v. Virginia 1967.
There is not only a willful ignorance expressed in Jefferson's assessment of blacks, but his own lack of reasoning in connecting some of the behavior he describes with the lives that blacks are forced to live. A man who spent hours and hours reading in the comfort of his home, taking exercise at his own convenience, and retiring at night when he desired, nevertheless shows an amazing lack of empathy for the people who provided his livelihood through their labor.
Jefferson's words serve as irrefutable evidence of his own racial views, but they also serve as a marker of time and place that allows us to conclude that these ideas have migrated across time through American culture. There has been great progress in American society since Jefferson's time largely due to the insistence of blacks and whites alike that the Enlightenment principles put forth by the founders are the basis upon which rights can be claimed and must be acknowledged. But many of the attitudes from Jefferson's time linger on. These twin streams - individual liberty and the racial oppression of blacks by law and by custom - are both unwitting legacies of Thomas Jefferson, and we will continue to grapple with them intellectually, even as activists grapple with them in Congress, in the courts, and in the streets of the United States of America.