Thomas Jefferson on Slavery and Liberty

Thomas Jefferson

This lengthy passage from the eighteenth chapter of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) demands the serious scrutiny of every historian who genuinely wants to understand both the nature of human freedom and its historical meaning. Few paragraphs have delved so frankly and deeply into the effects of slavery to reveal as much as this encapsulation.

“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. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to the worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.”

From a time when most slave owners either remained silent about their trade in men or only occasionally expressed discomfort with it, the sources will be few that speak so openly about its daily afflictions. One has to ask, why did Jefferson write it? But the passage goes well beyond the merely personal, to reflect on the wider implications for the public:

“And with what execrations should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriæ of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?”

By the time Jefferson had written Notes, he had already served as the chief draftsman of the Declaration of Independence, and as Virginia’s revolutionary Governor. Whatever came from his hand, would be seriously considered by the public at large. As such, we can surmise that he meant the chapter on slavery to be read as much in the way of a personal confession as a warning to his country. Conscience and practice did not sit easily in his mind. In both voice and delivery can be found conviction and reason for detesting all forms of human tyranny and this conviction did not alter with time though other thoughts would increasingly serve as an excuse for not taking immediate action on his part. The tension brought about in conscience by ideas is perhaps the strongest motive force for historical change. Such tension does not always resolve itself in favor of the good, but it does reveal the ever-present potential for it. Far from showing a unified predetermined system structuring human actions, the dialectic of thought and practice exhibited in such passages as these illustrates the necessary tension out of which hope emanates. To better understand this important member of the founding generation, this text affords an excellent place to begin one’s deliberations.