Thomas Jefferson on Slavery and the Wrath of God

Thomas Jefferson

Found in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, 12 vols.

In the lines of this quotation, Thomas Jefferson touches on certain core ideas about what the best life for the individual is, and what the moral order of nature demands ethically. It was these aspects of his thinking that never allowed him to make peace with the institution of slavery.

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? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. (FROM: QUERY XVIII The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that State?)

From the seventeenth century forward in both Europe and America, philosophical thinkers increasingly drew ethical and moral implications from observations about the orderliness of nature and the apparent rationality of its creation. Jefferson participated fully in these developments and his Notes on the State of Virginia, written between 1781 and 1785, is a prime example of this way of thinking. Specifically, Jefferson commented on a wide variety of scientific, philosophical and social subjects that included thoughts about right behavior, using his observations of his home state as the basis for many of his arguments.

In the opening line we find Jefferson disparaging the fact that the masters of slaves in Virginia were only very rarely to be seen laboring by the side of their slaves. To labor in the earth on one’s own property, was thought by Jefferson, and many others of his day, to be a powerful reinforcement of the faculty of personal self-government. By laboring in the earth, those who toiled on their own lands, remained close to nature. Being close to nature, the yeoman farmer remained close to the created order which “Nature and Nature’s God” had established. Without that vital link, however, not only is the salutary exercise in the critical faculty of self-government neglected, but men soon forget that “their liberties are the Gift of God.”

Turning thus away from God’s lawful order by disdaining to work on their own plantations, Virginia’s slave owners, he feared, were tempting fate. It was only to be expected that eventually a “revolution of the wheel of fortune” would ensue to restore that which was just and natural. In the process Jefferson believed, the slave would one day seek not only freedom but perhaps the subjugation of his subjugators. In such a contest, he warned, “The Almighty has no attribute that can take side with us in such a contest.”

This thought remained constant in Jefferson’s mind to the end of his days.