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Thomas Jefferson and Slavery Essay

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Should a man suffer condemnation for his thoughts or views? This is a question that one may pose while studying the Jeffersonian era. Did our third President, Thomas Jefferson, allow his personal mission towards developing a Republican society leak into his Presidency to the point where blacks and Indians would pay for his beliefs? If so, to what extent did his beliefs have an effect on blacks and American Indians of the early nineteenth century? How did he feel about the slave and Indian population? Did he have a preference towards one population over the other? If so, did he provide considerations for one more than he did so for the other? In this article, we will review the primary and secondary sources of Jeffersonian mentality, actions, and policy.

In the end, we must decide whether Jefferson was for the people, meaning all of those who inhabited the United States, or simply for a Republican society. We must be able to judge his words against his actions while in the office of the President.

The first issue we must address is Jefferson’s feelings about blacks and the Indians. As stated in Ronald Takaki’s piece, Within the “Bowels” of the Republic, Jefferson held strong feelings towards the Indians and the blacks. Surely, both groups were quite beneficial to Jefferson. The blacks were his resource to wealth. Jefferson knew that owning black slaves and the breeding of additional slaves was the key to his wealth. As a republican, Jefferson felt that debt was to be loathed and that blacks could bring him out of debt. Indeed, they did this very thing, making Jefferson a very wealthy man. Jefferson also found use in the Indians who provided excellent guidance to Lewis and Clark during their expedition.

However, while Jefferson found both of these groups to be useful, he also had very legitimate fears. Concerning blacks, Jefferson felt that while holding them as slaves was wrong and against a Republican stance against despotism, freeing them would cause civil insurrection. Freed slaves would not be able to forget the intolerable conditions under which they had suffered as bondsmen. In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, he stated,

“Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in extermination of one race or another.” (Holitz, 103)

Understandably, Jefferson had a reason to worry. Slaves had been herded to the colonies, mistreated, and rarely rewarded for their work. Any sane man would be able to come to the conclusion that allowing a group so oppressed to reason, act, and live on their own may lead to free thinking and violence towards those who held them in oppression. Jefferson also felt that the slaves were unintelligent and ruled by their emotions and desires for physical fulfillment rather than a desire for intellectual development. In a 1784 article written by Jefferson, he expressed his concerns for the blacks desire to take their woman for instant sexual gratification, rather than for pure love. He also insinuated that they did not have an appreciation for art or written language. While Jefferson’s feelings towards the blacks were harsh, the Indians did not fair much better.

Jefferson did feel that the Indians were more intelligent than the blacks. In the same article where Jefferson condemned the blacks for seeking physical fulfillment and making unwise decisions, he praised the Indian population for their ability to convey messages about their people and develop a language using drawings. Like the blacks, Jefferson also felt that the Indians had suffered great wrongs in being pushed out of their land for the further development of the United States. Once again, he realized that by allowing Indians to stay in their homeland, living their lives as they wished, would cause them to rise up against any further Republican developments in the regions beyond the Mississippi.

While both races of peoples provided Jefferson with advancements in social and personal wealth, Jefferson clearly had preferences concerning how each race was to be treated in the development of his much sought after Republic. Jefferson felt that the keeping the slaves in the States as freemen was not a wise choice. In his, Notes on the State of Virginia, he said, “We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation is in the other.” As mentioned before, whether right or wrong, the reasoning behind this philosophical viewpoint was valid. So, what did he wish to do about this dilemma? For the state of the slaves, he beckoned for assistance in reassigning their location to separate colonies within the country or outside of the country. In 1801, Jefferson addressed this very issue. He approached a few different alternatives to the placement of freed slaves. The first was to obtain lands outside of the United States where he could place the slaves. If that did not work, he was also interested in sending them to Virginia.

His wording and true intentions as to how eager he was to remove the slaves from the general population was seen when he stated, “It is hardly to be believed that either Great Britain or the Indian proprietors have so disinterested a regard for us, as to be willing to relieve us by receiving such a colony themselves…” While he went on to say that he did not think sending the blacks to the Indians was a good idea because of the cold climate in the western regions of the United States, his words indicated that they would be “relieving” the United States from such a burden. In the end, Jefferson concluded that if the blacks could not be carted off to separate colonies, Virginia, Great Britain, or to the Indians, he would be willing to send them back to Africa. If an Indian of Jefferson’s time were to analyze the way they were being treated and the policies that Jefferson implemented for or against them, they may say, “He speaks with fork in tongue.”

While Jefferson was willing to tolerate the Indians, he would only go so far as to allow them to stay in their homeland if it were convenient to him and the Republican agenda that he represented. Jefferson was pushing towards a “civilized” Indian population, free of any Indian Nations that they once knew. He mocked their ways of hunting, stating that civilized men farmed. He tried to reason with them by telling them that hunting for food did not guarantee that a man would eat, while farming would. Takiki, indicates that Jefferson was inclined to allow the Indians to stay only if they adapted to the American, more importantly, Republican way of life. Otherwise, they were “welcome” to move on to lands outside of US interests. As Jefferson was making this jaded offer to the Indians, he was also making it very clear that if they chose not to do as he wished, they would not be allowed to stay in the country.

Jefferson felt that he needed a full commitment from the Indians, free from any British ties in order to welcome them into the fold. Concerning free thinking and British acclamations, he stated, “No nation rejection our friendship and commencing wanton and unprovoked war against us, shall ever remain without our reach…” (Holitz, 108) Make no mistake, Jefferson was unquestionably willing to allow the Indians to stay if they converted. He made it clear that if the Indians were to make the choice to convert and live in an agricultural setting, he would see to it that Americans mixed blood with the Indians through marriage and they would be welcome to live side by side with white Americans. When it became apparent to Jefferson that this was not much of a possibility of this happening, he made a draft in the Louisiana Purchase that stated,

“The Legislature of the Union shall have authority to exchange the right of occupancy in portion where the U.S. have full rights for lands possessed by Indians within the U.S. on the East Side of the Mississippi: to exchange lands on the East side of the river for those…on the West side.” (Holitz, 109)

No matter which way one looks at the preferences that Jefferson held for the Indians over the blacks, he had little more interest or use for them outside of his own wishes for the Republican way of life. His scheme to move the blacks out of the country in order to prevent civil insurrection was no better or worse than his plan to move Indians out of their homeland if they did not wish to follow the Republican agenda.

In conclusion, it is clear to see that Jefferson carried a heavy burden as the third President of the United States. While most people can have their own opinions and be permitted to quietly display them or not display them at all, Thomas Jefferson was in the limelight. His views probably were not that much different than many Americans of his day. To judge a man for the way he thinks and acts before we know his situation is a shame. Jefferson, while wrong to believe in humanitarian efforts and act otherwise, was simply following the call of his time.

Today, we can look back on the progression that is made from generation to generation and see that as our views change, our humanitarian efforts and a strive to do what is right also change for the better. Fortunate for black and Indian citizens, certain protections that Jefferson would have never afforded to them have been granted today in a democratic society.


John Hollitz, Thinking Through the Past: Volume 1: To 1877, Second Edition, (Houghton Mifflin Company; Boston, 2001) Pp. 96-118.

Parallel discussion – A Biography of America, videocassette teaching materials.

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