Thomas Jefferson and Slavery in Virginia
Thomas Jefferson and Slavery in Virginia
At the bottom it was slavery that divided Virginia along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most members of the convention have agreed with the opinion of the distinguishing delegate, James Monroe, that “if no such thing as slavery existed.. the people of our Atlantic border, would meet their brethren of the west, upon the basis of a majority, of the free white population.” But slavery existed, largely as an eastern institution; and it demanded protection from mere numbers both in the state and in the federal government. By-passed in the convention, the dreaded issue, swollen by the hopes and fears of a terrible torrent, soon locked Virginia in another great debate that ripped wide the seams Jeffersonian heritage.
In the year 1831, a fanatical slave preacher, Nat Turner, and his band massacred about sixty white people, where most of them were women and children. This was by far the bloodiest events in the annals of American history. Jefferson once said, “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only form basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gifts of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? In deed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.” Converting crisis to opportunity, many Virginians hoped for the realization of Jefferson’s cherished goal of gradual emancipation, trusting as well that Virginia’s lead would “impart a resistless impulse” to the whole South. Once again, Jefferson provided the moral justification for western interests, which coincided with emancipation.
The House of Delegates referred the slavery question to a special committee dominated by the eastern conservatives. But before the committee could submit its report, debate erupted in the House on two resolutions which instructed the committee to contradictory courses of action. Thomas Jefferson Tandoph, for the liberals, asked the committee to report on the expediency of placing before the electorate a plan of gradual emancipation. Children of slaves born on or after July 4, 1840 would become the property of the state when they came of age, and would be colonized outside the United States when the return from their labor met the expenses of their removal.
This was, in essence, “the plan of Mr. Jefferson,” as everyone recognized; the plan broached by him in the Notes of Virginia slavery debate was also a debate on Jefferson. Standing on the natural rights philosophy, the reformers argued that slavery was both an injustice to the Negroes land a curse to the whites. The principles of American liberty, they said, embraced the whole of humanity. Let the master debase the slave’s humanity, pervert his feelings, muffle his reason, still “the idea that he was born to be free will survive it all. It is.. a torch lit up in his soul by the hand of the Deity and never meant to be extinguished by the had of man.”
The slave system weakened the moral restraints of Christianity. It made industry dishonorable. It retarded popular education and free inquiry. This was another example of how Jefferson’s striking language became “stereotyped in the public voice.” No other words from his pen, or perhaps from any pen, were more often quoted as gospel by anti-slavery men. Jefferson’s “false picture” of Virginia society, “has gone forth to the world as our true character as Benjamin W. Leigh complained in the press. The defender of slavery worked mainly with the ideas of their conservative predecessors in the convention of 1829; however, they introduced not important modification.
They were forced to contend now not only for the supremacy of the master race. Defending racial inequality and slavery as laws of nature, attested by all history, the eastern delegates superimposed a still nebulous ideology of white supremacy upon the older conservative ideology of property. The slaves, they said, were happy with their lot, and the whites were more equal and more republican because of this labor system. Increasingly, throughout the South, racial inequalities would be substituted for economic ones, color would become the badge of aristocracy, and class issues would be smothered by the blanket appeal to racial solidarity. Pro-slavery ideology divided society not between the rich and the poor but between the whites and the black.
Having assailed the natural rights premises of the reformers, the conservatives went on to argue that emancipation was impractical. What better proof was wanted that Jefferson’s own conduct – he never liberated his slaves, but “perpetuated their condition by the last solemn act of his life; which is sufficient.. to put to flight all the conclusions that have been drawn from the expressions of his abstract opinions.” His scheme of emancipation was only a day dream. He never went before the public as its advocate. Posterity could not venture what he dared not attempt: “The fragments of a great man’s thoughts are not only valueless but dangerous.
The same genius which conceived them is necessary to fill up their details.. When Hercules died, there was no man left to left his club.” Many things foredoomed the Jeffersonian plan to failure; none, however, was as significant for Jefferson’s place in the southern imagination as the doctrine of state rights. Jefferson, as its champion, had often condemned federal intervention of any sort with slavery in the states. Finally realizing in 1824 that Virginia could never bear the financial burden of compensation and colonization, he put aside his constitutional scruples and proposed the diversion to the states of federal revenue from the public lands in order to effect emancipation.
According to Thomas R. Dew wrote in his influential Review of the slavery debate the whole movement of emancipation, “is but too well calculated to furnish the political lever by which Virginia is to be prised out of her natural and honorable position in the Union..” The reformers hoped that the flood of light turned upon slavery in 1832 would result in its early extinction. But Carolina Nullification, not emancipation, was the absorbing issue of the succeeding session of the legislature, and from this state rights crisis the promising onto-slavery movement never recovered.