Did Thomas Jefferson Support Slavery?

Ben Fellows

3 mins

10 Aug 2018

Most historians who specialise in the life of Thomas Jefferson would agree that the issue of slavery is the most controversial aspect of Mr Jefferson’s life and legacy.

On the one hand Jefferson is a founding father who admonished King George III for the crimes of slavery. On the other hand, Jefferson was a man who owned many slaves. So the question is, did Jefferson support slavery?

In the 19th Century the abolitionists (a movement to stop slavery) proclaimed Jefferson the father of their movement. It is easy to see why this was.

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Jefferson wrote eloquently on the need to abolish slavery, most notably in a draft of the Declaration of Independence (although not included in the final version) that blamed King George III for crimes against humanity for his complicit part in the slave trade.

However, despite these eloquent writings, Jefferson was a slave owner who only ever freed the slaves who were related to him (Jefferson had 6 children with Sally Hemmings who he owned as a slave).

In contrast, George Washington not only freed all his slaves but made provisions for their well-being, including things such as training and pensions.

washington

A portrait of George Washington who, in contrast to Jefferson, made clear his anti-slavery stance by freeing his slaves.

Historians who try to defend Jefferson claim that we cannot judge him by today’s standards. This is a vitally important lesson for any historian; however, many of Jefferson’s contemporaries including Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush were members of abolitionist societies and were publicly opposed to slavery and the slave trade.

We can also learn from Jefferson’s many letters and writings that he believed that blacks were inferior intellectually and morally to whites. In a letter to Benjamin Banneker, August 30th, 1791, Jefferson claims that he wishes more than anyone that it is proven that blacks have “equal talents” to white men but goes on to claim that the evidence does not exist for this.

Thomas_Jefferson's_Monticello

Jefferson’s Monticello home which was situated on an extensive slave plantation.

However, a common theme from Jefferson’s writings on slavery is that of what happens to the slaves if and when they are freed. In a letter to John Holmes in 1820 he said “we have the wolf by the ears, we cannot keep hold of him yet we cannot let him go”.

Jefferson was aware of slave rebellions occurring, most notably in Haiti and Jamaica and feared a similar occurrence in the United States. He came up with several solutions, but they involved freeing slaves and removing them from the United States. It is partly for this reason he insisted that it was for future generations to free slaves and abolish the slave trade.

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Despite Jefferson’s greatness in many areas, the hard truth is that Jefferson was a defender of slavery. He needed slaves for his own labour needs; he believed slaves were intellectually and morally inferior to white men and did not believe that freed slaves could exist peacefully in the United States.

Furthermore, the examples of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and George Washington show that Jefferson had the opportunity to oppose slavery, and free his saves in his lifetime but chose not to.