Thomas Jefferson famously declared that “all men are created equal,” yet he owned hundreds of human beings during his lifetime. Does he deserve our respect?
Slavery was obviously a heinous institution and Thomas Jefferson did own slaves. That has led some very decent people to denounce him as a hypocrite and demand the removal of his statues and the renaming of public buildings—including our own regional public library — as we seek a more just and inclusive society. But I believe they are profoundly mistaken. Having studied Jefferson for a half-century, I view him as a hero who should be loved by friends of liberty and justice across political and racial lines and around the globe.
Certainly, his critics are correct that Jefferson owned slaves and that slavery was, in Jefferson’s own words: “a moral and political depravity,” “an abomination,” and a “hideous blot.” But there is much more to the story. When Jefferson inherited slaves upon the deaths of his father and father-in-law, it was illegal to free them. It was Thomas Jefferson who drafted the law in 1769 — ultimately enacted 13 years later — that permitted the manumission of Virginia slaves.
That effort led Professor Philip S. Foner, editor of “Basic Writings of Thomas Jefferson” and “The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine,” to argue that Jefferson, rather than Paine, was America’s first abolitionist. A Marxist who championed the scholarship of black scholars and edited the writings of Frederick Douglass, Foner lost his teaching position in 1941 during an anti-Communist purge by a New York legislative committee.
As a young attorney, Jefferson represented several slaves for free in suits seeking their freedom. But his argument in cases like Howell v. Netherland that “under the law of nature, all men are born free” did not amuse Virginia judges. Jefferson lost every case.
In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson denounced King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself” on “a distant people who never offended him” by “carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.” The language was removed to prevent South Carolina and Georgia from walking away from the convention. But, writing in a British abolitionist journal in 1843, former President John Quincy Adams declared that Jefferson’s draft “stands, an unanswerable testimonial to posterity, that on the roll of American abolitionists, first and foremost after the name of George Washington, is that of Thomas Jefferson.”
In 1778, Jefferson authored the law that outlawed importing new slaves into Virginia. He drafted another bill declaring all slaves born in Virginia after the year 1800 would be “born free,” which was never introduced because the votes clearly weren’t there.
In his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson wrote of slavery: “[C]an 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. . . . The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
As a member of the Second Continental Congress in 1784, Jefferson was tasked with drafting laws to govern the Northwest Territories. Article 6 read: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It failed by a single vote. Jefferson lamented: “God was silent in that awful moment.” Seven decades later the authors of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution selected Jefferson’s language as their text to honor his courageous struggle against slavery.
The Constitution prohibited Congress from enacting any law restricting the slave trade until 1808. In 1806, President Jefferson sent a letter to Congress congratulating it on the approaching opportunity “to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.” Congress complied.
Like most people, Thomas Jefferson had competing interests. He loved his family, and he realized Monticello could never be economically viable paying hired laborers while competitors used unpaid slave labor. Balancing his love for his family and his own financial survival against his desire to see slavery ended was hardly evidence of hypocrisy. In his prize-winning biography, American Sphinx, professor Joseph Ellis wrote Jefferson could have passed a polygraph test confirming his conviction that his own slaves “were more content and better off as members of his extended family than under any other imaginable circumstances.”
Surviving accounts by former Monticello slaves support that assertion. In an 1898 interview with a black newspaper, the Reverend Joseph Fossett — son of Monticello’s cook Edith Hern — praised Jefferson as “kind and indulgent” and asserted he did not realize he was a slave until Jefferson died and he was sold at auction.
Jefferson’s brief experiment with manumission was tragic. In 1796, he freed French-trained chef James Hemings. Within five years of gaining his freedom, James became an alcoholic and committed suicide.
It was not legally possible for Jefferson to free his slaves in his will. African slaves were chattel property (like livestock!) under Virginia law, and Section 54 of the Revised Virginia Code of 1819 protected the rights of creditors. Jefferson died deeply in debt and freeing his slaves in his will was not a legal option.
Robert F. Turner taught at the University of Virginia for more than three decades before his 2020 retirement. In 2000-2001 he chaired the Jefferson-Hemings Scholars Commission, whose 400-page report concluding Jefferson did not father any children by Sally Hemings can be found here.
This column was published originally in The Daily Progress. It is republished here with permission.