“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Those are the transcendent words that begin the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. But was he a true American hero? Does he deserve the major monument building erected in his honor and superbly visible to all as they cross the Potomac into Washington, D.C.?
Let us consider some facts that can be assembled about the man. He owned more than 600 people over the course of his life and profited directly from the institution of slavery. It is also contended, with convincing evidence, that he fathered a number of children with one of those slaves.
Just stopping here, we might conclude that he was no hero, but just another enslaving despot who should have the historical cloak of heroism snatched from his back. But if we look closer — if we look broadly with an eye that is not only critical but discerning and circumspect — a singular conclusion becomes more difficult.
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition. In a draft of the Virginia Constitution (actually the second draft he submitted on June 13, 1776) he would have prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.
Then again, on June 18, 1779, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories. Admittedly, in a sea of complacency, he always maintained that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process.
Abolition would be stymied until slave owners consented to free their human property, together, in a large-scale, orchestrated act of emancipation. To Jefferson, it was contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition by forcing planters to free their slaves. He knew that realistically, it would never happen.
But in a preserved letter to Thomas Cooper on Sept. 10, 1814, he continued to describe slavery as a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” and in another to William Short on Sept. 8, 1823, he voiced the opinion that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the American nation.
Jefferson consistently espoused the opinion that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, views that were radically liberal in a world of Southern states where slave labor was the norm and reality was that slavery was becoming more economically entrenched. The slave population in Virginia skyrocketed from 292,627 in 1790 to 469,757 in 1830.
Jefferson had hoped that the slave trade would weaken, and slavery would come to an end. Instead, slavery became more widespread — and profitable. In an attempt to erode Virginians’ support for slavery, he discouraged the cultivation of crops heavily dependent on slave labor, specifically tobacco, and encouraged the introduction of crops that needed less field labor, such as wheat, sugar maples, short-grained rice, olive trees and wine grapes. But by the 1800s, Virginia’s most valuable economic asset was neither crops nor land but slave labor.
Jefferson’s belief in the necessity of ending slavery never changed. From the mid-1770s until his death, he advocated the same plan of emancipation. First, the trans-Atlantic slave trade would be abolished. Second, slaveowners would “improve” slavery’s most violent features, by bettering — Jefferson used the term “ameliorating” — living conditions and moderating physical punishment. Third, all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free, followed by total abolition.
Like others of his day, he supported the removal of newly freed slaves to the lands of their origin. However, the unintended effect of his plan was that the goal of “improving” slavery, as a step toward ending it, was used as an argument for its perpetuation. Pro-slavery advocates after Jefferson’s death argued that if slavery could be “improved,” abolition was unnecessary.
Jefferson had written that maintaining slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear. We can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.” He was concerned that his cherished federal union, the world’s first democratic experiment, would be destroyed by slavery.
To emancipate all slaves, immediately, on American soil, Jefferson feared, could result in a large-scale race conflict that could be as brutal and deadly as the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791. But he also believed that to keep slaves in bondage, with part of America in favor of abolition and part of America in favor of perpetuating slavery, could only result in a civil war. It did, and the result was more young American deaths than any other war we have ever fought.
Our forefathers should have listened to him — early on — from the beginning. He was right. I submit that his monuments should stand.
Don Tortorice is a former attorney and professor at the Law School of the College of William and Mary.