Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Seminar Paper, 2008

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1 Introduction – historical context and some information about Thomas Jefferson

2 Interpretation of selected writings of Thomas Jefferson with regard to slavery
2.1 A Summary View of the Rights of British America
2.2 Declaration of Independence
2.3 Notes on the State of Virginia
2.3.1 Query XIV: Laws
2.3.2 Query XVIII: Manners
2.4 First Inaugural Address
2.5 Selected parts of family letters of Thomas Jefferson

3 Conclusion – inconsistency in Thomas Jefferson’s writings about the issue of slavery

4 Bibliography

1 Introduction – historical context and some information about Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson can be considered as one of the most important Presidents of the United States of America.

He was born in 1743 in Virginia and after having been enrolled in The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, he started his political career at the end of the 1760s. In 1769, Jefferson was elected as a legislator. In 1775, he was one of the delegates at the second Continental Congress. Four years later, Jefferson became Governor of Virginia. In 1797, he was elected Vice-President and in 1801, he finally became the third President of the United States of America (Dumbauld XI-XVI).

Jefferson was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He lived during the time of revolution and American efforts to reach independence from Great Britain and to establish democracy in the United States.

During his life, he published many writings on democracy, liberty, and equality. “The central feature of Jefferson’s political creed was his concern for human freedom.” (qtd. in Dumbauld IX). In 1774, he wrote his first published work A Summary View of the Rights of British America. Two years later, he became famous for writing the main part of the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, he published the book Notes on the State of Virginia and during his presidency, his First Inaugural Address was very important. In all these writings, Jefferson emphasized democracy, liberty and equality, but he had many problems realizing his concepts, especially with regard to slavery, which became a fundamental problem for Jefferson and in the United States of America in general.

In the following work, Jefferson’s above mentioned writings will be analyzed with regard to slavery and the inconsistency in his writings about the issue of slavery will be demonstrated. Furthermore, his personal behavior towards bondage will be presented by analyzing some family letters.

2 Interpretation of selected writings of Thomas Jefferson with regard to slavery

2.1 A Summary View of the Rights of British America

A Summary View of the Rights of British America was Jefferson’s first book to be printed (Dumbauld 16). As it was written in 1774, this document, with a clear political opinion, straight political claims and really revolutionary aims, was quite sensational.

It is based on John Lock’s conception of natural law and natural rights. With this paper, with the demand for change and improvement and the instructions for and accusations against George III, Jefferson calls for a free America:

“That these are our grievances which we have thus laid before his Majesty with that freedom of language and sentiment which becomes a free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of their chief magistrate” (qtd. in Dumbauld 32).

In A Summary View of the Rights of British America Jefferson talks about the wrongful treatment of American people by the King of Great Britain. He refers to tyranny and maintains that Great Britain treats the people of the New World like slaves. Finally this argument leads him to the problem of slavery in America.

“Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematical plan of reducing us to slavery” (qtd. in Dumbauld 22).

Jefferson argues that the American people “[…] should suddenly be found the slaves not of one but of one hundred and sixty thousand tyrants […]” (qtd. in Dumbauld 23). He calls upon George III to stop the injustice because in Great Britain and in British America “[…] every individual of whom is equal to every individual of them in virtue, in understanding, and in bodily strength” (qtd. in Dumbauld 23). Jefferson talks about equality. He argues that all men are equal in British America and in Great Britain and that they therefore should be treated equally. Finally, Jefferson uses this statement to maintain that slavery is wrong and should be abolished. However, he also claims that George III wrecks America’s efforts against slavery:

“The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was, unhappily, introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this, by prohibitions and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his Majesty’s negative […]” (qtd. in Dumbauld 26-27).

In the last passage, Jefferson also includes the higher law by mentioning God: “God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time” (qtd. in Dumbauld 33). Liberty and slavery are contradicting. Therefore, God wants everybody alive to be free.

A Summary View of the Right of British America was Jefferson’s first document accusing the British King, calling for a free America and even calling for free people and equality. This paper can definitely be considered as some kind of precursor for Jefferson’s most important document written in 1776: the Declaration of Independence.

2.2 Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is one of the most important documents in history. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration declared that the “United Colonies are […] Free and Independent States” (qtd. in Dumbauld 7). This document is particularly significant regarding Jefferson and his opinion about bondage and equality.

The Declaration’s most important sentence with regard to equality explains “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (qtd. in Dumbauld 3). “Even when Congress had done with it, the Declaration of Independence was a thoroughly Jeffersonian document” (qtd. in Beloff 48-49). Therefore, Jefferson was the person maintaining that all men are equal.

Reading the Declaration, one gets the impression that Jefferson believed that there are no differences between men and that all men should be treated equally and should have the same rights. However, it soon becomes obvious that the expression ‘all men’ refers only to white men because “The notion that all men are born equal was not accepted in theory or in practice then or later. For all men is a description which […] knows nothing of distinctions of race and colour” (qtd. in Beloff 50). African-Americans, slaves and women are not taken into account and they are not even mentioned in Jefferson’s Declaration. Thus it can be said that only white men are endowed with unalienable rights and that minority groups are ignored in this document. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” (qtd. in Dumbauld 3). This sentence also points out that the government only needed the consent of the white men because they were the ones endowed with unalienable rights and the only ones allowed to vote at the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration. Jefferson did not refer to African-Americans, as they were not allowed to vote until the 15th Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified in 1870: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (qtd. in Padover 70).

However, in his original draft, Jefferson mentioned enslavement. He wrote critically about it, he even wrote against bondage, but this was changed by Congress before the Declaration of Independence was published:

“[…] he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another” (qtd. in Boyd 426).

This passage shows how Jefferson thought about slavery. With words like “cruel war”, “violating […] life & liberty”, “warfare”, “assemblage of horror” or “murdering the people” he made clear that he was definitely against slavery and that he wanted it to be abolished. Unfortunately, he was not able to accomplish this important part in the Declaration. It was cancelled.

2.3 Notes on the State of Virginia

In 1784, the book Notes on the State of Virginia was printed, which is an answer to many questions asked by the secretary of the French legation at Philadelphia. This paper can be considered as the most notable of Jefferson’s publications (cf. Beloff 66). In the following, two queries of the book will be analyzed regarding slavery: Query XIV and Query XVIII.

2.3.1 Query XIV: Laws

Query XIV is really contradictory regarding the issue of slavery. In this part of the Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson on the one hand mentions freedom and independence, on the other hand, however, he talks about the African-Americans’ inferiority.

Jefferson describes how to realize the emancipation of African-American people, but not by integrating them but by removing them to a separate colony:

“[…] to emancipate all slaves born after passing the act. […] that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts of science, according to their geniusses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household […] to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they shall have acquired strength […]” (qtd. in Mansfield 36-37).

Jefferson wants the slaves to be “free and independent”. But this quote shows that he does not think that it is possible to emancipate African-American people. He declares that they should “be colonized to such place” and live separated from the white people. It is also important that he only talks about African-Americans born in the future and that, according to this passage, the masters still have the right to keep slaves until they are grown up.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Thomas Jefferson and Slavery
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Fachbereich Angewandte Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaft in Germersheim)
‘Democratic Vistas’ in American Cultural History
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ISBN (eBook)
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414 KB
Thomas, Jefferson, Slavery, Vistas’, American, Cultural, History
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2008, Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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