Thomas Jefferson and Slavery - Was He Really an Opponent of the Institution?

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Economic, Political and Social Background
2.1. Economic Background
2.2. Political Background
2.3. Jefferson´s Attitude towards Blacks

3. Thomas Jefferson´s View on Slavery
3.1.1.Danger of a Mob
3.1.2.Danger of Slave Revolts and Civil War
3.2. Slave Trade
3.3. Slavery as an Evil of American Society

4. Jefferson´s Actions on Slavery
4.1. The Young and the Old Jefferson
4.2. Manumitting His Slaves

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“We hold these truth to be self-evident, 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. […]”[1] These are the words Thomas Jefferson became famous for. For many people he is the father of liberty in the United States. What most people forget is that at Jefferson´s time “all” meant only the white society. His words did not include blacks. The man who proclaimed liberty already possessed over 150 slaves when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.[2] Throughout his life he always condemned slavery in theory, but in practice he died as a slaveowner, having done nothing to ensure the right of liberty to them. Jefferson´s ideas about slavery were complex and ambiguous. On the one hand, his words were those of an abolitionist who would do everything to end slavery. On the other hand, he was only an ordinary slaveowner who bought and sold slaves and never tried to end slavery seriously. In fact, Jefferson did many things for his country people rightly admire him for. He helped to create and build the United States and used his political power to establish democracy and freedom among his people. But when it comes to slavery, there is nothing really to admire about Jefferson. He proposed liberty, but stayed a slaveowner during his life. This paper will deal with Thomas Jefferson´s attitude towards slavery. It will show that he never really acted on his words and try to explain the reasons for his inactivity. Therefore it is necessary to speak about the economic and political background of Jefferson´s time as well as his attitude towards blacks as a race first. The second part will show why Jefferson condemned slavery theoretically and for what reasons. The third part will deal with the actions of Jefferson concerning the issue of slavery.

2. Economic, Political and Social Background

2.1. Economic Background

The development of the South was much different from the development in the North. The South did not produce urban centers. Instead, the cities were small and rarely became centers of commerce, finance or manufacturing. Here, the economy depended on an agricultural system, including the cultivation of tobacco, indigo and rice. The plantation agriculture began in the 17th century, no more than 20 years after the settlement of Virginia. The first tobacco shipments left Jamestown in 1617.[3] The cultivation of tobacco grew constantly. At about 1760 the export of tobacco had a share of 45 percent[4] of the colonial export. The growing production of tobacco was due to the growing number of slaves in Virginia. Since tobacco was a labor-intensive crop, the demand for field workers grew fastly. By the beginning of the 18th century black slaves could be found in many American colonies. Between 1700 and 1775 more than 350.000 slaves came to the New World.[5] Many of them came to Virginia to work on a tobacco plantation. At about 1750 120.000 slaves lived and worked in Virginia. The employment of these slaves was much cheaper. While a plantation owner had to pay about 20 pounds for a free white worker, he only had to pay 7 pounds for a slave. Furthermore, the cultivation of tobacco was very simple and did not require skilled workers. Both men and women could do the work on the plantation. Food and accomodation for the slaves were not expensive either. These reasons led to a fast expansion of the slavery system.[6]

The Virginia colony began to grow and so did the production of tobacco. Tobacco was a cash crop, sold for money. The larger the plantation, the more tobacco could be grown, bringing more wealth and influence for the planter. Tobacco was used instead of money, to settle debts, to pay the wages of soldiers and the salaries of clergymen. The production spread in Virginia. With the rapid growth of tobacco, in just a few years there was too much tobacco being grown and prices began to drop. In 1730, a law was passed to control the quality and quantity of tobacco grown in Virginia to secure that the planters would still earn good money for their tobacco crop.[7] Still, the price for tobacco fluctuated. Thus, somes farmers started cultivating wheat. The production of wheat increased and reached a fifth of the value of the tobacco by 1760.[8] Before the Revolution, wheat replaced tobacco as the chief money crop.

Since the cultivation of tobacco depleted the southern soils, the growing of alternative cash crops was confined to coastal areas. Besides wheat, these alternative cash crops were rice and cotton. By 1850 the southeners had moved south and west. Only one of every seven southeners still lived in Virginia. Cotton was the main cash crop and shaped the new South. Because of the growth of the British textile industry, the demand for cotton increased constantly.[9] In contrast to the tobacco industry, the cultivation of cotton did not require slaves. In 1860, 35 percent to 50 percent of all farmers in the cotton agriculture did not own slaves. Despite of this, the cultivation of cotton and slavery increased. The southern slave population nearly doubled between 1810 and 1830. Most of them were occupied on the cotton plantations. Owning slaves had the advantage that planters could increase their cotton acreage and hence their profits. Besides planters started growing corn as well. Corn could be planted earlier or later than cotton and harvested before or after. In 1860 the Southern colonies belonged to the twelve wealthiest areas in the United States.[10]

Agriculture dominated as the main income to and beyond 1860. But there were other kinds of economic activities as well. Nonagricultural activities such as textile factories and iron mills also played a role to Virginians. Still, industry could never replace agriculture. Thus, the domination of the plantation system maintained at that time.[11]

2.2. Political Background

Owning land provided the “opportunity for prosperity and prominence, social and political as well as economic.”[12] Thus, landownership was not only important for the economic advance. During the 17th and 18th century landownership was necessary for a respected social position and to participation in political life. At this time a person without land was not respected by the society. As a result, landownership became the key to political activity.

By the 18th century most white southeners owned land. 20 percent of them possessed more than 500 acres while 30 percent possessed between 100 and 300 acres.[13] The possession of land guaranteed social and political status. Owning land and slaves identified the economically privileged Virginians and was the key to an upper-class status.

Thus, Jefferson depended on his property and therefore on his slaves as well. Without them he could not have kept his land, and without his land he neither would have reached his social position nor his participation in political life. He needed a respected social position in order to have political power. Jefferson used this power in many ways. He wrote the Declaration of Independence which broke the bands that had connected America with Great Britain. He also helped to establish more democracy. By his efforts the old property laws were modified to enable more people to own land, which led to greater democracy in the state. Before, only few Virginians owned land and were allowed to participate in politics.

One of Jefferson's most noteworthy achievements was his bill to establish religious freedom and to ensure the separation of church and state. The bill guaranteed that no man could be forced to support any religious worship and that no man should “suffer in any way for his religious belief or opinion”[14]. This bill became law in 1786.

As president, Jefferson strengthened the powers of the executive branch of government. He was the first president to lead a political party, and through it he exercised control over the Congress of the United States. Another tremendous achievement was the Louisiana Purchase[15], which almost doubled the size of the country and led to the expansion of the United States in the west.

These are probably some of the most noteworthy achievements of Jefferson´s political actions. He could never have done these things without his social position, which depended on his property and thus on his slaves. From this point of view it is understandable that he never took action to end the institution of slavery. He hated it, but at the same time he needed it. He probably accepted the institution as the price he had to pay for his political power and so for his great achievements.

2.3. Jefferson´s Attitude towards Blacks

Thomas Jefferson, as an enlightened thinker, was convinced that the institution of slavery was wrong. In his autobiography he wrote: “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”[16] Jefferson is remembered and honored for these words. What some admirers Jeffersons do not know is that he also said: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live under the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.”[17] These words show the ambiguity in Jeffersons attitude. On the one hand, he was convinced about the injustice of the institution. On the other hand he was convinced that the two races could not live together in harmony. Jefferson believed that men are creatures of their environment, that anybody possessed a moral sense[18] which makes all men equal. This moral sense is given by birth and helps men to distinguish between right or wrong. He believed that blacks were given the moral sense by birth as well, but he also said that the moral sense could be influenced by the institution of slavery. Jefferson´s arguments about the moral sense are probably the basis for his assumption that the institution of slavery is evil and unjust.



[2] Paul Finkelman. Slavery and the Founders. (New York: M. E. Sharp, 1996) 105.

[3] William James Cooper. Liberty and slavery. Southern Politics to 1860. (Columbia:

University of South Carolina Press, 2000) 3.

[4] Peter Schäfer. Alltag in den Vereinigten Staaten. Von der Kolonialzeit bis zur

Gegenwart. (Graz: Styria, 1998) 49.

[5] www.digitalhistory.uh

[6] Schäfer 1998, 51.


[8] Schäfer 1998, 49.

[9] Paul Boyer, et al. The Enduring Vision. A History of the American People. 4th edition. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) 322.

[10] Boyer, et al. 2000, 323.

[11] Cooper 2000, 4.

[12] Cooper 2000, 5-6.

[13] Cooper 2000, 7.


[15] Paul Boyer, et al. The Oxford Companion to United States History. (New York: Oxford

University Press, 2001) 463.

[16] Thomas Jefferson. Autobiography. New York: The Library of America, 1984. quoted in: Spahn (2002), 1.

[17] Thomas Jefferson. Autobiography. New York: The Library of America, 1984. quoted in: Spahn (2002), 1.

[18] Hannah Spahn. Thomas Jefferson und die Sklaverei: Verrat an der Aufklärung? (Berlin: JFK-Institut, 2002)


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Thomas Jefferson and Slavery - Was He Really an Opponent of the Institution?
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