How Thomas Jefferson Freed the Slaves | | 07.14.14

It was William Faulkner who wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

On the 4th of July weekend I found myself thinking about Thomas Jefferson and slavery. You know the derision directed at the author of the Declaration of Independence on this topic — and, in some quarters, at the legitimacy of the entire American project in light of his and the other Founders’ failure to abolish slavery at the country’s start.

I have a different view.

Yes, we have all read Mr. Jefferson’s impassioned denunciations of slavery and listened to charges that, despite those fine words, he made scarcely a move to end it. I could answer that words are action, particularly Thomas Jefferson’s words. For it mattered that the Declaration of Independence was written as it was, that the nation was established with a clear statement of principles, a statement that was incompatible with slavery and that for the next 87 years lay as a weight —in the end a crushing weight — over the presence of human bondage in this country.

But the fact is that Jefferson also took a major political action to end slavery, and, as fully as his words, that action ultimately decided the matter.

The story starts shortly after independence. Jefferson and his Virginia allies embraced a four-point project for the democratization of their state. As Henry Adams reports in his history of the U.S. during Jefferson’s presidency, close ties to Britain had been the strongest of the props of Virginia “society”:

[A]fter this had been cut away by the Revolutionary War, primogeniture, the [state sponsorship of the Episcopal] Church, exemption of land from seizure for debt, and negro slavery remained to support the oligarchy of planters. The momentum given by the Declaration of Independence enabled Jefferson and [Constitutional Convention delegate and Jefferson teacher and mentor] George Wythe to sweep primogeniture from the statute book. After an interval of several years, Madison carried the law which severed Church from State. There the movement ended. All the great Virginians would gladly have gone on, but the current began to flow against them. They suggested a bill for emancipation, but could find no one to father it in the legislature, and they shrank from the storm it would excite.

Jefferson, however, did not stop there. My authority for his next attack on the peculiar institution is Abraham Lincoln. On October 10, 1854, Lincoln delivered his famous Peoria speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act or, as he put it, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. As Lincoln explained:

When we established our independence… [Virginia] owned the North-Western Territory – the country out of which the principal part of Ohio, all Indiana, all Illinois, all Michigan and all Wisconsin, have since been formed…. The question of ceding these territories to the general government was set on foot. Mr. Jefferson… conceived the idea of taking that occasion, to prevent slavery from ever going into the north-western territory. He prevailed upon the Virginia legislature to adopt his views, and to cede the territory, making the prohibition of slavery therein, a condition of the deed. Congress accepted the cession, with the condition….

So the law for which Jefferson could not win passage when it applied to the settled part of Virginia he succeeded in getting applied to the largely unsettled part. But why did he bother? Discussing Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, Joseph Ellis, in his 1998 best-selling study of the man, American Sphinx, writes of:

… the special almost mystical place the West had in [Jefferson’s] thinking… For Jefferson more than any other major figure in the revolutionary generation the West was America’s future. Securing a huge swatch of it for posterity meant prolonging for several generations the systemic release of national energy that accompanied the explosive movement of settlements across the unsettled spaces.

What I am saying is that as early as the 1780s Jefferson foresaw that explosive movement into unsettled spaces. Using the grant of Virginia’s north-western territories to the national government, he contrived to insure that states that emerged from those lands would be free and their populations would oppose perpetuation of slavery.

Now here is a question? Can we imagine Lincoln emerging or the Union winning the Civil War had these states and their populations been neutral to or supported slavery? As it was, migration from the South into their southern halves made Indiana and Illinois close calls for union, even with slavery banned in them.

Jefferson put the demographic and political weight of his states-to-be on the side of freedom. He hoped that by doing thus slavery would melt peacefully away, which did not happen. But when conflict came, the Midwest’s by-then-enormous population – not to mention the leadership of such Midwesterners as Lincoln and Grant – determined the outcome.

The free states of the Midwest cast Jefferson’s final vote against slavery and for the inalienable right to freedom.

One last thought, another question actually: If you had been at the Constitutional Convention, would you have voted to end slavery in the United States then and there, or at least to have ended the slave trade? Before you answer, consider: those attending the convention believed that the American Revolution had been won because the colonies had stuck together and that breaking apart would pose a mortal danger to all. While the delegations of Virginia and possibly North Carolina were ready to end the slave trade as a first step to doing away with slavery itself, the South Carolinians and Georgians announced that their states would go their own way if the convention took any move in that direction. South of Georgia lay what we now call Florida but what was then Spain. Spain and Britain divided the new country’s western and northern borderlands. Now, all things considered, how do you vote… and why?

  1. The question obviously parallels what we face now … and the question is, which is more important, unity by postponing principles or (shall we call it) purity?  To regain political power, should conservatives strategically resolve internal differences by accepting positions we don’t like?

    Jefferson’s willingness to tolerate slavery is one situation where postponing the fight over one issue achieved gains that were necessary elsewhere. But of course, that success doesn’t mean that this is always the best strategy, or that it’s always suited to every occasion.

    That said, it’s obviously a mixed-motive game. In normal game theory, then, you adopt a mixed-strategy. Sometimes you hold out for principles, sometimes you make compromises. If you adopt either strategy exclusively, your opponents can use that consistency against you.

  2. Aaron Miller

    We all contradicts ourselves at times, so please don’t think I’m condemning the man. But do we not believe that a man’s responsibility begins with his own life, rather than with his thoughts on the lives of others? I’m sure there has been many a philosopher and writer whose wisdom helped others while he lacked the conviction or character to manifest that wisdom in his own life. But it is difficult to square Jefferson’s supposed commitment to ending slavery with his continued ownership of slaves on his own plantation.

    I don’t know as much about the Founders as many here on Ricochet. Did Jefferson make any effort to pay his debts, moderate his affluent lifestyle, and downscale his economic ambitions so that he could afford to free his slaves? Even if freeing his slaves would have ruined him financially and socially, how can a person believe a slave is a free and debtless person inherently deserving of freedom and yet persist in forceful lordship over his fellow man?

    Contrary to liberal dogma, slaves were not universally treated like impersonal cattle and abused (beyond the initial act of enslaving them). It’s possible that Jefferson afforded his slaves more kindness and general liberty than many nominally free farmhands could boast. But I have to wonder if he was like a modern Democrat in a habit of holding others to standards, via legislation, to which he would not hold himself.

  3. KC Mulville

    Let me add something about the game theory of politics these days.

    If your opponent knows that when push comes to shove, you’ll jettison some smaller things to protect agreement on bigger things, that tendency gives him an incentive to make everything “push coming to shove.” You’ll never get a chance to propose smaller things because he’ll ratchet up everything. If he knows that you’ll compromise consistently, even if it’s sooner or later, then that knowledge gives him an incentive to always push to extremes.

    Which, I’d say, is an accurate description of current politics.

    All the Democrat (and/or media) need to do, when they want the GOP to cave, is wave the possibility that blacks and Hispanics or women might be offended by the proposed GOP policy, and then sit back and let the GOP fight itself. They know that the GOP will immediately start a fight where some people will insist that we have to compromise on such policies or we’ll never get the minority vote, and then start accusing “hard liners” of being rigid.

    Hint: we never get the minority vote anyway. That’s just cheese for the rats.

  4. Tom Meyer

    Aaron Miller: I don’t know as much about the Founders as many here on Ricochet. Did Jefferson make any effort to pay his debts, moderate his affluent lifestyle, and downscale his economic ambitions so that he could afford to free his slaves?

    He did not.  In addition to his spendy life-style, Jefferson was never a very effective farmer, and Monticello was not a profitable farm.  During the last year of his life, he petitioned the state governmentto allow him to sell his property as a lottery to save him from bankruptcy.  In fairness to the man, the early 19th century was a lousy time to be a Tide Water aristocrat and it’s interesting to speculate about how badly Washington’s personal fortune would  have fallen had he lived longer.

    That said, I agree that Jefferson deserves some credit for working against slavery — if Madison ever made any similar actions or expressed similar reservations, I’ve yet to come across it — at least on the margins.  As Clark pointed out, those margins increased greatly as the century wore on and had a huge effect on the Civil War.

  5. Scarlet Pimpernel

    William Freehling’s 1972 American Historical Review essay on “The Founding Fathers and Slavery” does a very good job on this topic.

  6. Eugene Kriegsmann

    There is such a thing as the law of unintended consequences. I suspect that the effects Jefferson had on the ultimate abolishment of slavery fall within that law. Jefferson was a slave owner who never took any action to free his slaves during or after his life, unlike Washington who made provisions for many of his slaves to be freed. For Jefferson, they were property with a financial value, and, though he decried so often those who sought money, he was totally acquisitive and completely pecuniary in his life. Jefferson was a complex person with ideals he never came close to achieving, particularly when they required that he do something requiring personal sacrifice. Had his genius for language and ideals been matched by his actions he would have been a far greater man than he was. It is not the man but his ideals we hold most sacred.

    1. Great post. Also, try to put yourself in the cultural head space of Jefferson and his contemporaries. By 1776, slavery had existed in colonial America for nearly 160 years. That would put its start around the time of Jefferson’s great, great, great, great grandparents, about 6 generations before. No one then alive had ever known the country without it. The institution, even in places where it wasn’t practiced, had to have been a fact of everyday life. Such things don’t go away easily or quickly.

      Try to imagine some feature of current American life that began around 1857 that is accepted and practiced by a significant portion of the country. Make it as noxious or benign as you wish. Now imagine trying to rid it from society. Bad example but Social Security is only 80 years old and we know what happens when even constructive tinkering, never mind elimination, is suggested for it.

      In today’s parlance, the “optics” of Jefferson maintaining his own slaves were not good. Perhaps, expecting this to be a decades-long process, he didn’t think it that big of a deal.

    2. Tom Meyer

      Aaron Miller:

      Eugene Kriegsmann: [….] unlike Washington who made provisions for many of his slaves to be freed.

      He arranged for them to be freed upon his death, right? That hardly seems an improvement. “Oh, when I don’t need your services any more, you will be free.”

      Washington’s legacy on the matter was both a little worse and a lot better than that.  On the downside, the actual terms of his will were that most of the slaves would be freed upon Martha’s death, but she freed most of them anyway.  He was also, apparently, rather relentless in recapturing runaways.

      On the plus side — and Washington was nearly unique in this — he set up an endowment that his former slaves could draw from to further their education, take loans out against, etc.  It was apparently very successful and there were folks drawing on it decades after his death.

    3. Caleb J. Jones

      In Robin Williams’s book, Beyond the Mac is Not a Typewriter,Socrates is quoted in part as having said, “Never judge past action by present morality.” That little gem has helped me think about things such as this from the past.

    4. Grendel

      And don’t forget the Ohio farm boys cited by VDH in Soul of Battle, who marched with Sherman (b. Lancaster, OH) to the sea.

    5. Salvatore Padula

      I may not have much credibility here, having gone on record on Troy’s founders thread stating that Jefferson is the most overrated founding father, but I have to say that this is a bit of a stretch. Though he’s not my favorite early American, Jefferson was a man of many genuine accomplishments. Freeing the slaves was not among them. We don’t need to pad his resume.

    6. Paul A. Rahe


      Clark, what you say is true, and it is important. One must add, however, that Jefferson changed his mind on the Northwest Ordinance and that he later argued for the diffusion of slavery throughout the Union on the specious grounds that this would weaken it. Both Lincoln and Taney could look to him for inspiration.

    7. Clark Judge


      Clearly, as Chuck Grady notes, the (using Henry Adam’s name for them) Great Virginians viewed slavery as a horrible conundrum. They had, after all, put their lives fortunes and sacred honor on the line for government by consent of the governed and the equal dignity of all people, principles they recognized as incompatible with the peculiar institution. But a frontal assault on slavery would have ripped apart their society and the country, most likely ending the American experiment scarcely after it began. What to do?

      Their answer (not just Jefferson’s) was to encourage slavery’s gradual suffocation.  Let the weight of measures such as the 1807 banning of slave importation and the energy of free farming render the slave economy unsustainable and obsolete.

      As Paul Rahe notes, Jefferson later argued for the diffusion of slavery through the trans-Mississippi territories. That was at the time of the Missouri Compromise, 1820. The Missouri crisis and the accompanying Congressional intervention forced him to face that the founding generation’s formula of keeping slavery primarily a state issue until it withered away was not working. His comments — in some cases rantings — of the time suggest that he saw no alternative to this approach but war between the states. He anticipated, they suggest, that that war would prove horrific and the death of the nation.  Horrific it was.  But the nation survived, thanks in no small part to the Ohio farm boys to whom Grendel points and all the multitudes that had come to inhabit those forever free Northwest Territories.

      It has become fashionable in some quarters to say the Founders were hypocrites and the Constitution racist for not banning slavery first off.  I am saying that the Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance (which Congress passed even as the Constitutional Convention was in session) together comprised a brave and brilliant solution to an almost unsolvable puzzle. They set in train political and demographic developments that ultimately allowed for the impossible combination of abolition and the Republic’s survival.

  7. Aaron Miller

    Eugene Kriegsmann: [….] unlike Washington who made provisions for many of his slaves to be freed.

    He arranged for them to be freed upon his death, right? That hardly seems an improvement. “Oh, when I don’t need your services any more, you will be free.”

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