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Today, the vast majority of American researchers and historians
agree that Jefferson did, in fact, have a relationship with Hemings.
Callender was able to critique Thomas Jefferson and show the
hypocrisy of Jefferson's behavior through journalism.
Jefferson rationalized slavery by referring to African-Americans
as subhuman and inferior and less than white people.
Despite writing that "all men are created equal,"
Thomas Jefferson enslaved around 600 people over
the course of his life.
(Jefferson discussing the Missouri question and slavery to John Holmes
April 22, 1820. Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson,
Volume 12. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1905, p. 159.)
We have the wolf by the ears
and feel the danger of either
holding or letting him loose."
(Jefferson to Mrs. Sigourney, Monticello, July 18, 1824.)
Although Jefferson made some legislative endeavors against
slavery and grieved its existence at times, he also benefited
directly from it and declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia
that he regarded black people to be inferior to white people.
Thomas Jefferson was an outspoken opponent of slavery throughout
his life. Slavery, he saw as a "moral depravity" and a "hideous blot," he
saw as the greatest threat to the fledgling American nation's survival.
Jefferson also believed that slavery violated natural laws, which said that
everyone had the right to personal liberty. These views were radical in a
world where unfree labor was the norm.
During the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in
legislation aimed at abolition of slavery.
In 1778, he wrote a Virginia statute prohibiting the entry of enslaved
In 1784, he proposed an edict that would outlaw slavery in the
However, Jefferson always maintained that the decision to
emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process;
abolition would be stalled until slave-owners agreed to release their
human property in a large-scale act of emancipation. To Jefferson, it
was anti-democratic and antithetical to the values of the American
Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition or for only
a few planters to free their slaves.
Despite Jefferson's continuous support for abolition, slavery's
hold on the country was growing. Virginia's slave population
increased from 292,627 in 1790 to 469,757 in 1830. Jefferson
believed that abolishing the slave trade would weaken slavery
and hasten its demise. Instead, slavery spread and became more
profitable. To weaken Virginians' support for slavery, he
discouraged the cultivation of crops that relied significantly on
slave labor, notably tobacco, and encouraged the introduction
of crops that required little or no slave labor, such as wheat, sugar
maples, short-grained rice, olive trees, and wine grapes. By the
1800s, however, Virginia's most valuable product and export was
slaves, not crops or land.
Jefferson's confidence in the urgency of abolishing slavery
remained constant. He campaigned for progressive liberation from
the mid-1770s until his death. The transatlantic slave trade would
be eliminated first. Second, slave owners would "improve" slavery's
most heinous aspects by improving (Jefferson used the phrase
"ameliorating") living conditions and reducing physical punishment.
Third, all slaves born after a specific date would be declared free,
followed by final abolition. He, like others of his time, advocated for
the expulsion of newly freed slaves from the United States. The
unexpected consequence of Jefferson's strategy was that his goal of
"improving" slavery as a step toward its abolition was used to justify
its continuation. After Jefferson's death, pro-slavery proponents
claimed that if slavery could be legalized, it should be.
Jefferson's abolitionist ideals were linked with his racial beliefs.
He believed that white Americans and enslaved Africans were two
"different nations" that could not coexist peacefully in the same country.
Jefferson's opinion that blacks were racially inferior and "as incapable
as children," combined with slaves' supposed animosity of their former
masters, made their freedom an essential component of Jefferson's
emancipation strategy. Jefferson, influenced by the Haitian Revolution
and an unsuccessful uprising in Virginia in 1800, believed that
deporting American slaves—whether to Africa or the West Indies
—was a necessary step after liberation.
Jefferson described slavery as "having a wolf by the ear, and we can
neither hold him nor safely let him go." Slavery, he believed, would
ruin his beloved federal union, the world's first democratic experiment.
Jefferson believed that emancipating slaves on American soil would
result in a large-scale race war as violent and fatal as the slave
insurrection in Haiti in 1791. But he also believed that keeping slaves
in bondage, with a portion of America in support of abolition and a
portion of America in favor of preserving slavery, could only lead to
a civil war that would destroy the union.
Jefferson's latter forecast came true: the debate over slavery produced
a violent civil war and the formation of two nations—the Union and
Confederacy—instead of one.