jefferson declines a chance to free his slaves -- 12/31/15

Delanceyplace.com End of Year Encores: This year a few encores on slavery.

In today's encore selection -- from "The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson" by Henry Wiencek. The paradox between Thomas Jefferson's authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his ownership of slaves. When he drafted the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote that the slave trade was an "execrable commerce ...this assemblage of horrors," a "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties." Yet when he had the opportunity in 1817 due to a bequest from Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, he did not free his slaves. Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves in his lifetime and at any given time approximately 100 slaves lived on Monticello. In 1792, Jefferson calculated that he was making a 4 percent profit per year on the birth of black children. Jefferson's nail boys alone produced 5,000 to 10,000 nails a day, for a gross income of $2000 in 1796, $35,000 in 2013.

"With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence -- 'all men are created equal' -- Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle's ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: 'From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.' In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an 'execrable commerce ...this assemblage of horrors,' a 'cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.' ...

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson
by Rembrandt Peale, 1800
Isaac Jefferson, ca. 1847
an enslaved blacksmith who
worked on Jefferson's
plantation.

"But in the 1790s, ... 'the most remarkable thing about Jefferson's stand on slavery is his immense silence.' And later, [historian David Brion] Davis finds, Jefferson's emancipation efforts 'virtually ceased.' ...

"In 1817, Jefferson's old friend, the Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, died in Switzerland. The Polish nobleman, who had arrived from Europe in 1776 to aid the Americans, left a substantial fortune to Jefferson. Kosciuszko bequeathed funds to free Jefferson's slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own. In the spring of 1819, Jefferson pondered what to do with the legacy. Kosciuszko had made him executor of the will, so Jefferson had a legal duty, as well as a personal obligation to his deceased friend, to carry out the terms of the document.

"The terms came as no surprise to Jefferson. He had helped Kosciuszko draft the will, which states, 'I hereby authorize my friend, Thomas Jefferson, to employ the whole [bequest] in purchasing Negroes from his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name.' Kosciuszko's estate was nearly $20,000, the equivalent today of roughly $280,000. But Jefferson refused the gift, even though it would have reduced the debt hanging over Monticello, while also relieving him, in part at least, of what he himself had described in 1814 as the 'moral reproach' of slavery.

"If Jefferson had accepted the legacy, as much as half of it would have gone not to Jefferson but, in effect, to his slaves -- to the purchase price for land, livestock, equipment and transportation to establish them in a place such as Illinois or Ohio. Moreover, the slaves most suited for immediate emancipation -- smiths, coopers, carpenters, the most skilled farmers -- were the very ones whom Jefferson most valued. He also shrank from any public identification with the cause of emancipation. ...

"Before his refusal of Kosciuszko's legacy, as Jefferson mulled over whether to accept the bequest, he had written to one of his plantation managers: 'A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly.... [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.

"In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will. He proved that emancipation was not only possible, but practical, and he overturned all the Jeffersonian rationalizations. Jefferson insisted that a multiracial society with free black people was impossible, but Washington did not think so. Never did Washington suggest that blacks were inferior or that they should be exiled.

"It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders' era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.

Read more here: The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson


author:

Henry Wiencek

title:

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

publisher:

Smithsonian Magazine

date:

October 2012

pages:

1, 10, 11
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dwgreco@gmail.com

December 31, 2015
Has history and current society judged Thomas Jefferson by different standard than Woodrow Wilson and other historical figures? If so, why?


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