Guest Essayist: Logan Beirne, Olin Scholar at Yale Law School and author of Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency

A complicated man of contradictions, Thomas Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life but opposed the institution. His letter reflects this paradox: he expresses both his belief that slaves were mentally inferior as well as his desire that they be granted equal rights. Jefferson’s note responds to an attempt by a French Roman Catholic priest
to convince Jefferson of the African peoples’ intelligence. Writing during the final days of his Presidency, Jefferson still questions their abilities. While he admits that the slaves on his estate have had little opportunity to receive an education, he explains that he has seen little firsthand evidence of the mental prowess that the priest is trying demonstrate. This is certain to make a modern audience cringe, but was typical of the rampant racism of the era. Despite his belief in slaves’ inferiority, Jefferson reasons that they should be freed, regardless, since “talent it is no measure of their rights.”

Jefferson urged for an end to slavery during much of his life. Describing slavery as a “hideous blot” he predicted (accurately) that it would tear the nation apart. Therefore, he sought to lead the nation away from the institution in stages. During the Revolution in 1778, he drafted a law to prohibit the importation of slaves into his home state of Virginia. Slave traders routinely captured people in Africa and sailed them over to American for sale. Jefferson wanted to end this “moral depravity.” Thus, he would not be helping the slaves already in his state, but at least he would stop new people from being sold into it.

In another step after the war, Jefferson proposed an ordinance in 1784 that would ban slavery in the Northwest Territory (a sparsely populated frontier at the time that would eventually become the Midwestern states). He was trying to move the country towards a gradual emancipation so that the nation would eventually vote to end slavery across the United States.  As President, he moved the country towards this end game by signing the bill prohibiting slave importation nationwide. While people would still remain enslaved within the Southern States, no new men, women, and children could legally be shipped in and sold within the country. Slaveholders instead relied on the booming domestic slave trade — so this move did not end slavery, but it was a move in that direction.

Thomas Jefferson saw slavery as contrary to the laws of nature and hoped for its complete end via the republic’s democratic processes. Despite his deeply rooted racism, he longed for the African Americans’ “re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”

Read Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to Henri Gregoire here:

Logan Beirne is an Olin Scholar at Yale Law School and author of Blood of Tyrants: George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency. His writings have appeared in USA Today, the New York Post, and numerous other publications. He served as an attorney at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in New York City and is admitted to the New York and Connecticut Bars. 

April 18, 2013 – Essay #44 

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