Summary of Jefferson’s 18th Query on “Manners” (but it’s really about Slavery!)
Thomas Jefferson was a famously polite gentleman. “Manners,” however, has nothing to do with etiquette. You could be forgiven for giving the chapter a miss, fearing a tedious discussion of odd 18th century habits and norms (“don’t pick fleas in publick,” “put your best foote forward when bowing to a lady,” and so on…) But don’t be fooled, “Manners” contains none of that and skipping it would be a mistake.
Jefferson’s foray into ‘manners’ was in fact a ringing condemnation of slavery. Writing under what he thought was the cloak of anonymity (his manuscripts were “discovered” and only grudgingly published later), his prose soars, clearly inspired by a deep and heartfelt sentiment. “Indeed,” he says memorably, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever…” He recognized that slavery corroded the very foundations of a liberal republic, putting the liberties of everyone (not just slaves) in jeopardy.
Jefferson was convinced that slavery degraded not only the slave, but the master as well; that slavery was a fundamental injustice that flew directly against the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God:
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.
He decries the inevitable and vicious proclivity of children to imitate the behavior of their elders, replicating the ‘manners’ of tyrant and subservient generation after miserable generation.
Jefferson hoped for a “total emancipation” of slaves, an end to the institution that harmed not only the recipients of cruel tyranny, but also the propagators of it. It’s a viewpoint that today is somewhat overlooked in an era prone to deplore slavery for its brutality against: Jefferson also saw the brutality within. “Thus nursed,” Jefferson says, “…and daily exercised in tyranny,” witnesses to slavery “cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”
Indeed, after reading Jefferson’s anti-slavery polemic, it’s a wonder that anyone gives credence to the cynical (and now somewhat fashionable) view that the Founders were nothing more than a group of landed whites that callously excluded blacks in their newly fashioned republic. “Manners” makes it abundantly clear that Jefferson included blacks in the Declaration’s self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” He says, among other things, that we ought to excoriate any statesman who would allow “half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other…” If Jefferson referred only to whites in his Declaration (1776), then who were the ‘half’ and ‘other’ half of citizens he refers to in “Manners” just five years later?
To be sure, perpetuation of slavery and the exclusion of blacks was the unpardonable reality that defined the next four score and seven years. Moreover, Jefferson’s growing silence on the mounting issue in later life does him a severe discredit. But what he wrote in “Manners” cannot be lightly dismissed under accusations of hypocrisy. The principle he lays out remains firm. He asks:
Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?
And this is the heart of “Manners:” a free society simply cannot exist with slavery. It may attempt to live the pretext of equality for one class only. It may even imagine that the blessings of liberty apply only to a certain race. But proximity to subjugation, Jefferson warns, creates a lasting familiarity with despotism that deadens the spirit of liberty within all. Under such internal tensions, no free society can stand.
Read Notes on the State of VA, Query XVIII: Manners by Thomas Jefferson here: https://constitutingamerica.org/?p=4058
Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher and director of the Agrarian Freedom Project.
Paul holds a Master’s degree in Government from Harvard University and a dual Bachelor’s degree from the Air Force Academy. He appears frequently on FOX Business News, and is a regular contributor to the Property and Environment Research Center and Huffington Post. His writing has appeared in The American Spectator, The Freeman, The New York Times, and others.
He and his wife, Sarah, are raising three kids in a decidedly centralized, top-down environment.
April 15, 2013 – Essay #41
 “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson, Thomas, and Merrill D. Peterson. The Portable Thomas Jefferson. New York: Viking Press, 1975.