Guest Essayist: James Legee, Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good, Villanova University

Thomas Jefferson’s April, 1820 Letter to John Holmes came as the nation expanded westward into the Louisiana Purchase, and with the homesteaders and settlers came the question of slavery.  In an attempt to address slavery and its role in the new territories, it was agreed by Congress that slavery would be allowed in Missouri but no other state North of the 36°30′ line; additionally, Maine would enter the Union as a Free State.  John Holmes, who served as a Representative from Massachusetts until March 1820 and then a Senator from the newly formed state of Maine as of June 1820, was an architect of the Missouri Compromise.  The letter from Jefferson to Holmes began with praise for Holmes’ pamphlet to the citizens of Maine.  Quickly though, Jefferson began to excoriate the Compromise as an existential threat to the Union.  Jefferson continued on to articulate his own belief, that movement of slaves should not be restricted, and that the practice and laws governing slavery were not the purview of the congress, but rather, a matter to be handled within each individual state.

Despite their obvious philosophical differences, Jefferson understood just as well as Madison or Washington the fragility of a republican government.  The news of the compromise came “like a fire bell in the night…considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”  The legislation drew a very literal line through the Union, dividing it with the majority of free states on one side, and the majority of slave states on the other.  Jefferson understands that this is not merely a political dividing line, but a line “coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated.”  When the Kansas-Nebraska Act later attempted to obliterate that line, the result was bloodshed and unrest in those territories.  Despite our political dialogue today, moral and political questions are often inseparable.  Such a dividing line, a line that put the sacred beliefs and deepest convictions of men in even more stark opposition, could spell disaster for the Union.  As is a theme in many of the Founders’ writings, this is a danger not solely to the Union, but to the fate of self-government in all the world, a world which was controlled by divine right monarchies and oligarchies.  He laments in the close of the letter, “If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessing they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”  Now that lines had been draw, Jefferson realized the young republic “held the wolf by the ears” and the fight over slavery, though delayed, could not be contained.  His opposition to the compromise, though, did not extend out of moral repugnance to slavery, nor did it come from a desire to limit the spread of the institution.

Jefferson continues on to argue that slavery should not be restricted in the new territories or states.  He contends “of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one State to another, would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it…” Jefferson believed that allowing slavery in the new territories would make the slaves “individually happier” and facilitate emancipation.  There is no further explanation as to why spreading slavery would lead to its destruction.  In fact, the opposite seems true, as it is reasonable to conclude that slaves could perform any task that would have otherwise been open to free labor in Missouri or any other part of the Louisiana Purchase.  Indeed, the population of slaves in America had continued to grow from 1790 to 1820 despite the restriction of the importation of new slaves.  This is due to a natural growth as those enslaved had children and families, but there was also a reduction in emancipations as the profitability of slave labor grew.

Jefferson continued the argument against the Missouri Compromise in examining which part of government held the power to address slavery. He contended that the states should vote on the issue of slavery, not Congress.  The states were Jefferson’s fourth branch of government and without explicit Constitutional authority for the national government he felt slavery was a state– not federal– issue.  He wrote, “This certainly is the exclusive right of every State, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the General Government.”  Arguably, the state government is the most direct expression of the will of the citizens of a region, and the point of a federal system with the powers of the states protected by the 10th Amendment.  So, perhaps Jefferson was right and the people of each state should have decided the issue of slavery.  However, all the people that comprised the states were not granted a say; the obvious and most glaring exemption were the slaves themselves.  Jefferson speaks of the sacrifice of the “generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country…” But is it republican self-government if it is not extended to all souls?  Is there self-government in America at all, if an entire race of people is not given a say in their destiny and lack even self-ownership?  The expressed powers of the Constitution and 10th Amendment reserving powers to the states were not included to protect slavery, but to protect liberty.

While Jefferson is right to fear the future of the Union and to fear the dividing line that the Missouri compromise would cut across the nation, it is difficult to support his view of the termination of slavery through its spread or popular sovereignty as the right of the states in voting slavery up or down.  Should we then cast down Jefferson as a bigot and hypocrite?  No; no more than we should abandon Washington for having owned slaves.  It is Abraham Lincoln who perhaps best understands the centrality of Jefferson to the existence of America.  Lincoln writes “All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Read Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to John Holmes here:

James Legee recently completed his Master of Arts in Political Science at Villanova University, where he was a Graduate Fellow at the Matthew J. Ryan Center for the study of Free Institutions and the Public Good. You can find him on twitter @JamesLegee.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 – Essay #47 


1 reply
  1. Mark
    Mark says:

    Appreciated this article, you provide a clear explanation and good context. It is a shame that one of our greatest Presidents and founding fathers was so wrong on the issue of human enslavement.


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