Candice Ellis



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Jefferson on Race

Candice Ellis


English 3800

Instructor: Smolinski

May 1, 2003

Thomas Jefferson contributed to American history in many ways. During his years of public service, he served as a member of the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, and President of the United States. As founder of the University of Virginia and chief writer of the Declaration of Independence, his legacy lives on. His work on the Declaration captured the attention of Francois Barbe-Marbois, secretary to the French legation at Philadelphia, who sent questionnaires to influential Americans requesting answers to questions about life in America. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is perhaps the best known reply to Marbois’ request. Two of the most interesting and controversial topics addressed in this book are Virginia’s Indian population and its black inhabitants. In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson uses a combination of half-truths, stereotypes, and unfair analogies to support his premise that free blacks cannot coexist with whites while at the same time arguing for the integration of Indians into Virginian society.



When Jefferson receives Marbois’ request, America is in the midst of the Revolutionary War. Besides sharing the British as a common enemy, France is also an American ally. Jefferson realizes the importance of this alliance and strives to provide a detailed summary of life in Virginia. He tailors his response in a manner that will assure the continued French support and will persuade Americans to conform to his ideas relating to race. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory” (Matthews 1). The comments made by Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia illustrate this hypothesis.

In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson passionately addresses race and slavery. Though he is against slavery, he is a slave owner. This contradiction in ideals is apparent to his fellow Virginians, as well as the French. Jefferson justifies slavery’s existence in a country that is fighting for independence. He provides reasoning that supports releasing the slaves expatriating them from the state. Jefferson believes the blacks should be sent back to Africa, or other countries that will be more accepting of them. On the other hand, he is convinced that Indians can become productive members of society. How can Jefferson appeal these beliefs to the people of France and America? To present his argument effectively, Jefferson utilizes his educational training as well as insight he has gained from observing his intended audience.

During his college years, Jefferson studied science, arts, and humanities. Throughout Notes on the State of Virginia, many of his statements are based on his understanding of the arts and sciences. He also became well versed in the skill of rhetoric. Jefferson assesses that knowing your audience and using analogies are both essential tools that can be used to communicate an effective argument. Jefferson “wrote insightfully on the subject of nationality and what should be remembered by a communicator who plans to address the citizens of a particular country” (Golden 64). He observes that the French “were most attentive to the faculty of imagination” and that they have an “overall lack of prejudice” (Golden 64). He also notes “the brilliant accomplishments of their men of letters” and the “high quality of their fine arts” (Golden 64). In contrast, he feels that white Americans “put the faculty of reason on a higher plan than that of imagination,” “take pride in domestic felicity,” and “value simplicity and chastity” (Golden 65). When evaluating the characteristics of American Indians and blacks, Jefferson not only endeavors to demonstrate the level to which these races either lack or possess the faculties and ideals that are of importance to his audience, but he also attempts to make direct comparisons about the nature of each race.

Besides embracing the predispositions of his audiences, Jefferson also wants to stay true to his moral and religious convictions. In the Jefferson Bible, he focuses on many of God’s commandments and strives to incorporate them into his life. That “we should love our neighbors as ourselves,” (Golden 27) is one of his guiding principles. Additionally, he supports many of the ideals associated with Enlightenment. Enlightenment was considered “the dawn of a new day of humanism, rationality, scientific methodology, and religious toleration” (Miller 3). There was also a strong focus on “Man-his psychology, his physical characteristics, his political and social institutions, and his place in the universe” (Miller 3). Jefferson focuses on these same areas of concentration when discussing both the Indians of North America and the black Africans that reside in Virginia.

Query VI of Notes on the State of Virginia is entitled “The Mines: Its Trees, Plants, Fruits, Etc.” In this section Jefferson refutes the findings of the Count de Buffon, a French philosopher, who conjectures that plants and animals in America are smaller than those found in Europe. According to Buffon, everything in America “languishes, corrupts and proves abortive” (Miller 68). He applies this theory to the savages of America. Buffon believes that “the New World had denied him the basic life-giving spirit of love, so that he exhibited no desire to perpetuate himself” (Sheehan 68). In his writings, “Buffon portrayed the Indian as no more than the first among animals,” who is “incapable of mastering his environment” (Sheehan 68). Buffon is not alone in his view of the American Indians.

Don Antonio de Ulloa Buffon’s opinions. After observing the Indians of South America, he asserts that North American Indians share the same characteristics. In response to his findings Jefferson replied, “It is very unfair, from this sample, to judge of the natural genius of this race of men” (Matthews 56). He also believed that “The presence of slavery had so scarred the character of the South American Indian” and as a result, “it had become necessary to study their predecessors who were located in the virgin setting of North America” (Matthews 57). By studying North American Indians, Jefferson tries to prove that America is a land of promise and growth, instead of a place where everything degenerates. By countering the claims of Buffon and his counterparts, Jefferson not only assures the continued interest of France and other European countries, but he also provides reasoning that will later be used to justify why Indians possess the freedom he denies blacks.

Buffon verbally attacks the Indian’s level of initiative, physical features, sexual drive, lack of bravery, level of intelligence, and their culture. Jefferson’s rebuttal is based on his personal experiences with the Indians of North America and “from the information of others better acquainted with him” (Jefferson 56). Jefferson’s father nurtured in him “a respect for native Americans,” and Jefferson in turn “admired them all his life” (Bottorff 47). Unlike many of his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Jefferson does not view the Indians with apprehension. Though Jefferson acknowledges that at first glance some of Buffon’s statements appear to be true, he concludes that they are merely observations made by someone who does not have first hand knowledge of Indian culture.

One by one, Jefferson strives to discount Buffon’s unflattering observations regarding the Indians. To do this, he counteracts Buffon’s dehumanization of the Indians and portrays them as members of a society that is merely different from what European culture views as normal. Buffon points out the Indian’s small stature as evidence that unlike Europe, everything America creates is stunted and substandard. In reply, Jefferson stresses that while some Indians do have smaller physiques than Europeans, many Indian tribes consist of men who have proportions that exceed those of their European counterparts. He responds to Buffon’s scrutiny that the Indian men have a lack of facial hair. Jefferson counters that “The lack of a man’s facial hair is not a sign of decreased ardor for their women, but merely a sign of the custom “to pluck out by the roots the hair that grown on their faces” (Jefferson 184). As evidence, he cites instances where widowed older tribesmen take new wives. The difference in the way Indian men approach sexual relations is a result of their upbringing, not decreased desire. In fact, a young man who does not delay “a fondness for women before he has been to war”, is privy to both “the contempt of the men, and the scorn and ridicule of the women” (Jefferson 184). According to Jefferson, North American Indians balance their love of family with their cultural obligations.

Jefferson continues to portray the Indian civilization in a manner that will appeal to the values of his audience. To uneducated observers, their daily life appears regressive. Buffon attacks the courage and the initiative of Indian men and even “described them as cowardly, shiftless weaklings: without rational powers or even activity of mind” (Miller 69). Buffon says if you “relieve Indians of hunger and thirst”, you “deprive them of the active principle of all his movements and he will rest stupidly upon his legs or lie down for entire days” (Miller 69). He criticizes them because Indian women perform laborious tasks considers the men’s responsibilities. This is a sharp contrast to the domestic lives of French women, who mostly enjoy leisurely existences. Jefferson explains that native women are merely fulfilling their societal roles, just as the men do when they become warriors.

Military service is a way in which the men exhibit their manliness. Buffon views the warfare of the natives as proof of their savagery. Contrary to this portrayal, Jefferson avows that Indian men are not bent on war, but being a great warrior is a part of their education that “procures them glory among the men, and makes them the admiration of the women” (Jefferson 184). The fact that warriors “bear the most excruciating tortures and death when taken prisoner” only proves that they exhibit great bravery (Jefferson 186). Though the military is a large part of their way of life, they are not savages whose main goal is to shed blood. Fathers within the tribes are “affectionate,” “careful,” and “indulgent in the extreme” with their children (Jefferson 57). This is a testament to their humanity.

Jefferson also rejects the Frenchman’s notion that Indian men lack stamina. Evidence of their strength is displayed in the “dances in which they so much delight” and the “fatiguing marches” that are part of their military expeditions (Jefferson 186). Engaging in these activities serves as proof that they have a sense of comradeship. Buffon assumes that Indians lack society. Jefferson counters that Indians “always live in towns or clans” which demonstrates that they “pride themselves in their national character,” just as Europeans do (Jefferson 186). Within each tribe, many members possess an “eminence in oratory,” which “is displayed chiefly in their own councils” (Jefferson 60). Their exceptional oratory skills discount the notion that they lack intelligence. By commenting on specific aspects of Indian life, Jefferson systematically softens the blow Buffon’s statements cause and portrays the Indians as intellectual beings who have an innate sense of family and value community.

The picture Jefferson paints of the Indians makes them appear almost harmless. The natives, according to Jefferson, are merely following traditions that have been in place long before the English settlers arrived. He conjectures that their ancestors descended either “from lost Hebrews or Welshmen or had migrated from Asia, the accepted source of civilized population” (Sheehan 65). This at the very least affords them the right to coexist with American whites. What role will slaves play in an independent America? Whether free or enslaved in Jefferson’s mind, blacks “were not permanent residents of the United States entitled to the rights and privileges of citizens” (Miller 88). He is not alone in his belief that Britain’s King George III “was responsible for the perpetuation of slavery and the slave trade” (Miller 7). This claim is based on knowledge that “many colonial assemblies had imposed duties — in some instances virtually prohibitive — upon the importation of American slaves” (Miller 7). Because slaves were considered commerce, the British government vetoed decisions made by the colonial assemblies. Virginia’s post-colonial government sought to relieve itself of laws the monarchy imposed. The pending change in policy provides Jefferson an ideal opportunity for proposing passage of an act that will “emancipate all slaves born after the passing of the act” and gradually phase out the institution of slavery (Jefferson 132). Though his strategy is courageous, Thomas Jefferson realizes that Virginian slave owners will not readily embrace this concept.

Jefferson’s emancipation proposal appears in Query XIV of Notes on the State of Virginia, a section of which addresses the administration of justice and laws. Since slaves are considered property, the rules of descent upon death must be established for those who remain in Virginia until their liberation is complete. The French and Jefferson both “regard the possession of human beings as an illegitimate form of property” (Miller 16). However, he cites the “[d]eep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites” as well as “the real distinctions which nature has made” as reasons why freed slaves must live elsewhere (Jefferson 132). His “belief that blacks were not on an intellectual and physical par with whites” permeates in his writings (Golden 423).

While it is true that “the men of Enlightenment condemned slavery as a vestige of barbarism, an offense against the moral law, and a flagrant violation of the rights of man derived from the Creator,” this era “also produced “scientific” evidence of the innate inferiority of black Africans” (Miller 4,51). Edward Long attempted to submit his observations of blacks as evidence supporting the inferiority of the race as a whole. Long, an Englishman, lived for some time in the British West Indies. After observing West Indian blacks, he postulates “blacks had been created separately and were consequently a unique and presumably inferior race” (Miller 53). This opinion is prevalent in Jefferson’s discussion of blacks in America. He suspects that “blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites” (Jefferson 138). In contrast, he sees “the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the whiteman” (Bottorff 47). When expressing his observations of blacks, Jefferson seems to embrace the same tone that Buffon uses to assail the Indians.

Jefferson asserts there are “physical and moral” differences between whites and blacks, with the most obvious difference being skin color (Jefferson 133). The reason why blacks have darker skin does not matter in the scheme of things. What is important is that neither race this difference cannot be ignored by. Jefferson, who “was repelled by blackness,” notes the African slaves do not conform to the Anglo Saxon standard of beauty (Miller 47). Their color alone will make them outcasts once they are freed. He says blacks themselves prefer the “flowing hair” and the “more elegant symmetry of form” that is part of the white physique (Jefferson 133). Jefferson adds that black men “are more ardent after their female,” and he alleges that they are driven by physical desire instead of love. This is a striking contrast to his statements regarding the sexuality of Indian men, who Jefferson thinks are able to control their sexual urges. Besides physical differences, Jefferson is convinced that blacks do not possess the same mental capacity as their white and Indian counterparts. While he defends the natives when Buffon compares them to animals, Jefferson dehumanizes the slaves. He says that “superior beauty” is used to rank animals and therefore this same strategy should be applied to the races of man (Jefferson 133). Obviously, Jefferson thinks blacks should be ranked in a position inferior to whites, but skin color alone cannot be presented as evidence of his claim.

In an effort to show the disparity between blacks and other races on the evolutionary scale, he presents more “evidence.” Unlike the Indians who pluck their hair and the whites who are graced with long flowing hair, blacks naturally “have less hair on the face and body” (Jefferson 133). They also “secrete less by the kidneys,” which causes them to emit a “very strong and disagreeable odor” (Jefferson 133). Jefferson admits that blacks are submitted to “hard labor through the day”, but he fails to make the correlation between strenuous physical activity and unfavorable body odor. Blacks, he observes, “require less sleep” and are “induced by the slightest amusements” (Jefferson 133). Jefferson forgets that blacks are not privy to the free time that the natives and whites enjoy. He does not fathom that perhaps while others are sleeping, slaves enjoy engaging in other activities simply because they get to experience a taste of freedom. Jefferson concludes that when blacks are at rest, their minds do not reflect and therefore they must succumb to sleep (Jefferson 134). His reasoning sounds vaguely familiar to the unsubstantiated comments Buffon made regarding the stupidity of the Indians.

Jefferson also investigates the faculty of memory. Although he admits that memory in blacks is “equal to whites,” he feels that their faculty of reason is “much inferior” (Jefferson 134). He remarks that blacks are “brave” and “more adventuresome” only because they lack forethought (Jefferson 134). This portrayal falls short of the glowing praise Jefferson gave concerning the bravery of the Indians. While he finds fault because blacks cannot understand “the investigations of Euclid,” he discounts that most slaves are not privy to the same cultural and educational advantages afforded to whites.


Further evaluations of the lack of intelligence and imagination possessed by blacks refer to a limited number of slaves who by association with whites have been allowed to travel, to witness white culture, and to have assess to education. He uses this sample as proof that blacks are inferior to whites and Indians. Jefferson states since these blacks, despite all the benefits they receive, have not produced great works of art and literature, the black race as a whole is incapable of doing so. When Ulloa makes generalizations about the Indian race, Jefferson dispels his findings because the sample he uses is not comparable. Somehow, Jefferson finds it appropriate to use the few blacks that have been afforded what he considers advantages as examples for the black race. It is interesting to note that when the accomplishments of blacks are brought to his attention, Jefferson dismisses them because these cases are few and far between. This is yet another instance of the double standard he readily employs. To Jefferson, the poems of Phyllis Wheatley are “below the dignity of criticism” and the letters of Ignatius Sancho “do more honor to the heart than to the head” (Jefferson 135). While Jefferson questions the authenticity of literary works produced by blacks, there is no such proof of evidence required when reviewing Indian artwork.

Jefferson observes that Indians, despite their lack of association with white culture, often produce noteworthy artwork and possess superb oratory skills. Musical ability is the only skill he reluctantly attributes to blacks, but he still considers this talent to be mediocre. In the area of imagination, Jefferson simultaneously denigrates blacks while praising Indians. He overlooks that Indians are living freely in their native land. Dissimilarly, blacks whether free or enslaved, are living under oppressive rules. In regards to the Indians, “environmental factors were always critical in Jefferson‘s reasonings” (Matthews 56). While he acknowledges that blacks live in conditions that differ from those of whites, he maintains that their living conditions do not prohibit them from displaying imagination and genius. Jefferson simply believes “this inferiority was innate in origin” (Miller 57). Though eager to study Indians in their native land, in regards to blacks he notes “it would be unfair to follow them to Africa” to investigate the culture from whence they came. He prefers to base his finding on the blacks living in Virginia.

Jefferson has many hopes for the future of Virginia. He conceives that the best means of commerce for Virginia is agriculture, and the majority of the state’s citizens should work towards improving the land. Many Americans view the New World as a paradise (Sheehan 91). Jefferson believes that “those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God” (Jefferson 157). Indians are considered one of od’s chosen people. Blacks, however, are not. Jefferson contends that in order to partake of the Garden God has provided, Indians must settle down as farmers (Miller 70). In fact, the strong “anticipation that the Indian would adopt civilization rested precisely on his identification with the land” (Sheehan 96). In other words, once Indians embrace white culture, they will be able to fulfill the destiny that God has ordained for them.

Why are free blacks not acceptable in Jefferson’s vision of Virginia’s future? If slaves toil at farming, will they not work even harder as free men? Jefferson claims that the black race lacks the intelligence, imagination, and ability to reason that whites and Indians possess. However, is this sufficient justification for excluding them from the chance to experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? For Jefferson, the “unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people” (Golden 422). Despite his pseudo scientific findings, Jefferson’s desire to remove the black population from Virginia is motivated by prejudice and fear.



Jefferson is afraid that God will exact vengeance on America as a whole because of slavery, but he seems more fearful of blacks themselves. He supposes that retaliation from freed blacks will be inevitable since slave uprisings have occurred. Jefferson reflects that blacks have a “disposition to theft” and may seek retribution for their years of labor (Jefferson 137). He wonders if a slave can “justifiably take a little from one who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who may slay him” (Jefferson 137). In contrast, “crimes are very rare” among the Indians, who possess “that moral sense of right and wrong” (Jefferson 90). Jefferson conveniently dismisses instances when Indians use force against settlers who infringe upon their territory. In actuality, “the Indians had accounted for the deaths of far more white people than the black slaves” (Miller 67). Jefferson fails to mention that “nearly five thousand blacks had served in the American armed forces” (Miller 68). Access to weaponry, as well as the chaos caused by the Revolutionary War, provided many blacks with the means and the opportunity to hurt their white counterparts. However, massive revolts did not occur. “Obviously, Jefferson did not fear Indians in the way he feared black slaves” (Miller 67). Even though he considers physical harm at the hands of blacks to be a genuine possibility, he is more terrified that once blacks gain their freedom, they will begin to have sexual relations with whites.

Jefferson compares black men to orangutans, who were thought to be “the principal link between Homo sapiens and so-called brute creation” (Miller 54). Even Buffon declared that “except for the soul, the orangutan ‘lacks nothing’ we possess” (Miller 54). During Jeffersonian times, many believed Orangutans by to prefer black women as sexual partners rather than female orangutans. The parallel drawn between black men and male orangutans perpetuates the myth that black men want to copulate with white women because they have a “simian sexual drive” (Miller 55). The implication is also made that black men want to fulfill “their primal urge to ascend the Great Chain of Being” (Miller 55). “Jefferson alleged, with no supporting testimony or evidence, an unusual sensuousness in Blacks” (Bottorff 43). As a result of his remarks, whites are given “proof” that they are a superior race and at the same time, they are instilled with a fear of black men.

Jefferson’s remarks help spread “fear of miscegenation as a consequence of emancipation” (Miller 63). When white blood is mixed with black blood, according to Jefferson, there is an “improvement of the blacks in body and mind” (Jefferson 136). An advocate of racial purity, he surmises that the “dignity and beauty” of the white race will be compromised if blacks are allowed to live among whites (Miller 62-63). Jefferson takes a different stance on sexual relations with Indians. He actually encourages relations between whites and Indians. He hopes that the blood of Indians and whites will mix until it becomes the blood of “one people” (Miller 65). This is a far cry from his attitude towards black men, who he considers the perpetrators of sexual acts that degrade white women. Even though interracial fornication is a crime, the presence of Mulattos suggests that racial mixing is already occurring. Jefferson wants black males to be “beyond the reach of mixture” (Miller 64). He does not entertain the possibility that whites are also attracted to blacks or acknowledge that many black women are sexually abused by their white masters. Instead, he places emphasis “upon the danger of black male sexuality” (Miller 65). The role that whites play in miscegenation is virtually ignored.

In his effort to showcase America as a land of opportunity, Jefferson actually does more damage than good. Because he views Indians as equal to whites and blacks as inferior, he makes many unsubstantiated claims about both races. Though he states that many of his remarks are based on suspicion, his conjectures are presented in the guise of factual information. Jefferson’s defense of the American Indians clearly shows that his statements concerning blacks are based on feelings of prejudice.

Notes on the State of Virginia shatters the assumption that Jefferson’s anti-slavery doctrine stems from feelings of benevolence towards blacks. His bias becomes evident in the contradictions he makes in his defense of the Indians. Despite their cultural and physical differences, the natives are portrayed almost as brothers to the whites. Blacks, on the other hand, are portrayed as the ignorant savages so many Europeans believed the Indians to be. The effects of Jefferson’s misinformation lingered in American society for many generations. In an ironic twist, Jefferson’s assault on the character of the blacks may have attributed to the continued enslavement of the black race.




Works Cited
Bottorff, William K. Thomas Jefferson. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1979.
Golden, Alan and Richard. Thomas Jefferson and the Rhetoric of Virtue. Lanham, MD:
Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, Inc., 2002.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia. New York, NY: Harper & Row,
Publishers, Inc., 1964.
Matthews, Richard K. The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View.
Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1984.

Miller, John Chester. The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. New York,


NY: Free Press, 1977.
Sheehan, Bernard W. Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American
Indian. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1973.




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