National Identity, Race, Enslavement, and Thomas Jefferson



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National Identity, Race, Enslavement, and Thomas Jefferson

National Identity

The colonial population had been divided by ethnicity, religion, class, and status and united largely by virtue of their allegiance to Britain. The Revolution created not only a new nation but also a new collective body, the American people, whose members were to enjoy freedom as citizens in a new political community. Since government in the United States rested on the will of the people, it was all the more important to identify who the people were.

The Constitution opens with the words, “We the People,” describing those who, among other things, are to possess “the Blessings of Liberty” as a birthright and pass them on to “Posterity.” (Abraham Lincoln would later cite these words to argue that the nation had been created by the people, not the states, the states could not dissolve it.) Although one might assume that the “people” of the United States included all those living within the nation’s borders, the text made clear that this was not the case.

The Constitution identifies three populations inhabiting the United States: Indians, treated as members of independent tribes and not part of the American body politic; “other persons”—that is, slaves; and the “people.”

Only the third were entitled to American freedom. Every nation confronts the task of defining its identity. Historians have traditionally distinguished between “civic nationalism,” which envision the nation as a community open to all those devoted to its political institutions and social values, and “ethnic nationalism,” which defines the nation as a community of descent based on a shared ethnic heritage, language, and culture. At first glance, the United States appears to conform to the civic model. It lacked a clear ethnic identity or long-established national boundaries—the political principles of the Revolution held Americans together. To be an American, all one had to do was commit oneself to an ideology of liberty, equality, and democracy. From the outset, however, American nationality combined both civic and ethnic definitions. For most of our history, American citizenship has been defined by blood as well as by political allegiance.

Indigenous in the New Nation

The early republic’s policies toward Indians and African-Americans illustrate the conflicting principles that shaped American nationality. American leaders agreed that the West should not be left in Indian hands, but they disagreed about the Indians’ ultimate fate. The government hoped to encourage the westward expansion of white settlement, which implied one of three things: the removal of the Indian population to lands even farther west, their total disappearance, or their incorporation into white “civilization” with the expectation that they might one day become part of American society.

Many white Americans, probably most, deemed Indians savages unfit for citizenship. Indian tribes had no representation in the new government, and the Constitution excluded Indians “not taxed” from being counted in determining each state’s number of congressmen. The treaty system gave them a unique status within the American political system. But despite

This recognition of their sovereignty, treaties were essentially ways of transferring land from Indians to the federal government or the states. Often, a treaty was agreed to by only a small portion of a tribe, but the whole tribe was then forced to accept its legitimacy.

During Washington’s administration, Secretary of War Henry Knox Hoped to deal with Indians with a minimum of warfare and without under mining the new nation’s honor. He recognized, he said in 1794, that American treatment of the continent’s native inhabitants had been even “more destructive to the Indian” than Spain’s conduct in Mexico and Peru. His conciliatory policy had mixed results. Congress forbade the transfer of Indian land without federal approval. But several states ignored this directive and continued to negotiate their own agreements.

Open warfare continued in the Ohio Valley. In 1791, Little Turtle, leader of the Miami Confederacy, inflicted a humiliating defeat on American forces led by Arthur St. Clair, the American governor of the Northwest Territory. With 630 dead, this was the costliest loss ever suffered by the United States Army at the hands of Indians. In 1794,3,000 American troops under Anthony Wayne defeated Little Turtle’s forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This led directly to the Treaty of Greenville of 1795, in which twelve Indian tribes ceded most of Ohio and Indiana to the federal government. The treaty also established the “annuity” system—yearly grants of federal money to Indian tribes that institutionalized continuing government influence in tribal affairs and gave outsiders considerable control over Indian life.

Many prominent figures, however, rejected the idea that Indians were innately inferior to white Americans. Thomas Jefferson believed that Indians merely lived at a less advanced stage of civilization. Indians could become full-fledged members of the republic by abandoning communal landholding and hunting in favor of small-scale farming. Once they “possessed property,” Jefferson told one Indian group, they could “join us in our government” and, indeed, “mix your blood with ours.”

Jefferson, Slavery and Race

Man’s liberty, John Locke had written, flowed from “his having reason.” To deny liberty to those who were not considered rational beings did not Seem to be a contradiction. White Americans increasingly viewed blacks as permanently deficient in the qualities that made freedom possible—the capacity for self-control, reason, and devotion to the larger community.

These were the characteristics that Jefferson, in a famous comparison of the races in his book Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785,claimed black slacked, partly due to natural in capacity and partly because the bitter experience of slavery had (quite understandably, he felt) rendered them disloyal to the nation. Jefferson was reluctant to “degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.” He therefore voiced the idea “as a suspicion only,” that blacks “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” Yet this “unfortunate” circumstance, he went on, “is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

Jefferson was obsessed with the connection between heredity and environment, race and intelligence. His belief that individuals’ abilities and achievements are shaped by social conditions inclined him to hope that no group was fixed permanently in a status of inferiority. He applied this principle, as has been noted, to Indians, whom he believed naturally the equal of whites in intelligence.

In the case of blacks, however, he could not avoid the“ suspicion” that nature had permanently deprived them of the qualities that made republican citizenship possible. Benjamin Banneker, a free African-American from Maryland who had taught himself the principles of mathematics, sent Jefferson a copy of an astronomical almanache had published, along with a plea for the abolition of slavery. Jefferson replied, “Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to the other colors of men.” To his friend Joel Barlow, however, Jefferson suggested that a white person must have helped Banneker with his calculations.

“Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate,” wrote Jefferson, “than that these people are to be free.”Yet he felt that America should have a homogeneous citizenry with common experiences, values, and inborn abilities. Americans’ essential sameness would underpin the ideal of equal rights for all, making it possible to realize the idea of the public good. Black Americans, Jefferson affirmed, should eventually enjoy the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, but in Africa or the Caribbean, not in the United States. He fore saw Indians merging with whites into a single people, but he was horrified by the idea of miscegenation between blacks and whites. Unlike Indians, blacks, he believed, were unfit for economic independence and political self-government. Freeing the slaves without removing them from the country would endanger the nation’s freedom. In his will, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish aristocrat who fought for American independence, left funds for Jefferson to purchase and free slaves, “giving them liberty in my name.”But when his friend died in 1817, Jefferson transferredthemoneytoanofficialoftheAmericanColonizationSociety,an organization dedicated to sending freed slaves to Africa. Eventually, the funds were divided among Kosciuszko’s heirs in Europe. Jefferson reflected the divided mind of his generation. Some prominent Virginians assumed that blacks could be come part of the American nation.



Edward Coles, an early governor of Illinois, brought his slaves from Virginia, freed them, and settled them on farms. Washington, who died in 1799, provided in his will that his 277 slaves would become free after the death of his wife, Martha. (Feeling uncomfortable living among men and women who looked forward to her death, she emancipated them the following year.) Jefferson thought of himself as a humane owner. The slave cabins on this estate, Monticello, one visitor wrote, “are all much better than I have seen on any other plantation,” although he could not help adding that “their cabins form a most unpleasant contrast with the palace that rises so near them.” Believing the slave trade immoral, Jefferson tried to avoid selling slaves to pay off his mounting debts. But his will provided for the freedom of only five, all relatives of his slave Sally Hemings, with whom he appears to have had fathered one or more children. When he died in 1826, Jefferson owed so much money that his property, including the majority of his more than 200 slaves, was sold at auction, thus destroying the slave community he had tried to keep intact.



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