Should Jefferson Have Freed His Slaves? Basic Information

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Should Jefferson Have Freed His Slaves?

Basic Information: Some historians have called Jefferson a hypocrite – someone whose actions contradict their words and principles – because he did not free his slaves. Read the facts about Jefferson and slavery below. Then decide whether you think Jefferson should have freed his slaves and answer the questions that follow.

Part A. Jefferson & Slavery Facts

  1. Thomas Jefferson's first memory was of being carried on a pillow by a slave.

  1. In the year 1757, when Jefferson was 14, his father died. Jefferson inherited an estate that included 30 slaves.

  1. When he was in his 20s, Jefferson became a lawyer.  Two years after he began the practice of law, Thomas Jefferson took the case of Samuel Howell, a slave. Both Howell's mother and grandmother had been slaves who had been set free. Howell sued for his freedom from the master to whom he had been sold before his mother received her freedom. Jefferson argued that Virginia law did not extend slavery to the offspring of slaves who had been set free. Under the "law of nature", he argued, "we are all born free."  The Virginia court ruled against Jefferson and Howell remained a slave.

  1. In 1772, ate the age of 29, Jefferson married. His father-in-law died two years later, and left him 135 slaves. He now owned a total of 185 slaves.

  1. Compared to most slaveholders, Jefferson was a kind master. A French nobleman visiting Monticello reported that Jefferson's slaves were nourished, clothed, and treated as well as white servants could be.

  1. Jefferson rewarded hard work with extra rations of food and time off for slaves to work their gardens. He once described Monticello as a place "where all is peace and harmony, where we love and are loved be every object we see."

  1. Jefferson never personally applied the lash, and he directed that overseers whip slaves only in extreme cases. He always preferred to sell disobedient slaves rather than to flog them. When selling such slaves, Jefferson tried to dispose of families as a unit and avoid separating parents and children, husbands and wives.

  1. In addition to growing tobacco and cotton, Jefferson had nails manufactured on his estate. The slave boys who worked in the nail factory were well compensated -- they received a pound of meat a week, a dozen fish, a quart of molasses, and a peck of cornmeal. Those who turned out the most nails were rewarded with a suit of red or blue cloth

  1. Not all slaves at Jefferson's estate were content. When the American Revolution broke out, about thirty of Jefferson's slaves escaped from his estate and fought with the British army.

  1. When Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, he included the following passage: "He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur a miserable death in their transportation thither. This practical warfare.... is the warfare of the King of Great Britain.

  2. The delegates from South Carolina and Georgia objected to this passage, and Jefferson reluctantly agreed to remove it. For Jefferson, the main issue in the debate over the Declaration was independence, not slavery, and deleting the slavery passage was a small price to pay for his broader goals.

  1. After the colonies obtained their independence, Jefferson stated that slavery was an intolerable wrong. Yet he thought it would be better to send former slaves, once freed, out of the country where they could set up a colony of their own. He believed blacks and whites would be unable to live in peace under the same government. Deep-seated prejudices ingrained in whites and the memory of injustices suffered by blacks would produce violent uprisings.

  1. Jefferson proposed freedom for the children of all Virginia slaves born after 1800. Freedom, he said, was "the birthright of all men regardless of their color or condition." His fellow Virginians disagreed, however, and they rejected his proposal.

  1. Jefferson was often in debt. Selling his slaves would have been the quickest way to pay his creditors, but to do so would have deprived him of the labor force upon which his income depended and would lower the quality of his comfortable lifestyle. Captain Edmund Bacon, overseer at Monticello from 1806-22, noted after Jefferson's death, "I think he would have freed all of them if his affairs had not been so much involved that he could not do it."

  1. One obstacle to freeing his slaves was Virginia law. Under Virginia law, a master who freed a slave had to certify that the slave had a skill and a place to use it. It was unlawful to free a slave without providing for his or her support first. This would have been very difficult and expensive for Jefferson because he owned so many slaves.

  1. Freed slaves were not welcome in other states, several of which excluded their entry by law.

  1. If Jefferson had freed his slaves, he would have jeopardized his reputation. It is most unlikely that he would have become president of the United States.

  1. Jefferson would have lost the election of 1800 if it had not been for the 3/5 clause.

  2. Despite these obstacles, some abolitionists urged Jefferson to free his slaves and set an example for other slave owners.

  1. Benjamin Banneker, a well known free black at the time, wrote a letter to Jefferson asking him how he could reconcile his "created equal" phrase in the Declaration of Independence with is practice of "detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity."

  1. In 1820, just 4 years before his death, Jefferson said: "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation the other."

  1. Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 without freeing most of his slaves. At the time of his death he had one of the largest holdings of slaves in Virginia.

  1. A slave carpenter made the coffin in which Jefferson was buried.

Part B. Questions About Jefferson & Slavery

  1. Do you think Jefferson should have freed his slaves? (Circle One):


  1. List 3 pieces of evidence that support your answer above (You can just write the #).




  1. List 3 pieces of evidence that oppose your answer above.(Again, you can just write the #).




  1. Why do you think the evidence you listed in response to question #3 is NOT convincing?


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