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Thomas Jefferson: a Man of Many Dimensions

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Gibson 1 Cassandra Gibson Erik Iverson United States History I March 1, 2012 Thomas Jefferson: A Man of Many Dimensions Thomas Jefferson’s inspirational words proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence have a spine-tingling effect, leaving readers with chills, but yet enlightened and proud. I can imagine Thomas Jefferson sitting at his desk, passion pouring onto the paper with each stroke of his pen as he endlessly works throughout the day, candlelight by night, searching for the perfect words for what would become the nation’s most cherished symbol of liberty. “All men are created equal . . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” – extremely powerful words coming from the same man who owned over 180 slaves; the same man who also wrote that Blacks “are inferior to the whites in the endowments of body and mind” (Jefferson 270); the same man who did almost nothing to abolish slavery during his 40 years in the political arena of Virginia and the new republic (Magnis 492). It is clear through Jefferson’s contradictions between his inspirational words declared in the Declaration of Independence and his actions, writings and political behaviors that in his mind “all men” did not include Black men. Surprisingly, Jefferson was not concerned with originality when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and even borrowed language from previous writings. George Mason drafted a form of a declaration of rights for Virginia, in which he declared “all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural rights . . . among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty” (McCullough 121). Jefferson also added language from a pamphlet published in

Gibson 2 1774 by Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson who declared, “all men are, by nature equal and free: no one has a right to any authority over another without his consent: all lawful government is founded on the consent of those who are subject to it” (McCullough 121). Jefferson later explained he was “neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment . . . it was intended to be an expression of the American mind” (McCullough 121). Although the Declaration of Independence lacks originality, Jefferson’s observations on the physical, emotional and behavioral differences between Blacks and other races in his Notes on the State of Virginia are quite original. Jefferson portrayed Blacks to be foul and less attractive than Whites due to their lack of flowing hair and the “immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions” (Jefferson 265). Jefferson also depicted Blacks to be cruder and more animalistic than Whites, writing that Blacks are “more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation,” adding that love “kindles the senses only, not the imagination” (Jefferson 265-267). Jefferson concluded that “their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection,” implying that a life without reflection is similar to that of an animal (265). Jefferson went as far as suggesting that on the Great Chain of Being, Blacks were a separate species located beneath humans but above orang-ootans (Magnis 500). Jefferson based Blacks inferiority on one of two things: either Blacks were created a distinct species, or they were made by time and circumstance (Jefferson 270). In order to explore this further, Jefferson compared the Blacks with the noble savages who did not have the same exposure to arts, education, and sciences as they did – the Indians (Jefferson 266). Jefferson commends the Indians on their drawings and intricate carvings which prove their desire for cultivation. Jefferson adds, “they astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory,”

Gibson 3 which “prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated . . . But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture” (266). Jefferson even compared slavery with Roman slavery, concluding that the white Roman slaves were treated more harshly, however, despite their harsh conditions, Roman slaves were often the “rarest of artists,” the most learned of scientists and the trusted tutors to their master’s children (Jefferson 268). Jefferson concluded that Blacks could not achieve the same intellectual accomplishments of the Roman slaves, Indians, or Whites adding that “the improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with whites, has been observed by everyone, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life . . . but the nature which has produced the distinction” (267-268). Jefferson’s belief that Blacks were members of a race so alien and inferior, there was no hope that Whites and Blacks could coexist side by side on terms of equality. Jefferson stated that “This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people” (Magnis 498). Therefore, according to Jefferson, if slaves were emancipated, they would have to be removed from the country because of “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race” (Jefferson 264). Throughout Thomas Jefferson’s life he maintained that slavery was immoral and unjust, however, his political behavior proved otherwise. As governor of Virginia, Jefferson signed a bill to reward Virginia’s soldiers who enlisted for the duration of the War for Independence with

Gibson 4 “300 acres of land plus a healthy sound Negro between 20 and 30 years of age or 60 pounds in gold and silver” (Magnis 501). Further, in 1782, Jefferson failed to free his own bondsmen after a law was passed permitting masters to manumit their slaves (Cohen 508). In 1776, Jefferson was chosen as a member of the Virginia Committee of Revisors, whose task was to revise, modernize, and codify the statues of Virginia, to include those dealing with slavery which is reflected in Query XIV on “Laws.” (Cohen 508). Although Jefferson was merely copying earlier legislation, substantial provisions were made to the laws regarding Blacks. According to these provisions, Blacks could not testify against Whites, possess arms, or leave the property of their masters without a pass. Jefferson also included the usual penalty of whipping for such slave offenses as rioting, presenting seditious speeches, and running away (Cohen 509). The bill also contained significant additions designed to prevent the increase of the state’s free Black population. It was illegal for free Blacks to come into Virginia of their own accord or to remain there for more than one year after they were emancipated. A white woman having a child by a Black would be required to leave the state within a year. Individuals who violated these regulations would be placed “out of the protection of the laws,” leaving them subject to reenslavement or worse (Cohen 509). Jefferson drafted an amendment to the bill which proposed a gradual plan of emancipation. The down side to this proposal was that children of slaves born after the passage of the act would be emancipated. However, these children would be separated from their parents and raised and educated at public expense. Once females reached the age of 18, and males 21, they would then be colonized outside of North America to Africa or the Caribbean Islands, where they were finally deemed to be free and independent people (Magnis 493). According to

Gibson 5 Cohen, the amendment was never submitted with the bill because Jefferson “found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition” (510). The single most important antislavery act in Jefferson’s career was writing a clause for the Ordinance of 1784 which failed adoption by one vote. The Ordinance of 1784 would have barred slavery from the western territory after 1800 (Cohen 510). However, 36 years later, Jefferson reversed his position on the Ordinance of 1784, when he adopted the treaty which granted the Louisiana Territory to the United States. The treaty contained a provision which protected the right of the Spanish and French inhabitants of the Louisiana Territory to keep their slaves. In fact, Jefferson made no move to stop additional slavery into the area and argued “that slavery could not be denied by the federal government in any state being created out of the Louisiana Purchase, because only a state has the right to regulate the different descriptions of the persons comprising it” (Magnis 506). Actually, Jefferson supported the spreading of slavery and believed that it would benefit the slaves stating that, “their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier, and proportionately facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation by dividing the burden on a greater number of coadjutators” (Magins 507). On the other hand, Jefferson certainly did not believe that the Blacks should, or could for that matter, become equal partners in the building of these new western communities (Cohen 510). Thomas Jefferson was a man of many dimensions. Throughout his life he maintained that slavery was morally and politically evil, yet he was a slave owner himself. He believed that all men were entitled to life and liberty, yet he did nothing to stop slavery from spreading to the western territory. The actions, writings and political behavior of the man credited for writing the Declaration of Independence leave a disturbing, chilling feeling.

Gibson 6 Works Cited Cohen, William. "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery." The Journal of American History 56.3 (1969): 503-26. JSTOR. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. . Jefferson, Thomas, and Merrill D. Peterson. "Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV." Writings. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1984. 256-75. Print. Magnis, Nicholas E. "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery: An Analysis of His Racist Thinking as Revealed by His Writings and Political Behavior." Journal of Black Studies 29.4 (1999): 491-509. JSTOR. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. . McCullough, David G. "True Blue." John Adams. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2001. 120-21. Print.

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