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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: May 2009

5 - Race and slavery in the era of Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson's earliest memory was being carried on a pillow by a slave, and when he died in 1826, he was buried in a coffin built by an enslaved carpenter. More than any other member of the founding generation, Jefferson exemplified the inconsistent outlook and behavior of the post-revolutionary republic. He consistently and eloquently professed to despise slavery, yet he freed only those bondpeople who were related to him. And while many contemporaries regarded Jefferson as a disciple of the Enlightenment, his comments on Africans and their descendants were founded upon his labor needs, not on rational observation, and were reactionary even by eighteenth-century standards. Even more than other planter-politicians of his day, Jefferson was especially adept at shifting the blame for slavery onto others - as well as avoiding the responsibility for ending it. In his most celebrated formulation, put forth in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson held Britain and King George III responsible for both the slave trade and the creation of unfree labor in Virginia, as if eager Chesapeake planters had played no role in the purchase of captured Africans. Denouncing the Atlantic traffic in humans as “piratical warfare,” Jefferson insisted that it was only the British monarch who was “[d]etermined to keep open a market where Men” were sold into slavery. As a young politician, Jefferson insisted that abolishing slavery was the task of senior statesmen, but even after retiring from the presidency, when he had nothing left to lose apart from his reputation among Virginia planters, he rebuffed Edward Coles's request to endorse a plan to liberate slaves in the West. Jefferson now insisted that it was the duty of “the younger generation” to advance “the hour of emancipation.” By 1814, he claimed that he had “ceased to think” about black liberation, as it was “not to be the work of my day.”