Daguerreotype of Isaac Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Thomas Jefferson enslaved more than 600 people during his lifetime and was a lifelong protector of the institution of slavery. Yet he also wrote movingly about freedom in the Declaration of Independence (1776), a foundational text of American identity, and condemned slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Public understanding of Jefferson's relationship to slavery is complicated by the rhetoric of liberty in his writing and the way in which historians have remembered him over time. His relationship to slavery must be considered in three interrelated contexts. First, there is his role as a wealthy planter who enslaved hundreds of human beings throughout his lifetime—including his half sister-in-law, the enslaved house servant Sally Hemings, and her children, whom he almost certainly fathered. Second, there is his relationship to slavery in his capacity as a public leader. Although Jefferson moved to abolish the African slave trade, he supported and in many cases protected domestic slavery throughout his career. He opposed both private manumission and public emancipation and maintained that ending slavery depended on removing blacks to another land entirely. Third, there are his views on race as expressed in both his public writing and his private correspondence. Jefferson believed that black people were physically, mentally, and emotionally inferior to whites and used pseudoscience to try to justify his opinion. Jefferson's views on race made it impossible for him to support any end to slavery. MORE...


Jefferson the Slaveholder

Jefferson was born to wealth and grew up in a slaveholding family. For his entire life, slaves waited on him, cooked for him, served him, and in every other way insured his comfort and well being. According to Henry S. Randall's The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1858),his earliest memory was of being "carried on a pillow by a mounted slave" when he was between two and three years old. When his father, Peter Jefferson, died in 1757, fourteen-year-old Thomas inherited his father's estate; at age twenty-one, he took possession of about forty slaves and about 5,000 acres of land. After his father-in-law John Wayles died in 1773, Jefferson's wife—and therefore, Jefferson—inherited 135 slaves and more than 11,000 acres of land. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, asserting that "all men are created equal" and entitled to "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness" he owned about 175 enslaved men and women. At his death fifty years later—on July 4, 1826—he owned more than 200. Although the exact number may never be known, scholars estimate that Jefferson owned more than 600 human beings throughout his lifetime.

Jefferson's treatment of slaves was not much different from that of other planters. He was strikingly unconcerned about enslaved men and women as individuals. Instead, he viewed them as assets to manage. In discussing the work of his overseers, on April 19, 1792, Jefferson wrote, "My first wish is that the labourers may be well treated," immediately adding, "the second that they may enable me to have that treatment continued by making as much as will admit it." Jefferson did not physically punish his slaves; he had overseers for that. But he was willing to sell a person out of state, effectively exiling them from friends and family, as a punitive measure. The strategy was calculated to create terror in other enslaved men and women. In 1803, for example, he directed that one slave be sold to "negro purchasers from Georgia" or some "other quarter so distant as never more to be heard of among us." This removal should appear to the other slaves "as if he were put out of the way by death."

In a letter to his son-in-law John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson claimed to have "scruples about selling negroes but for delinquency or on their own request." But this was not entirely true. Jefferson lived an elegant, almost regal lifestyle, and he was notoriously poor at managing his money. When cash was in short supply, he sold his slaves to raise more. In the ten-year period between 1784 and 1794, Jefferson sold at least eighty-five slaves to raise cash to buy wine, art, furniture, and other luxury items.

Beginning late in the 1780s or early in the 1790s, Jefferson probably enjoyed a longstanding sexual liaison with Sally Hemings, his enslaved house servant and the half-sister of his deceased wife, and fathered at least six children with her. This should be seen as one of the incidents of slavery. Sexual activity between slaveholders and female slaves was commonplace in Virginia, the American South, and all other slave societies. But for almost two centuries, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, many Americans could not accept that Thomas Jefferson—author of the Declaration of Independence, scientist, philosopher, and highly cultured icon of American liberty—could have fathered children by Hemings. Dumas Malone, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer of Jefferson, argued against the possibility on the grounds that it was "virtually unthinkable in a man of Jefferson's moral standards and habitual conduct."

It is theoretically possible—if unlikely—that Jefferson's brother Randolph fathered Hemings's children. But even if that were the case, it means that Jefferson was willing to tolerate Randolph's preying on a woman under Jefferson's care (and evidently only while he was himself at Monticello). And it would mean that Jefferson was still related to Hemings's children by blood. Either way, Jefferson held his own relatives in slavery. From a moral standpoint, does it matter much whether Jefferson enslaved his nieces, nephews, and brothers- and sisters-in-law, or whether he enslaved his own children?

Jefferson freed only 7 of his more than 600 slaves: 2 during his lifetime, and 5 in his will. Three more, likely Jefferson's children, were allowed to leave Monticello with his implicit consent. (He did not free Hemings.) He favored public emancipation over private manumission, but—because he thought that blacks were inherently inferior to whites—believed that public emancipation would not be successful without also removing free black people to another country entirely. In 1814, upon hearing that his neighbor Edward Coles planned to take his slaves to Illinois and free them, he advised Coles against his plan. People "of this color" were "as incapable as children of taking care of themselves," Jefferson told Coles. Free blacks were "pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them."

Some of Jefferson's contemporaries who condemned the institution of slavery granted freedom to all of their slaves. Coles, who freed his slaves in 1819, is one example. Another is Jefferson's legal mentor George Wythe, who manumitted all of his slaves before his death. George Washington, who after the American Revolution (1775–1783) refused to either to buy or sell slaves "as you would do cattle at a market" ultimately freed his 123 slaves in his will. Although Washington did not do anything in his public life to dismantle Southern slaveholding society, his private manumission was a strong political statement.

Slavery and the Public Leader

Jefferson is best remembered as a public leader: he was a national political leader from 1773 until his death in 1826. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), governor of Virginia (1779–1781), and the third president of the United States (1801–1809). He served in the House of Burgesses (1769–1776), the Continental Congress (1775, 1776, and 1783–1784), and the House of Delegates (1776–1779); he was also the American envoy to France (1784–1789), secretary of state (1790–1793), and vice president under John Adams (1797–1801). During this long career of virtually constant public service, Jefferson had many opportunities to shape the nation's relationship to slavery. His biographers all argue that he knew slavery was wrong, and yet despite his enormous political power and prestige, he did almost nothing to stop its spread or to set it on a course of ultimate extinction. On the contrary, it is plausible to argue that throughout his political career Jefferson almost always strengthened and protected slavery.

Jefferson claimed that in 1769, as a young member of the House of Burgesses, he supported a failed bill to allow private manumission in Virginia. The only evidence for this event comes from Jefferson himself, who mentioned it in a letter in 1814 and an autobiographical sketch in 1821—forty-five and fifty years later, respectively. Assuming the events unfolded as Jefferson described them, the proposal was not antislavery in any meaningful way: it only would have allowed some masters to privately manumit their slaves in the colony.

Seven years later, in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned George III for vetoing a Virginia law that would have suspended the importation of new slaves into the colony. In what John Adams called a "vehement philippic," Jefferson complained that the king had "waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty" by perpetuating the African slave trade. Calling the African trade "piratical warfare," Jefferson complained that "a CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain" was so "Determined to keep open a market where MEN" were bought and sold that he used his "negative" to suppress "every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce." Finally, he denounced the king for encouraging slaves to enlist in the British army, "exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of one people, with crimes which he urges to commit against the LIVES of another."

This paragraph, which was not included in the final version of the Declaration, has often been misunderstood as an attack on slavery or even Jefferson's attempt to end slavery in the Declaration. Such an understanding is wrong. The paragraph is a misleading attempt to blame the king for slavery and the slave trade, but it is not meant to undermine slavery itself. First, the law that George III vetoed was not antislavery and would not have freed a single slave in the colony. It was an economic regulation that would have benefited Virginia slaveholders. Second, as the end of the paragraph makes clear, Jefferson's issue was not with slavery itself, but with the Crown offering liberty to enslaved men in exchange for their military service. In fact, the only slavery-related element that remained in the final version of the Declaration was an indirect condemnation of the British for enlisting slaves to fight against the Patriots, thus "[exciting] domestic insurrections against us." While it was permissible in Jefferson's mind for white Virginians to fight for liberty, it was not permissible for enslaved men to fight for their own freedom. Later, as the wartime governor of Virginia, he opposed masters freeing slaves so that the slaves could enlist in the militia. Third, if Jefferson really believed slavery was "piratical" he would have urged Congress to end slavery. He of course did not.

Shortly after he wrote the Declaration Jefferson returned to Virginia, where he served in the General Assembly before becoming governor in 1779. In the assembly he helped revise the state's laws. In this process he took no steps to ameliorate slavery or even to allow private manumission (as he claimed he had tried to do in 1769). He proposed numerous laws to tighten the slave code and increase penalties for slave criminals. While proposing laws that reduced penalties for whites (especially capital punishment), Jefferson tried to increase them dramatically for slaves and free blacks. He also proposed a law that would have banished any white woman bearing a multiracial child and hired out her child until he or she was old enough to leave the state. Fortunately, the assembly did not pass most of Jefferson's proposed anti-black laws, enhanced punishments for enslaved people, or his law to banish white women who had children with blacks. When some other members of the assembly proposed a gradual abolition law, Jefferson buried it in his committee. He later wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia that such a bill was pending in the General Assembly, but by then he was no longer in the assembly and knew (but did not reveal) that he had prevented allowing such a bill to come to the floor for debate. In 1782, when Jefferson was no longer in the assembly, the state adopted its law to allow private manumission.

In 1784 Jefferson, then a U.S. congressman, added to the Northwest Ordinances a provision that would outlaw slavery in the western territories after 1800. If passed, the law would have blocked the spread of slavery into the West—but it also would have given slaveholders sixteen years to flood the territories with enslaved men and women, perhaps making such a ban impossible to implement. Historians can only speculate on what might have happened. In the end, Congress adopted the ordinance but removed the ban on slavery. At this point Jefferson headed off to France, where he remained until after the Constitution was ratified.

After returning to the United States from France in 1789, Jefferson never took a public stand against slavery. As president, he encouraged Congress to end the African slave trade as soon as the Constitution allowed—on January 1, 1808. But he did not demand an end to slavery in the United States. Under the law Jefferson supported, any Africans who were brought to the country illegally would be sold into slavery for the benefit of the state where they were discovered. (Only after Jefferson and his ally James Madison left the presidency did Congress mandate that illegally imported slaves would be repatriated.)

As president, he also ended American support for Haiti, where slaves organized a 1791 rebellion that resulted in the island's independence from France. Fearful of a similar uprising in the United States, Jefferson cut off aid to the Haitian revolution's leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture; instituted an arms embargo; and refused to recognize Haitian independence. When Jefferson arranged for the Louisiana Purchase (1803) he did not attempt to prevent the spread of slavery into the new territories, and when Congress debated admitting Missouri as a slave state in 1820, Jefferson emphatically opposed any restrictions on the spread of slavery into the west.

With the exception of his proposal for the western territories in 1784, from the American Revolution to his death in 1826 Jefferson never took a public stance against slavery and never lifted a finger to end slavery, ameliorate the conditions of blacks, or even encourage private manumission. At the of end his life Jefferson flatly declared: "on the subject of emancipation I have ceased to think because [it is] not to be a work of my day."

Jefferson and Race

Jefferson's attitude toward slavery and emancipation was shaped by his deep-seated racism, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience. He believed that black men and women were intellectually and physically inferior to whites and lacked basic human emotions, that whites and free blacks could not peacefully coexist, and that free blacks should not remain in Virginia. Jefferson's 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia is perhaps the single most important window on these views.

In Query XIV of Notes, "Laws," Jefferson discusses his proposal for the emancipation and removal of Virginia's slaves—a proposal that he never introduced to a lawmaking body. Arguing that free blacks could not coexist with whites in Virginia, he writes: "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." He then goes on to enumerate the aesthetic reasons that whites and blacks cannot coexist. The passage is remarkable, revealing Jefferson's personal fears, his hatreds, and his ideas about sex. He argues that whites are better looking than blacks and that black men prefer white women to black women "as uniformly as is the preference of the [Orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species."

Of course, Jefferson had no empirical evidence for black men preferring white women and no evidence at all of orangutans and black women having sex. (He did have an enormous amount of evidence of white men having sex with enslaved black women—for example, his father-in-law, John Wayles, fathered a number of children with his enslaved house servant, Betty Hemings.) When Jefferson wrote Notes, sophisticated intellectuals did not engage in this sort of racism. What these statements reveal is that Jefferson was deeply fearful of sex between black men and white women.

Jefferson's negrophobia was profound. A scientist and naturalist, he nevertheless accepted and repeated unscientific and illogical arguments about blackness. He suggested that blackness might come "from the colour of the blood." He asserted "they secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor," while never considering that his slaves were unable to bathe after working in hot tobacco fields. He remarks upon their "disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour" and compares them to animals, never considering that his slaves might be physically exhausted from overwork.

In Notes, Jefferson also belittles the emotional and intellectual capacity of blacks. He argues that blacks—enslaved or free—are incapable of feeling romantic love or forming familial attachments. He asserts, "[Black men 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. Their griefs are transient." He argues that this inability to fully experience love also prevents blacks from creating great music, art, or literature. "Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination." Referencing the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley—whose work was praised by the likes of Voltaire—he writes, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism." In reason, too, he believed blacks to be "much inferior" to whites.

Anticipating the argument that the harsh conditions of slavery in America prevented blacks from achieving distinction in science, art, or literature, Jefferson asserts that Roman slaves had no such problem because "they were of the race of whites." He also holds up American Indians as a race of people who have "a germ in their minds which only" lacked education. He argued that Indians were capable of "the most sublime oratory." But he claimed he never found a black who "had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never seen an elementary trait of painting or sculpture." Jefferson concedes that blacks are brave, but this was due to "a want of fore-thought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present." In other words, Jefferson believed blacks were loyal and brave because they were unintelligent.

Notes is not the only example of Jefferson dismissing and denying black accomplishment. One notable instance concerns Benjamin Banneker, the free black mathematician, astronomer, and surveyor. Banneker wrote an almanac for Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, a project that required extensive and complicated mathematical calculations to accurately predict high tides, low tides, and the setting of the sun for a particular place. In 1791 Banneker sent Jefferson a draft of his almanac accompanied by a letter urging him to "lend your aid and assistance to [blacks'] relief from those many distresses and numerous calamities to which we are reduced." In a perfunctory thank you letter, Jefferson declared that "no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given our black brethren, talents equal to those of other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing to the degraded condition of the condition if their existence in Africa and America." Jefferson dutifully forwarded the almanac to an acquaintance at the French Academy of Sciences, referring to Banneker in his cover letter as "a very respectable mathematician," but an 1809 letter to a close political ally tells a different story. He wrote to Joel Barlow that "of Banneker" we "know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without suspicion of aid from [Andrew] Ellicot, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed."

Jefferson's views on race made it impossible for him to support any end to slavery, even though he also acknowledges in Notes the "unhappy influence" of the practice on Virginia. Black freedom would doom his way of life, which depended on unpaid black labor. And in his eyes, black freedom would also doom America by flooding it with oversexed, intellectually and morally inferior black people. This may be why he approached any emancipation plan with an impossible—or at least prohibitively expensive—condition: repatriation. Race made black slavery both possible and necessary to Jefferson.


Further Reading
Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. Third edition. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Stanton, Lucia. "Those Who Labor for My Happiness": Slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Finkelman, P. Thomas Jefferson and Slavery. (2018, September 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_Thomas_and_Slavery.

  • MLA Citation:

    Finkelman, Paul. "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Sep. 2018. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: July 24, 2018 | Last modified: September 20, 2018

Contributed by Paul Finkelman, the president of Gratz College, a scholar of slavery and the law, and the author of more than fifty books.