Jefferson Notes on Slavery


Name:Date:Period:Jefferson’s Notes on SlaveryJefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, including the line, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How does his perspective on slavery betray this statement? How does it align with it? Write a response exploring the ways in which Jefferson justified his position as slave owner to himself despite it going against everything he believed about humanity (3 paragraphs minimum). See attached article related to these questions.

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Primary Source: Jefferson’s Notes on Slavery
Editor’s Note: Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which says
“all men are created equal,” and served as the third president of the United States. He
also had one of the largest plantations in Virginia, and owned more than 200 slaves.
Paradoxically, he helped Virginia to become one of the first states to ban the slave
trade. In his personal notebook, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” excerpted here and
originally published in 1785, Jefferson explores his seemingly contradictory views,
trying to reconcile his position as a slaveholder and a democratic idealist. Jefferson’s
writings reveal that he shared the contemporary beliefs about the biological basis for
race and racial inferiority, while also advocating for the eventual emancipation of the
It will probably be asked, Why not retain and include the blacks into the state, and thus
save the expense of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will
leave? 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. The
resulting turmoil will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the
other race. To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are
physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of color. – Whether the
black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or
in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the color of the blood, the color of the
bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature.
They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labor through the day, will be
induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he
must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more
adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a lack of forethought, which
prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. – When present, they do not go through
it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They 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 short-lived. Those numberless
afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in
wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears
to participate more of sensation than reflection. Comparing them by their faculties of
memory, reason and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the
whites. In reason, they are much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable
of comprehending the investigations of Euclid. In imagination, they are dull, tasteless
and abnormal.
“A Powerful Obstacle To The Emancipation”
It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of
conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been
brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to their own
homes and their own society. Yet many have been so situated that they might have
availed themselves of the conversation of their masters. Many have been brought up to
the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the
whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts
and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes
samples of the best works from abroad.
The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not
without design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to
prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish
you with strokes of the most sublime speech, such as 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 saw even an elementary
trait of painting or sculpture. In music, they are more generally gifted than the whites
with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a
small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of
melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the
most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but
no poetry. The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their
mixture with the whites, proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their
condition of life.
To our reproach, it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under
our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as
subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks are
inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against
experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same
species, may possess different qualifications. This unfortunate difference of color, and
perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of
their advocates, while they wish to defend the liberty of human nature are anxious also
to preserve its dignity and beauty. Among the Romans the emancipation of slaves
required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the
blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed,
he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture. The particular customs and manners
that may happen to be received in that state? It is difficult to determine on the standard
by which the manners of a nation may be tried. It is more difficult for a native to bring to
that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by habit.
“A Country In This World”
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced
by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is
an exercise of the most wild passions, the most unremitting power on the one part, and
degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it, for
man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his
cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no
motive for restraining his passion toward his slave, it should always be a sufficient one
that his child is present. But generally, it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child
looks on, sees his parent’s wrath, and puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller
slaves. Thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, the child cannot but be
stamped with hateful peculiarities. The statesman who permits one-half of the citizens
thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into tyrants, and these into
enemies, destroys the morals of one part, and the patriotism of the other.
For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other than that in which he
is born to live and labor for another. With the morals of the people, their industry also is
destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labor for himself who can make another
labor for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small portion
indeed are even seen in labor. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when
we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these
liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed,
I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep
forever, that a revolution of the wheel of fortune is among possible events, that it may
become probable by supernatural interference! The almighty has no attribute which can
take side with us in such a contest. It is impossible to pursue this subject through the
various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must hope
they will force their way into everyone’s mind. I think a change already perceptible,
since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is receding, that of the
slave rising from the dust, his condition preparing, under the signs of heaven, for a total
emancipation, which will come I hope with the consent of the masters, rather than by
their destruction.

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Notes on Slavery

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