Having made several unplanned detours, I am now returning to my original post topics, Thomas Jefferson and slavery. President Obama, Guantanamo, and Adam & Eve, having claimed my attention for a bit, are now being relegated to the background!
When last we met with Mr. Jefferson (link), the issue of slavery was being discussed.
It is not always an easy matter to extricate one’s self from a situation in which one is involved, or perhaps entangled. It is easy to think that you can, or that others should….to think that life’s predicaments exist in sharply-delineated colors and not mottled shades and blurred edges. The wheat and the tares grow up together, and you can’t uproot one without pulling up some of the other (Matthew 13: 24-30). Which isn’t usually what the plan was…
Hindsight is frequently 100% clear. If we had only been aware of what was being developed! But, at the risk of not making any sense, life is larger than itself and often we can’t see the forest for the trees. Something seems convenient, maybe expedient at the time, so we undertake, venture, and/or commit. Unseen aspects are set in motion. Time goes by. One day you wake up with a monster from that forest in your bed. If only you had been aware…! you would not have taken that first step.
So while it is easy for us today to expect that the Founders of America should have freed all their slaves, just like that, overnight! I imagine for our revolutionary predecessors it was not so simple. Their ENTIRE way of life was dependent upon the labor power provided by their slaves. Harsh reality. And no one likes unsettling change, for the most part. It needs to be effected gradually. Wisdom dictates forethought and planning to provide for eventualities. Time was needed. The passage of time allowed for the institution of slavery to develop and grow, so time’s passage also was required for its demise.
Jefferson and many of his contemporaries viewed the African slaves as child-like and inferior beings, unable to be integrated into the society of the time (link). In fact, Jefferson believed that freed slaves should be exiled from American soil. Failing that, bitterness and animosity between former slaves and their masters loomed large as a troubling thorn-in-the-side. Prudence mandated some form of education be provided to the slaves, to prepare them for free society, just as today’s welfare recipients need job training. Loosing masses of previously dependent and oft-abused persons, ill-equipped to fend for themselves, into an already established system, a socially aristocratic environment seemed to Jefferson highly inadvisable. Indeed, in a letter to a former senator from Maine, in 1820, Jefferson wrote, “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 in the other.” (Miller, John Chester, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery)
So, while it would seem an easy matter for us to judge our forefathers harshly for allowing the shameful injustice of slavery to yet remain in a new America, perhaps upon reflection, as we learn more, we will not do so.
Throughout his adult life, however, Jefferson attempted to abolish or at least limit slavery. In his pre-Revolutionary days, as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769, Jefferson proposed that all Virginian slaves be emancipated. The House did not see it that way. As the colonies grew nearer to the time of their own emancipation, and prepared to declare such an event, in his first draft of our immortal Declaration of Independence, Jefferson condemned Britain for its practice of importing slaves to American soil. He charged the crown with “wag[ing] cruel war…violating… sacred rights of life and liberty” for their involvements in the slave trade. (Wikipedia, Jefferson and Slavery) . However, that language was eliminated from the final version. (Not by Jefferson, rather southern state delegates.) However, the year 1778 finally saw the importation of new slaves to Virginia banned, a result of Jefferson’s efforts in the legislature.
The lands west of the Alleghenies and northwest of the Ohio River were known as the Northwest Territory. “Largely through the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, the States from Massachusetts to Virginia had agreed to relinquish their claims to this land.” (The Book of Great American Documents, ed. Vincent Wilson, Jr.) The Continental Congress, now responsible for this area of the country, passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which, again thanks to Thomas Jefferson, stated, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…” in that territory. (Actually, an earlier version of the Ordinance had been drafted, in 1784, and the prohibition of slavery article lost by one vote. That version was never put into effect, and was officially repealed in 1787.)
So we see a vast wilderness area, lands pristine and virgin, untainted with the stain of slavery. We see new beginnings. And in 1807, as President, Thomas Jefferson signed the bill abolishing the slave trade.