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Category Archives: Slavery

Insurgent slaves HERE could be leaders THERE!

[The slave uprisings in] West Indies appears to have given a considerable impulse to the minds of the slaves in different parts of the US. a great disposition to insurgency has manifested itself among them, which, in one instance, in the state of Virginia broke out into actual insurrection …
the legislature … wish that some place could be provided, out of the limits of the US. to which slaves guilty of insurgency might be transported …
it is material to observe that they are not felons, or common malefactors, but persons guilty of what the safety of society … obliges us to treat as a crime, but which their feelings may represent in a far different shape. they are such as will be a valuable acquisition to the settlement already existing there …
To Rufus King, July 13, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some problems are just too thorny for leaders to agree upon.
This was the subject of a recent post, but what constituted “insurgent negroes” was not clear. This letter five weeks later provides both context and clarity.

Slave uprisings in San Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) in the Caribbean had inspired similar action in multiple places in the American South. Jefferson distinguished between insurgency, which might have been some kind of active protest, and insurrection, which must have involved some kind of overt action, or at least its planning, against slave owners. The latter resulted in 26 slaves being hung in Virginia for complicity in an insurrection two years before.

That was the law, but elsewhere in this letter, Jefferson hoped for a new law with lesser punishment, “some alternative, combining more mildness with equal efficacy.” Removal to Sierra Leone was such an alternative.

Jefferson observed that insurgents selected for relocation were not criminals. While society wanted to treat them as such regardless, he acknowledged the slaves probably saw themselves quite differently.

His last sentence contained an oblique compliment. Insurgent slaves were rational people who had given thought to their depraved condition and acted to change it. Some of them were leaders. Those kinds of people would be assets to a new society.

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The negroes can prosper there!

[The Virginia Legislature] … in desiring us to look out for some proper place to which insurgent negroes may be sent … Sierra Leone was fixed on as the place … [for] the blacks then in England were carried thither … mr Thornton, the British Chargé des affaires here, he informs me the establishment is prosperous, and he thinks there will be no objection on the part of the company to recieve blacks from us, not of the character of common felons, but guilty of insurgency only, provided they are sent as free persons, the principles of their institution admitting no slavery among them.
To James Monroe, June 3, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson routinely supported efforts to repatriate former slaves to Africa, South America or the Caribbean. In doing so, they would be freed from future indignities by their former owners and other whites. A benevolent society in England had established such a colony in Sierra Leone, and it was prospering. He hoped to send blacks in America there, too.

An essential requirement for any repatriation would be that they must be sent as free people with no possibility of future slavery. Britain had guaranteed that in Sierra Leone.

Ever the practical man, Jefferson hoped that some trading endeavor might occur with the ships transporting these people across the Atlantic, to defray the cost. If that were allowed and successful, it might also provide the means for black freedmen to relocate voluntarily to a more accepting society.

What constituted “insurgent negroes” is not clear, but they could not have been criminals or those currently bound in slavery.

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Anti-slavery deleted from the Declaration of Independence

he [the King of England] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people [Africans] who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium [harsh criticism] of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted [shamefully traded away] his negative [veto] for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable [wretched, detestable] commerce [in human beings]…
Committee of Five to the Continental Congress, July 2, 1776

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A leader can’t go where people won’t follow.
The Declaration of Independence adopted July 4, 1776, lists 27 offenses by the King of England against his colonial subjects. There could have been one more offense had Congress not deleted the entire paragraph above, a ringing denunciation of the slave trade. That paragraph was part of Jefferson’s “original rough draft” of the Declaration. Georgia and South Carolina would not vote for independence unless that paragraph was deleted, and so it was.

Jefferson receives considerable criticism today on the subject of slavery. These words are but one example of many that he wrote throughout his lifetime condemning “this execrable commerce.” He knew that America could not continue to exist as two peoples, one slave and one free, but the majority of his contemporaries were not willing to follow his lead.

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Leave a comment Posted in Independence, Slavery Tagged , , , , , , |

I loaned YOUR money to ME.

… From this portion of my personal condition, I must turn to another of unpleasant hue, and apologize to you for what has given me much mortification … [a debt of] ten or twelve thousand Dollars … [what my agent] mr Barnes suggested that … the 4500.D. of yours … would entirely relieve my remaining deficiency. the proposition was like a beam of light; & I was satisfied that were you on the spot to be consulted the kindness of your heart would be gratified, while recieving punctually the interest for your own subsistence, to let the principal be so disposed of for a time, as to lift a friend out of distress …
To Tadeusz Kosciuszko, February 26, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
A debt-burdened leader is a conflicted leader.
Jefferson ended his long letter with an embarrassing admission. While he had hoped to finish his Presidency with his personal debt near zero, he found he still owed $10-12,000. His friend, President Madison, co-signed for 2/3 of that debt, but he had no access to more credit.

Jefferson was executor for the American portion of Koscuiszko’s estate when the Pole returned to Europe. At his death, that money was to free and educate slaves, and Jefferson was to make sure it happened. In the meantime, the money was invested.

The indebted former President, at his business agent’s suggestion, loaned Koscuiszko’s money to himself. He rationalized that Koscuiszko didn’t care who paid his interest, so long as it was paid. The principal of the estate covered the remainder of Jefferson’s large debt.

The Polish leader replied, “I approve of everything that you have done with my fund. I have complete confidence in you. I only ask that the interest be paid regularly …”

Koscuiszko later wrote other wills which conflicted with the one governing his American estate. He died in 1817, and Jefferson could not probate the slavery-relief funds. They remained part of his indebtedness and were never used for their intended purpose. Koscuizsko’s complicated estate wasn’t finally settled until several decades after Jefferson’s death in 1826.

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Why sell a slave? I want to buy more.

Being now endeavoring to purchase young & able negro men for my own works, it is exactly counter to these views to sell Brown to you as proposed in your letter. however, always willing to indulge connections seriously formed by those people where it can be done reasonably, I shall consent, however reluctantly to sell him to you.
To John Jordan, December 21, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Humane leaders care for the personal lives of those in their employ.
John Jordan was a bricklayer hired to work at Monticello. Brown Colbert, one of Jefferson’s slaves (or servants, as he called them) was married to one of Jordan’s slaves. Jordan was preparing to move away. Brown wanted Jordan to buy him from Jefferson, so he wouldn’t be separated from his wife. Jordan wrote to Jefferson, asking if he would sell Brown and at what price.

Jefferson was in the market to buy more slaves. Brown was young, of good character and a skilled blacksmith. Jefferson was most reluctant to part with him. But he was even more reluctant to separate the married couple. Young, unskilled slaves of good character would bring $500. Jefferson asked an additional $100 for Brown, citing his training.

Subsequently, Jordan declined the purchase because of the higher price, as he could make no use of Brown’s blacksmithing skill. Jefferson then agreed to the sale for $500.

According to Monticello’s web site, Brown Colbert remained with Jordan until a colonization society purchased his family’s freedom. The Colbert family emigrated to Liberia, Africa, in 1833 where they all died of disease within a few months.

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He is a BIG problem, but I can put up with him.

Dear Sir
The mad-man Stewart is again here. he has called on me for $:105—which I was obliged to let him have, or I supposed suffer him to go to Jail…
George Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson, November 16, 1801

… I note & approve what you did as to Stewart. he is the best workman in America, but the most eccentric one: quite manageable were I at home, but doubtful as I am not …
To George Jefferson, December 3, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some employees, no matter how skilled, need close supervison.
George Jefferson was the President’s cousin and Richmond-based business agent. William Stewart was a Philadelphia blacksmith hired by the President to move to Monticello. A ship captain’s bill for moving the family of six was $75. Stewart demanded $105 reimbursement instead. When George asked for documentation for the extra $30, Stewart cited (but didn’t produce) a letter from the President supposedly authorizing the extra funds. George thought it better to pay Stewart and get rid of him, but he made clear what he thought about the man.

Jefferson accepted George’s decision. He also acknowledged Stewart’s skill and great eccentricity. The latter could be managed if he were close by but must be tolerated from a distance.

Stewart’s wife died in 1805 and was buried in the Monticello cemetery. He was fired two years later, after fully training the slave Joe Fossett, who served in that capacity until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, but his wife and 10 children were sold because of Jefferson’s debts. Fossett eventually purchased his wife and some of their children from slavery.

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1 Comment Posted in Monticello, Personalities of others, Slavery Tagged , , , , , , |

How can we be rid of this crime against nature?

The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative [veto]: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs [pirates] to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice … so shameful an abuse of a power trusted with his majesty …
Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders agitate for human rights.
Slavery was introduced into the colonies in their earliest days. More than a century later, Jefferson claimed strong sentiment for abolition and citizenship for freed slaves. Before that could happen, importing more slaves had to stop. Yet, the king vetoed “repeated attempts” by the colonies to end importation.

The king put the immediate financial interests of a few slave traders above the lasting interests of the colonies and the human rights of those enslaved, a shameful abuse of power.

Two years later, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence would include a denunciation of the king’s promotion of the slave trade. That language was stripped from the final version, because Georgia and South Carolina would not vote for independence if it remained.

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What reduces free people to slavery?

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.
Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The 31 year-old Jefferson wrote Summary View for Virginia’s delegates to carry to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It was a much longer document than his Declaration of Independence, but its theme was much the same, outlining the abuses England’s King and Parliament had imposed on their American colonies. He categorized those abuses as tyrannies.

Jefferson wrote that one tyranny could be seen as a mistake in judgment. A series of them meant something much different and sinister, He then described the series: imposing multiple duties and taxes, suspending New York’s legislature, blockading Boston, trying American “crimes” in British courts. What turns free people into slaves? A deliberate plan to whittle away their natural rights, one by one, until there were no freedoms left.

Summary View was later printed in pamphlet form and widely circulated throughout America and Europe. It did not have the effect Jefferson hoped, a wake-up call that ended Bristish abuses. It did have an effect he had not anticipated, establishing his credentials as a gifted writer. Two years later, he would be called upon to use that skill again.

(Today, April 13, is Mr. Jefferson’s 272nd birthday.)

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1 Comment Posted in Independence, Slavery Tagged , , , , , , , |

Can blacks and whites live together peaceably in America?

Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu [on equal footing] filled up by free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders who won’t solve problem make matters worse.
While Jefferson believed slaves were destined to be free, they were equally destined not to be free in America. In Notes on Virginia in 1782, he wrote, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained …,” (among other things) would keep the races from living together in harmony. Attempting to do so would create political divisions and “convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Jefferson believed a gradual repatriation to Africa was in the best interest of both races.

He was prophetic in writing, “human nature must shudder at the prospect” of failure to do so. A national convulsion did come 40 years later with the Civil War.

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1 Comment Posted in Slavery Tagged , , , , , , , , |

The slaves must be freed, or else!

The principles of the amendment [for emancipation of slaves] however were agreed on, that is to say, the freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age. But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, all the leading in the world isn’t enough.
Jefferson hoped his late 1770s revisions of the Virginia’s laws would also provide for eventual freedom for slaves, but it was not to be. Not only was public opinion opposed, it was still opposed more than 40 years later when he wrote this.

Unyielding public opinion would have to yield “or worse will follow.” Affirming the certainty “that these people [slaves] are to be free,” Jefferson also affirmed the great universal sentiment of the Declaration of Independence, that all men have the divine right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Public opinion never did yield. In another 40 years, the Civil War was fought to accomplish what he had hoped to do peaceably 80 years before.

The next post will deal with deportation of freed slaves.

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