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Category Archives: Slavery

We should not have to hang these people.

… our endeavor to procure an asylum in the colony of Sierra Leone for such persons of the description composing that colony as we might find it expedient to send there [appears to be unsuccessful].
… affairs in St. Domingo has undergone important changes… may furnish that opening which the resolution desired.
The acquisition of Louisiana, may also procure the opportunity desired.
On the whole it appears probable that St. Domingo or Louisiana may open to the legislature of Virginia the recourse which their resolution contemplates.
To John Page, December 23, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Determined leaders continue to seek solutions to vexing problems.
Virginia Governor John Page (1743-1808) had sought the President’s help in carrying out a directive of the Virginia legislature. Slave uprisings in St. Domingo (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic) had spurred unrest among slaves in America. An insurrection in Virginia in 1800 was foiled, and 26 of its participants were hanged. The legislature sought an alternative, some distant place where rebellious slaves could be relocated. Jefferson also sought a refuge for freed American slaves. His hope to join an English slave resettlement effort in Sierra Leone, West Africa, was rebuffed. Now, the vast expanse of Louisiana might provide that refuge or perhaps even St. Domingo itself.

In correspondence preceding this letter, Jefferson stressed that the Virginia insurrectionists were “not felons, or common malefactors [criminals]” and a far more humane response was needed. He was never successful in his efforts to remove freed slaves from the abuses of their former masters.

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The cause is noble, but the Constitution forbids me to act.

Your favor [letter] … and it’s contents perused with deep interest, as every thing is by me on a subject so pregnant of future events as that. but that subject is not within the constitutional powers of the General government. it exclusively belongs to each state … and it would contravene the duties which my station imposes on me towards them were I to intermeddle in it directly or indirectly. I have only therefore to express my wishes that it may some day terminate in such a way as that the principles of justice & safety of the whole may be preserved.
To John Crawford, October 22, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders respect limitations on their authority.
Crawford (1746-1813) was an Irish-born physician, scientist and civic leader in Baltimore. He wrote a v-e-r-y long, well-reasoned yet impassioned letter to the President, pleading for any steps leading to the emancipation of American slaves. He even addressed Jefferson’s musings in his book, Notes on Virginia (1784), whether blacks were inferior to whites.

In a short reply, Jefferson acknowledged the seriousness of the issue and the threat it posed to the republic’s future. Yet, national action was not permitted by the Constitution. The 10th Amendment, alluded to here, gave the national government (he called it “the General government”) limited and specific powers only. All other powers belonged to the states. That included issues pertaining to slavery and emancipation.

All he could do is express his personal desire for slavery’s end in such a manner that “justice [for slaves] & safety of the whole [nation] may be preserved.”

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Is a slave only a servant?

A gentleman here has given me 40. Balsam poplars to send to Monticello, and mr Randolph’s servant, who was to have returned tomorrow, will be detained till the next day, to carry them. as I set much store by these trees which I have been a long time trying to get to Monticello, I wish them to be carefully taken up & packed in bundles for safe transportation.
To Robert Bailey, October 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
What’s a leader to do when confronted by an unsolvable problem?
19th century Thomas Jefferson is often measured by 21st century sensibilities and judged a hypocrite for declaring “all men are created equal,” while continuing to own slaves. It was a vexing issue for the new nation, but Jefferson’s record opposing slavery was clear, from his mid-20’s as a member of the House of Burgesses until his death at age 83. Believing public opinion was not ready to support emancipation, he did not take up the role of an abolitionist.

Jefferson was a slave owner all of his adult life, primarily of ones bequeathed to him by the estates of his father and father-in-law. Both Jefferson and his slaves were trapped in a system from which there was no practical or humane escape. Given that reality, he endeavored to treat those enslaved to him with benevolence. This letter gives an example.

He referred to his people as servants rather than slaves. He accorded the same status to others’, referring in this letter to his son-in-law’s “servant.” That man was the slave Davy Bowles, who would wait in Washington an extra day for the purpose of transporting “40. Balsam poplars” to Monticello. While slaves had to do their masters’ bidding without pay, Jefferson never required more of his servants than what a hired man would do for wages. When he assigned an unexpected or unpleasant task, he compensated them, though he was not required to do so. A footnote to this letter records that he gave Bowles two dollars “to take care of trees.”

A slave was a slave for sure, not just a servant, yet could be treated with the respect his humanity demanded.

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Was Thomas Jefferson just a very smart snake?

THIS POST WAS SUPPOSED TO GO OUT JULY 4, BUT I’VE HAD A MAJOR GLITCH WITH MY BLOG. 😥

 

On our nation’s 242nd birthday, I’m addressing the increasing tide of criticism leveled against Thomas Jefferson. While commended for his accomplishments, he is belittled for being highly flawed, a hypocrite, a racist, perhaps even a rapist.

This latter view was on full display in a June 15 column in the Washington Post. To their credit, my local newspaper, the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune published my rebuttal. The links below offer both editorials.

A very smart snake

Very smart, and not a snake at all 

Happy Birthday to the marvelous work-in-progress that is the USA!

Happy Birthday to one of its Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson.

There! I feel better already!

The real Thomas Jefferson
… the one who is principled, moral, spiritual and generous …
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Let us banish the murderous slave, for the good of all.

should Brown recover so that the law shall inflict no punishment on Cary, it will be necessary for me to make an example of him in terrorem [to induce fear] to others… if he could be sold in any other quarter so distant as never more to be heard of among us, it would to the others be as if he were put out of the way by death. I should regard price but little in comparison with so distant an exile of him as to cut him off compleatly from ever again being heard of … in the mean time let him remain in jail at my expence, & under orders not to permit him to see or speak to any person whatever.”
To Thomas Mann Randolph, June 8, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders know harsh actions merit harsh consequences.
Cary and Brown were slaves in Jefferson’s nail-making shop. Cary had attacked Brown, and Brown’s survival was in question. If Brown died, the law Jefferson referred to required criminal prosection of Cary. If Brown survived, punishment was left to the discretion of the slave owner.

Jefferson’s choice was to direct his son-in-law to sell Cary to some far-distant owner, both to be done with his influence and to send a strong message to other slaves. The price Cary might bring was not a factor. Restoring order at Monticello was. Until that was accomplished, Jefferson would bear the expense to keep Cary incarcerated and away from everyone.

“… You were just outstanding as Thomas Jefferson.
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Judicial Conference, Point Clear, AL
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Leave a comment Posted in Family matters, Human nature, Slavery Tagged , , , , , , , |

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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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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