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Category Archives: Slavery

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.

“Your appearance as Captain William Clark at our recent convention was a hit!
… interesting, informative, and provided great insight … “
Senior VP, Community Bankers Association of Illinois
Thomas Jefferson yields to Lewis & Clark’s Capt. Clark to inspire your audience!
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Keep nibbling away at evil institutions

The first establishment in Virginia which became permanent was made in 1607. I have found no mention of negroes in the colony until about 1650. The first brought here as slaves were by a Dutch ship; after which the English commenced the trade and continued it until the revolutionary war. That suspended, ipso facto, their further importation for the present, and the business of the war pressing constantly on the legislature, this subject was not acted on finally until the year 78. when I brought in a bill to prevent their further importation. This passed without opposition, and stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Determined leaders remain committed to their causes over time.
In 1769, Jefferson had been on the losing side of a slavery-limiting issue in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1778, he was the successful author of a bill to prohibit further importation of slaves into the state. He recognized this was not the ultimate goal but rather a step in that direction.

“One of our municipal officials even remarked he liked Thomas Jefferson
better than David Broder,
the Pultizer Prize-winning columnist who spoke the following day.”

Illinois Municipal League
Mr. Jefferson will make a most favorable impression on your audience!
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Two Declaration of Independence rejects

The pusillanimous [timid, cowardly] idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance [willingness to please] to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.
Autobiography, 1821 *

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The 1776 Continental Congress appointed Jefferson to a committee of five to draft a declaration of independence. Jefferson was the primary author. His work, reviewed and amended by the committee, was further amended by the Congress as a whole before it was adopted on July 4.

Only two Congressional revisions were singled out for specific mention in this work:
-Accusations toward the English people themselves (as opposed to the King only) were eliminated or softened considerably.
– Language condemning the slave trade was eliminated altogether. From other sources, we know that Georgia and South Carolina would not vote for independence had that language remained. The northern states supported this change. While their slave population was very small, they were slave traders themselves.

 *This link is to the entire volume. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
“Mr. Lee’s presentation was fantastic.”
California Land Surveyors Association
Mr. Jefferson will impress your audience, too.
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Can you fight social evil at an early age?

In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county in which I live, & continued in that until it was closed by the revolution. I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson’s life as a public man began at age 26. He was elected from his native Albemarle County to the colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses.

Other than matters leading to independence a few years hence, this may be the only early legislative position expressed in his autobiography. He supported easing the law for freeing slaves, but the effort was defeated. He thought a majority of the Burgesses might eventually be convinced to support the cause, but the King’s Council held veto power over the legislature. Even if the Burgesses would approve, the Council would not. The slave trade was firmly entrenched in England and would not end for another four decades.

Historians (and others) have their opinions on Jefferson and slavery. It is worth noting his opposition began early. Though he never took the lead in that fight, he never wavered from his opinion that slavery was wrong and must one day be abolished.

 *This link is to the entire volume. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
”City officials are a “tough crowd”
and the ovation they gave you was well-deserved.”
Executive Director, Missouri Municipal League
Even if your audience is a tough crowd,
Mr. Jefferson hopes to earn their respect, too.
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Slavery: Respectfully, no! Proven leaders MUST lead. (Pt. 3 of 3)

… Your prayers I trust will not only be heard with indulgence in Heaven, but with influence on earth. But I cannot agree with you that they are the only weapons of one at your age, nor that the difficult work of cleansing the escutchion [defined area] of Virginia of the foul stain of slavery can best be done by the young. To effect so great and difficult an object great and extensive powers both of mind and influence are required, which can never be possessed in so great a degree by the young as by the old … It was under these impressions that I looked to you, my dear sir, as the first of our aged worthies, to awaken our fellow Citizens … by proposing a system for the gradual emancipation of our Slaves …
Edward Coles to Thomas Jefferson, September 26, 1814

 Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders of conviction won’t take no for an answer.
Coles had petitioned Jefferson to take the lead for emancipation in Virginia. Jefferson declined, claiming it was a battle for the young. The 29 year-old Coles was right back at the 71 year-old Jefferson, claiming just the opposite and explaining why.
Coles was effusive in his respect and appreciation for the elder statesman. Yet, he countered Jefferson’s advice to remain in Virginia, saying he wouldn’t leave to free his slaves in Illinois if he had any hope of securing their freedom in his native state. He had none.
Nor did he think those of his generation would stand against the popular tide in favor of slavery and see it through to emancipation. That task fell to those with proven powers of both mind and influence. Among those, he saw Jefferson as the person to take the lead.

He concluded by again apologizing for troubling Jefferson, thanking him for his kind expressions, and assuring him of his continued “respect and regard.”
But Coles got in a final parting shot, referencing Jefferson’s old friend, “Doctor [Benjamin] Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.”

 “… you were just outstanding as Thomas Jefferson …
I have no idea how you pulled if off so well, but you certainly did.”

U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, Substantive Program Chair for the Judicial Conference

Thomas Jefferson stands ready to “pull it off” for your audience, too.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739

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Slavery: I am too old. This requires youth. (Pt. 2 of 3)

[My] sentiments … on the subject of slavery of negroes have long since been … [known], and time has only served to give them stronger root. The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain …
Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come …
I am sensible of the partialities with which you have looked towards me as the person who should undertake this salutary but arduous work … This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man …

I hope then, my dear sir, you will … [remain in Virginia and] become the missionary of this doctrine truly Christian … It is an encouraging observation that no good measure was ever proposed, which, if duly pursued, failed to prevail in the end … And you will be supported by the religious precept, “be not weary in well-doing.”
To Edward Coles, August 24, 1814

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Old leaders may defer to young ones to see a matter through to completion.
The first post in this series was Coles’ letter to Jefferson. This is Jefferson’s reply. The final post will be Coles’ follow-up letter.
Jefferson replied promptly to Coles, who urged him to take the lead in the effort to abolish slavery. He honored Cole’s “head and heart,” and joined him in the reproach slavery was to its victims, their owners and the nation. Yet, he declined Cole’s invitation.
Jefferson traced Virginia’s attitude toward slaves.  Every legislative effort toward improving their condition had been ignored, rebuffed or denounced. Over time, the slaves’ “degraded condition” affected whites’ attitude toward them and their own ability to care for themselves. They became “pests in society by their idleness.” He strongly opposed “amalgamation,” sexual contact between the races and the mixed-race children it produced.
By 1814, there was still no popular sentiment for emancipation. Jefferson had suggested freedom and an education for those born after a certain date, and then relocation outside America. That would gradually bring slavery to an end. Until then, it was a slaveowner’s responsibility “to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen.”
He disagreed with Coles’ decision to leave Virginia. He wanted the young man’s anti-slavery passion applied at home. He closed his letter affirming his “great friendship and respect.”

Clearly the visits with President Jefferson and Captain Clark
have set the standard for future conferences.”
Indiana Historical Society, Director of Education

Mr. Jefferson will set a high standard for your audience!
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Slavery: Respectfully, sir, you need to step up. (Pt. 1 of 3)

Dear Sir
I never took up my pen with more hesitation or felt more embarrassment than I now do in addressing you on the subject of this letter. The fear of appearing presumptuous distresses me, and would deter me from venturing thus to call your attention to a subject of such magnitude, and so beset with difficulties, as that of a general emancipation of the Slaves of Virginia, had I not the highest opinion of your goodness and liberality, in not only excusing me for the liberty I take, but in justly appreciating my motives in doing so …
Edward Coles to Thomas Jefferson, July 31, 1814

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Young leaders should challenge old ones to do what’s right.
Something different this week! This post is from a letter TO Jefferson about slavery. The next post will be Jefferson’s reply. The final entry in this series will be this writer’s follow-up.

Edward Coles, 1786-1868, came from a prominent Virginia family. As a very young man, he developed an abhorrence of slavery and a determination to free any slaves who would become his inheritance. He accomplished that in 1819.

In the meantime, he served as private secretary to President Madison from 1810-15, followed by a diplomatic assignment to Russia. Coles then relocated to Illinois, freed his slaves, and was narrowly elected governor of of that state in 1822. He devoted much of his life to the anti-slavery cause.

In this letter, the 29 year-old Coles respectfully but passionately urged former President, now 71, to become a spokesman for that same cause. He cited Jefferson’s wisdom, virtue, authorship of the Declaration of Independence, and status within the country as uniquely qualifying him to lead this effort. Even if Jefferson’s efforts proved unsuccessful during his own lifetime, he would have established a foundation for future generations to build upon.

Coles concluded by affirming his convictions had “forced me to leave my native state, and with it all my relations and friends.” He hoped his drastic action would provide “some excuse for the liberty of this intrusion” (and perhaps a final inducement for Jefferson to join this cause?).

Jefferson declined. That will be the subject of the next post.

“One of our municipal leaders remarked he liked Thomas Jefferson better than David Broder,
the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who spoke the following day.”

Illinois Municipal League, Director of Communications and Education

No Pulitzer Prizes here but a winning presentation awaits your audience.
Invite Thomas Jefferson to speak. Call 573-657-2739

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‘I would like to be wrong about Negroes.’

I have received the favor of your letter of August 17th, and with it the volume you were so kind as to send me on the “Literature of Negroes.” Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the …
To M. Henri Gregoire, February 25, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are willing, even eager to be proven wrong.
Abbe’ Gregoire was a Catholic priest and French abolitionist. He published An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, and Literature of Negroes in 1808 and sent a copy to the President. This was Jefferson’s reply. The letter is not long and can be read in its entirety at the link following the excerpt. Here is a summary of the letter:
1. He admitted he “entertained and expressed” doubts on blacks’ natural intellectual abilities and expressed those doubts “with great hesitation.” (Those doubts were in his 1782 book, Notes on Virginia.)
2. More than any other person, he would like to be proven wrong and see blacks’ intellect established on equal footing with whites’.
3. Those 1782 doubts were based on his limited experience within Virginia.
4. Opportunities for blacks to develop their minds were limited and even less to use them.
5. Their level of intellect should not affect their rights. The brilliance of Isaac Newton didn’t make him lord over anyone else.
6. Blacks were gaining in public opinion in other nations. He was hopeful they would be once again be on “equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”
7. He affirmed that the Abbe’s work would hasten “the day of their relief.”
8. He thanked the Abbe’ for enlightening him and concluded with sincere praise and esteem for his correspondent.

“You gave us an excellent program! Our members were well served … ”
Executive Director, New Mexico Federal Executive Board

Thomas Jefferson will serve your audience well!
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Can a good man be kept down?

I thank you sincerely for your letter … and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa & America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit…
To Benjamin Banneker, August 30, 1791

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Compassionate leaders want to see oppressed people raised up.
Banneker was a free black man from Maryland. He lacked formal education but taught himself mathematics, surveying and astronomy. In a previous post, Jefferson praised Banneker to another correspondent.

Banneker had written to Jefferson several weeks earlier, strongly condemning him (“you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act”) for protesting slavery while he owned slaves himself. Banneker included with that letter a copy of his new almanac, a publication he authored for a few years in the 1790s.

Jefferson responded to Banneker’s harsh letter with a kind reply. He affirmed his strong desire for more proofs like Banneker’s, that “our black brethren” possess talents equal to men of other races. Jefferson also claimed a profound interest in “a good system” for improving the physical and intellectual status of blacks in America.

“With your impressive speaking skills, you captivated an audience of over 300 lawyers.”
Associate Executive Director, Arkansas Bar Association

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How would you attack a great evil?

In the very first session held under republican government, the assembly [Continental Congress, 1774] passed a law for the perpetual prohibition of the importation of slaves. This will in some measure stop the increase of this great political and moral evil, while the minds of our citizens may be ripening for complete emancipation of human nature.
Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Query VIII, 1782

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders embrace great change in tiny increments.
Notes on Virginia was the only book Jefferson completed. It answered 23 questions posed by a Frenchman about the state. Most of the book is devoted to the natural history, or science, of Virginia. Question #8  is “The number if its inhabitants?”

Jefferson wrote about the growth in population from “the infancy of the colony,” which he estimated at 567,614 in 1781. He went into some detail whether it was wiser to grow their own population or increase it through immigration. (He preferred the former.) The answer ended with a paragraph on the “great political and moral evil” of slavery  and its support by the British government.

Jefferson pointed out that the first representative (republican, small r) national assembly, not meeting under the authority of the King, voted to forbid forever bringing more slaves to America. Jefferson hoped that slowing the increase in the slave population would eventually encourage Americans’ thinking toward the time when all slaves would be freed.

“… we were transported back to those times,
and we came away with a much better understanding … for those who lead today.”
Program Manager, Council of State Governments – WEST
We make 19th Century wisdom relevant for 21st Century audiences.
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