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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

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One Response to ‘I would like to be wrong about Negroes.’

  1. Rob Forbes says:

    TJ to Joel Barlow (a letter I’m sure you know)” “a day or two after I recieved your letter to Bishop Gregoire a copy of his diatribe to you came to hand from France. I had not before heard of it. he must have been eagle eyed in quest of offence to have discovered ground for it among the rubbish massed together in the print he animadverts on. you have done right in giving him a sugary answer. but he did not deserve it. for notwithstanding a compliment to you now & then he constantly returns to the identification of your sentiments with the extravagancies of the Revolutionary zealots. I believe him a very good man, with imagination enough to declaim eloquently, but without judgment to decide. he wrote to me also on the doubts I had expressed five or six & twenty years ago, in the Notes on Virginia, as to the grade of understanding of the negroes, & he sent me his book on the literature of the negroes. his credulity has made him gather up every story he could find of men of colour (without distinguishing whether black, or of what degree of mixture) however slight the mention, or light the authority on which they are quoted. the whole do not amount in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. we know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed. as to Bishop Gregoire, I wrote him, as you have done, a very soft answer. it was impossible for doubt to have been more tenderly or hesitatingly expressed than that was in the Notes of Virginia, and nothing was or is farther from my intentions than to enlist myself as the champion of a fixed opinion, where I have only expressed a doubt. St Domingo will, in time, throw light on the question.

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