[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.