Tag Archives: Humanity

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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