Tag Archives: Slaves
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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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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[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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… 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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Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu [on equal footing] filled up by free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders who won’t solve problem make matters worse.
While Jefferson believed slaves were destined to be free, they were equally destined not to be free in America. In Notes on Virginia in 1782, he wrote, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained …,” (among other things) would keep the races from living together in harmony. Attempting to do so would create political divisions and “convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Jefferson believed a gradual repatriation to Africa was in the best interest of both races.
He was prophetic in writing, “human nature must shudder at the prospect” of failure to do so. A national convulsion did come 40 years later with the Civil War.
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