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.”