Is slavery ever justified?
Under the law of nature we are all born free.
Legal Argument, Howell vs. Netherland, 1770, 5706
Also Jefferson the Virginian, by Malone, ©1948, P. 121-2
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
This statement came from writings in a pro bono defense Jefferson took on when he was just 27. The case was on behalf of Samuel Howell, a mulatto slave suing for his freedom.
Howell’s grandmother was a mulatto, the child of a black man and a white woman. Under law, the grandmother was to be a slave until she was 31.
Before the grandmother was freed, she gave birth to a female child, Howell’s mother, who was also bound by law in slavery until age 31. Before Howell’s mother was freed, she gave birth to Samuel, who was eventually sold to another master who claimed Samuel’s enslavement until age 31.
Jefferson acknowledged the law which enslaved both grandmother and mother until age 31. He contended the law did not apply to the third generation, and that Samuel Howell should have been a free citizen from birth. Part of Jefferson’s defense, contained in this phrase, was that slavery was a violation of “the law of nature.”
Malone contends that Jefferson also wrote as part of his the-third-generation-is-free-defense, that no legislature had been “found wicked enough” to make that law apply beyond two generations.
This was heady stuff in slave-holding Virginia in 1770, even for a young man who already owned slaves and would do so for more than another half century. It is a marker that Jefferson was already thinking about the inequity of slavery and its violation of natural law.
Jefferson’s case was dismissed out-of-hand, and Howell remained a slave.
Learn how the author of “all men are created equal” could be a slaveholder.
The answer is not as simple as you might think.
Call Patrick Lee, 573-657-2739