the value of the slave is every day lessening; his burthen on his master dayly increasing. interest is therefore preparing the disposition to be just; and this will be goaded from time to time by the insurrectionary spirit of the slaves. this is easily quelled in it’s first efforts; but from being local it will become general, and whenever it does it will rise more formidable after every defeat, until we shall be forced, after dreadful scenes & sufferings to release them in their own way which, without such sufferings we might now model after our own convenience.
Thomas Jefferson to William Armistead Burwell, January 28, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders seek justice for the oppressed.
Thomas Jefferson claimed the economic value of slavery was waning and asserted a growing interest in preparing for a just end to the practice. That interest would “be goaded from time to time” by slave insurrections.
Those uprisings would be local, minor and easily dispelled at the first. Each would build on another until they became widespread, potent and violent. In time, they would force their own emancipation “after dreadful scenes & sufferings.” Any hope for a just and peaceful resolution would be lost.
Just the year before, a 13 year revolt in the Caribbean ended with the violent overthrow of slavery and the independence of Haiti. In 1800, the enslaved Gabriel attempted to mount a slave uprising in Jefferson’s own Virginia. No doubt both events influenced Jefferson’s desire for a just solution rather than a violent one.
Jefferson was mistaken in thinking emancipation would be goaded from the bottom up by growing rebellion from slaves. Through the Civil War, slavery ended from the top down through great violence between Northern and Southern white populations.
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Region 7 Conference Chair, National Academic Advising Association
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