Hero or Hypocrite Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery Thesis

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Hero or Hypocrite - Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery

One of the "Fathers of the Nation" and one of the most reputable politicians and individual in the world history, Thomas Jefferson is also considered controversial given his views on slavery, an area where his theoretical perspective and positions did not always concur with his actions.

Throughout his life, T. Jefferson would find himself torn between his own political enlightened opinions, expressed through various key reference documents such as the Declaration of Independence, and his belief that the abolition of slavery would cause civil war and instability for the new nation. Due to this dualism, Jefferson's actions would always seem split between the antislavery that enlightenment proposed, along with the ideal that all men are created equal, and the necessity to ensure political stability.

Born into a slave-owning family in Virginia, T. Jefferson grew up with slaves on his father's property and his opinions quickly started supporting an incipient antislavery movement. As early as 1770, he pleads for a slave from Virginia, Samuel Howell, to be freed, without luck, and his arguments were that "all men are born free," concepts that would be integrated in the Declaration of Independence. Many of his writings mention slavery as an unjust institution. However, he was never quite able to reconcile his rhetoric with the actions in his own life.

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This paper aims to discuss the dualism between Jefferson's perceptions on slavery and his own actions and analyze some of his writings in order to obtain a better understanding of his beliefs on slavery. Among the texts that will be analyzed are "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," the Declaration of Independence and "Notes on the State of Virginia." The paper will also look at his relationship with Sally Hemings, one of his own slaves, to whom he fathered several children. The conclusions will resume the findings in the paper.

2. Analysis of Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson

2.1 A Summary View of the Rights of British America

Thesis on Hero or Hypocrite Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery Assignment

"A Summary View of the Rights of British America" was written in 1774 as a political document in which Jefferson aims, on one hand, to point out, to the King of Britain, how he has wronged his subjects in his American colonies and, on the other hand, to argue for a free America. Jefferson's rhetoric makes use of the issue of slavery, but rather only to show that the King has wronged his American subjects by not taking their legislative requests into consideration.

Jefferson mentions the "abolition of domestic slavery" as a "great object of desire where it was unhappily, introduced in their infant state." Theoretically, this phrase can be seen as his dedication to the idea that slavery should be abolished. However, the argumentation is not very reliable in this case. Slavery had, perhaps, been introduced by the British, but it had become part of the local economy and the colonists were those tolerating it. Just as Jefferson could not part with his slaves, there were so many colonists who found the slaves to be intrinsically linked to their capacity to survive economically.

The second part of this paragraph does seem to point towards Jefferson's abolitionist approach in a more pragmatic manner. As such, he clearly describes what should be done in order to eliminate slavery in the American colonies. He sees this as a two steps approach: in the first phase, the introduction of slaves should be stopped, while in the second phase, freeing the existing slaves could be considered:

"But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. But previous to our repeated attempts to effect this, by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition."

2.2 Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is perhaps one of the best examples of Jefferson's theoretical ideals, as most of the Declaration is written by Jefferson himself, thus mostly reflecting his own views. The most important part of the Declaration, as relating to the subject at hand, was the statement that "all men are created equal." The generous statement, in line with the perceptions of 18th century Enlightenment, a philosophical current which Jefferson had embraced, includes all men, not white males in particular. At the same time, knowing the Enlightenment current, this is definitely proposed by Jefferson as a general statement, one of idealism that would propose equality, in principle, of all men. This would later be emphasized by Lincoln, who supported the universality of the Declaration.

However, as Thomas Day, one of the British Abolitionist of the time, wrote, "if there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves

." In a very plastic manner, this reflects the reality of those times: slavery was part of the American reality, mainly because slaves started being brought on the American continent in the 17th century and were now deeply embedded in the social and economic reality of that time.

For Jefferson, as an enlightened philosopher, proclaiming the equality of all men was obviously easier to do on paper than enact at the level of the entire new nation. The problem was political: the states in the south especially relied on slavery as a way of life and abolishing slavery at the same time as declaring independence from the British Empire might have produced a division between the thirteen colonies. This could, in turn, have led to the demise of their independence effort, something which Jefferson would not have. Further more, the Constitution proclaimed the "sacred right of self-government," which meant that antislavery was not something that could be easily implemented at a federal and national level.

The best explanation that one could propose in the case of the Declaration of Independence was that Jefferson realized that politically, he was in no position to propose abolition, as there was a war to be fought and the adhesion of all thirteen states was necessary to ensure success. However, he preferred to leave a door open for the future and place such a strong statement as that "all men are created equal" in one of the fundamental documents of the United States. After all, the Declaration of Independence was a political act of breaking away from the British Empire and not a political act to free slaves in the American colonies.

2.3 Notes on the State of Virginia

The "Notes on the State of Virginia" were published in 1784 and contain, especially in two of the chapters (chapters XIV and XVIII, on law and manners, respectively), several references to slavery, some of them quite controversial, especially given Jefferson's background and his position, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. This work, written 10 years after A Summary View of the Rights of British America sees the United States established as an independent nation. As such, some of Jefferson's views tend to lose their practical applicability and resume the theoretical and idealistic approach. This is most clear for query on manners.

. This paper will examine the instances where slavery is discussed in the two chapters mentioned.

2.3.1 Query XIV: Laws

This chapter continues to surprise because of the assertions that Jefferson makes here. Until reading this, one is used to a moderate character, who has acted and spoken numerous times in favor of abolishing slavery and who has written that "all men are created equal." This chapter, however, becomes an inexplicable racist statement. According to Jefferson, the African -- Americans are "dull, tasteless and anomalous" in imagination, "inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind" and as having "a very strong and disagreeable odor." Other observations he makes are positive ones: the African-Americans are braver than the White population.

However, some of his statements are again supported, in his opinion, by the necessity to maintain the stability of the newly formed state and protect it from any potential cause of instability. This is why he proposes freeing them separately, in a different location, rather than incorporating them into the United States. In his opinion, the injuries that have been inflicted onto them, among other causes, will spark a destabilizing conflict with the White population:

"Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions."

2.3.2 Query XVIII: Manners

This part of the "Notes on the State of Virginia" is perhaps one of the clearest statements against slavery that Jefferson makes. Again, this is an example of his dualist attitude towards slavery: only a few chapters ago, he characterizes an African-American as any racist would, but here he makes a clear case against slavery. In his opinion, "the whole commerce between master and slave is a… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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