Slavery’s Great Foe—and Unintended Friend

In his early days as a lawyer, Thomas Jefferson revealed an almost instinctive dislike of slavery. At the age of twenty-one, he had inherited 5,000 fertile acres and 52 slaves, making him a member of Virginia’s ruling class. But slavery offended his sense of justice in a deep and intensely personal way. In one of his first law cases, Jefferson had maintained that a mulatto grandson of a white woman and a black slave should be considered a free man. His argument, which the astonished judge dismissed out of hand, declared slavery a violation of every person’s natural right to freedom.1

Jefferson had been reluctant to accept the task of writing a declaration of independence. Back in Virginia, delegates were conferring on a constitution for the state. Jefferson wanted to be there to argue for the gradual abolition of slavery. He had even drafted his own version of a constitution, with an explicit provision for such a measure. At the same time, he did not underestimate the importance of the document he was asked to create. The rhythms of the Declaration’s opening paragraph throb with a deeper timbre than anything else Jefferson ever wrote:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another, and to assume among the powers of the earth a separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the reasons that impel them to this separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thomas Jefferson did not know—nor did anyone else who read these words in or out of the Continental Congress—that he had delivered a deathblow to American slavery. It would take another eight and a half decades to make this an historical fact. In the rest of the first draft of the Declaration, he made his detestation of slavery visible to every member of the Continental Congress.

After the opening paragraphs of fundamental principles, Jefferson began a ferocious indictment of King George III for his “repeated injuries and usurpations” aimed at establishing “absolute tyranny over these states.” Like the toll of a funereal bell, the accusations poured out:

He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good . . .

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices and the amount and payment of their salaries . . .

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation & tyranny already begun.

Then came words that virtually exploded on the page:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating the most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither, this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain, determined to keep open the market where MEN could be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting these very people to rise in arms among us and to purchase that liberty of which he has denied them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

To this detonation of detestation, Jefferson added a searing indictment of the British people for doing nothing to prevent or soften King George’s abuses. Then came sonorous closing paragraphs, declaring “these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is and ought to be totally dissolved.”2

Jefferson submitted this draft of the declaration to the Continental Congress. To his dismay, the delegates felt free to eliminate major passages. One of the first to go was the denunciation of slavery. In his old age, Jefferson claimed that delegates from South Carolina and Georgia objected to it, and some northern states that had participated in the slave trade “felt a little tender” on the subject. But tender feelings were hardly a main point. Congress was aware that Americans north and south had been involved with slavery for over a century, and had profited immensely from it.3 There was a well-grounded fear that the British would be quick to point this out if Jefferson’s denunciation were included in the final version. Already, the King’s ministers had hired the most famous writer of the era, Samuel Johnson, to compose an anti-American pamphlet in which he sneered: “How is it we hear the greatest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”4

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In Massachusetts, General George Washington was startled by how many blacks were in the impromptu army that was besieging the British regiments in Boston. Most of the blacks were free men like Salem Poor of Framingham, who had distinguished himself by his bravery and marksmanship at the battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. Poor had volunteered to fight for his country when he heard about the bloodshed at Lexington.

In the Continental Congress, Edward Rutledge of South Carolina demanded a vote to bar blacks from the army. In a debate that foreshadowed future disagreements between North and South, Congress rejected the proposal. At first, Washington agreed with Rutledge. He issued an order forbidding the enlistment of “any stroller, Negro or vagabond.”

Later in 1775 the general began to change his mind. None of the white New Englanders objected to having blacks in their ranks. More important, a dismaying number of whites were refusing to reenlist for the coming year. On December 30, 1775, Washington revised his previous enlistment order: “As the General is informed that numbers of Free Negroes are desirous of enlisting, he gives leave to recruiting officers to entertain them.”5

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Around this time, Washington invited a black slave named Phillis Wheatley to visit him in his Cambridge headquarters. Wheatley had arrived in Boston aboard a slave ship in 1761 at the age of seven. Bought by a tailor to be a personal servant for his wife, the child had soon displayed evidence of amazing intelligence. She learned to read and write almost immediately, and was soon mastering Latin. She began writing poetry at the age of fourteen, and in 1773 she published a book of poems in London.

Six months after Washington took command of the Continental army, he found a poetic tribute to him on his desk from this young African woman. In cadences that obviously reflected wide reading in the best English poetry of the period, Phillis Wheatley asked the goddess Columbia to bless General Washington’s struggle for his nation’s freedom. The last stanza was a climactic plea:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side

Thy ev’ry action let the Goddess guide

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine

With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.

Washington wrote a letter to “Miss Phillis” thanking her for this “polite notice” of him. He added that it was striking proof of “her great poetical talents.” He would have arranged to have the poem published, but he feared he would incur “the imputation of vanity.” Whereupon he invited the young woman to visit him, if she should ever come to Cambridge. “I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the muses.”6

It requires a moment’s pause to realize the uniqueness of this exchange between a slave woman and a prominent Virginia slave owner. It took place in early 1776, at a time when few if any Virginians would have done such a thing. Some historians have suggested that it was Phillis Wheatley who changed Washington’s mind about enlisting free blacks. But it is equally likely that Washington’s mind had already begun to change after talking to some of the free blacks whom he had originally barred from reenlisting. Several had come to headquarters to protest their exclusion and reiterated their desire to fight for America’s liberty. A group of officers had written a testimonial, urging Salem Poor’s reenlistment.

The war lasted another seven often harrowing years. More and more black men joined the Continental army, as the enthusiasm of 1775 and 1776 faded and the grim reality of British determination became apparent. Washington took the lead in telling the Continental Congress that “patriotism” would not a win “a long and bloody war.” Again and again, he insisted, “We must take men as they are, not as we wish them to be.”

The general made no objection when numerous people hired blacks as substitutes to escape the draft that was imposed by state governments to fill their annual quotas for the Continental army. By 1781, one in every seven soldiers in the American army was black.

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During these years, Washington developed a deep friendship with a young French volunteer, the Marquis de Lafayette. Thanks largely to his family’s prominence in the court of the French king, Congress had appointed him a major general. The idealistic nobleman spent large amounts of his own fortune to improve the lot of the often hungry and ragged regulars at Valley Forge and elsewhere. He also displayed courage on the battlefield. When he was wounded at the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777, General Washington told an army doctor to care for him “as if he were my own son.”

Lafayette soon began talking with Washington about his detestation of slavery. The general must have been more than a little shocked when the young Frenchman exclaimed during one conversation: “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived thereby I was founding a land of slavery.” These conversations may have played a part in Washington agreeing to another large step in black participation in the Revolution.7

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Blacks from New England had continued to enlist in large numbers. Of forty-four hundred free blacks in Massachusetts, five hundred volunteered. In Connecticut the number was close to three hundred. As the American army’s ordeal at Valley Forge thinned its ranks, General James Varnum of Rhode Island came to Washington with a new proposal: Why not enlist an entire regiment of black soldiers?

Tiny Rhode Island was having difficulties filling the quotas for its two Continental regiments. The legislature passed a law, declaring that henceforth “every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian Man slave” would be welcome in these regiments. The state agreed to pay the slaves’ owners four hundred dollars per man. Washington told the delighted Varnum that the idea had his approval. Over the next few months, between 225 and 250 blacks became members of Rhode Island’s Second Continental regiment. The achievement—stark proof of how quickly blacks identified with Thomas Jefferson’s declaration of universal equality—is even more remarkable when we factor in the violent objections of a great many Rhode Island whites.

The protestors tried to persuade blacks not to volunteer. They told the would-be soldiers that the whites would only use them as “breastworks” to stop enemy bullets. (Virginians had said the same thing to persuade slaves not to join Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian regiment.) These exchanges reveal that American slavery did not impose the total control that the political definition implied. Slaves frequently made up their own minds, no matter what their masters said.

Rhode Island’s black regiment served in the Continental army for the rest of the war. Its soldiers fought well on a number of battlefields. In 1780, they survived a cruel ambush in Westchester County that cost them almost fifty officers and men. The regiment’s success encouraged several officers to urge the creation of similar units in other New England states. But Massachusetts rejected the idea, after a brief debate.

Late in the war, Connecticut recruited a single company of black soldiers using the Rhode Island policy of paying owners to free their slaves. But the idea remained controversial. Rhode Island whites eventually forced the legislature to repeal the 1778 law, claiming it disturbed relationships between masters and slaves.8

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In 1781, Thomas Jefferson responded to a French diplomat who had sent queries to leading men in all the states, asking them to give him a better understanding of their history, traditions, and geography. Jefferson’s response, which he completed in 1783, becameNotes on the State of Virginia, the only book he ever wrote. It contained superb descriptions of Virginia’s western scenery and thorough discussions of the state’s agriculture and politics. It also included trenchant comments on slavery, which were to become influential in contradictory ways.

Jefferson insisted he was writing as a scientist, trying to report objectively on everything he had seen and studied in Virginia. But in his comments on slavery, it was apparent that his feelings were deeply involved. He began by saying he thought that the Revolution had improved the condition of slaves in Virginia. Masters had grown less harsh and slaves had found pride and hope in the participation of free blacks and slave volunteers in the war’s great events. But slavery remained a cruel and destructive enterprise, which undermined the morals of both masters and victims.

“The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise in the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part and the most degrading submission on the other.” Jefferson declared the effect of slavery on the white man was as ruinous as it was on the Negro. “The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals in such circumstances. Our children see this and learn to imitate it, for man is an imitative animal. With the morals of the people, their industry is also destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labor for himself that can make another labor for him.”

Ultimately, Jefferson feared that slavery might undermine the whole American enterprise. “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, the conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but by his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jefferson spelled out the fearful future he dreaded: “Considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events . . . The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” He was saying a revolt among the slaves was all too possible, with the outcome quite possibly in their favor.

Jefferson went on to give an estimate of the black race’s abilities “as a subject of natural history.” He emphasized he was only speaking from his observations of black slaves, and he admitted in advance it was a subject of “great tenderness.” He did not want to “degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their creator may perhaps have given them.”

Alas, with baffling obtuseness, Jefferson proceeded to do the very thing he deplored. “I advance it as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both mind and body . . . This unfortunate difference in color and perhaps in faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

Jefferson doubted that the freed blacks could live peacefully in the same country with their former masters. “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, will divide us into parties and produce convulsions, and probably never end but in the extermination of one or the other race.” Ultimately, Jefferson concluded, freed blacks would have to be resettled in a foreign country to avoid inevitable bloodshed.

Another obstacle to white–black relations, Jefferson continued, was the Negroes’ “immoveable veil of black” which tended to “eternal monotony” from an aesthetic point of view. Blacks had “several engaging if somewhat childlike qualities,” but they had little ability for reflection or forethought. In reason they were “much inferior” to the whites and in imagination “dull, tasteless and anomalous.” While sexually more ardent than whites, their affections were “neither tender nor lasting.”

When he penned these lines, Jefferson thought he was writing for only a single individual, or a group of individuals in the French government. After he became American ambassador to France in 1784, he showed Notes on Virginia to several friends in Paris, and they persuaded him to publish the book in a limited edition of one hundred copies. From there it was an all-too-predictable step to an edition published in London in1787. Authors had no copyright protection in the eighteenth century. American editions soon followed and Notes became one of the most quoted and debated books ever written. For many whites, especially in the South, Jefferson’s words elevated their already negative opinion of blacks to the level of confirmed truth.9

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