Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

The Washington Post has a long piece about a Virginia family whose current (substantial but not huge) wealth derives from their slaveholding forebears and who may now be greatly enriched by the discovery of uranium under their land. There’s an interesting discussion of the arguments for and against reparations

Buried in the middle of the article is something much more interesting, to me at any rate. One member of the family, Edward Coles, opposed slavery. He hid his views until he inherited ownership of 17 enslaved people, then took them to Illinois and freed them. None other than Thomas Jefferson wrote to Coles, seeking to dissuade him.

Jefferson wrote Edward a letter on Aug. 25, 1814, trying to talk him out of it.

[M]y opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them,” Jefferson wrote to Coles.

This is a pathetic evasion, amounting to a restatement of the standard enslaver claim that chattel slavery was a positive good compared to the alternative of earning a living in the capitalist economy (“wage slavery”). It undermines the idea that Jefferson maintained support for gradual and voluntary emancipation even after abandoning the idea of legal abolition. Adding weasel words about “until more can be done for them” doesn’t change that, given that Jefferson made no moves to do anything more, either politically or with respect to the hundreds he personally enslaved.

It seems that, having been genuinely opposed to slavery at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson came to realise that the profits of slavery, and particularly slave breeding, were too great to pass up. In this context, even his ban on the Atlantic trade slade looks bad. For a breeder like Jefferson, prohibiting import competition made perfect economic sense.

6 thoughts on “Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

  1. I have just finished reading The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson, the first volume of his history of the American Revolutionary War. It is quite clear about the slaveholding status of leading US revolutionaries and about how the issue of slavery, and the enslaved people themselves, were used cynically and callously for realpolitik reasons by both sides.

  2. There is more to say about Thomas Jefferson and his attitude towards slavery.
    One of the true (American) heroes of the Amercian War of Independence was a Polish Prince, Thaddeus Kosciusko. A libertarian and an egalitarian there is much to admire about Kosciusko’s life story. Kosciusko fought for much of the War of Independence as an engineer without receiving his pay. He received in a lump sum after the conclusion of hostilities.

    Kosciusko had become a good friend of Jefferson and left a provision in his will that Kosciusko’s American money (essentially his back pay) was to be left to Jefferson on the condition that Jefferson freed his slaves. As Storozynki (Griffin, 2010, pp 278-82) notes, Kosciusko was seeking to buy the freedom of Jefferson’s slaves.

    Jefferson refused the bequest and his slaves remained in a state of slavery.

    There is much to admire about Kosciusko and his life deserves studying. There are few images of him today as he refused to sit for paintings due to his modesty. His is the only non-American to be commemorated by a statue at West Point Military Academy. Kosciusko served as an engineer building cannon placements.

    Mount Kosciusko in NSW is named his honour. Whilst it may irk some Australians that our highest peak bears the name of a foreigner who never visited the country, there are good reasons (mostly long forgotten here) for why he was commemorated. His viewing of slavery first hand and his effort to convince an American president of the wrongs of slavery being just one.

  3. In her book Michelle Obama writes of her grandparents and other family members who migrated from the south to the north (Chicago) in search of better opportunities. Invariably jobs were hard to get as discrimination, often exerted by trade unions, meant that only the lowest paid jobs were available.

    The African American Museum in Washington has a whole segment on the paradox of liberty. Some anti slavers would not accept a black man as being an equal, recommending that they be sent to a country outside of America.

    Other anti slavers protested at having to compete against business interests that used slaves to lower production costs.

    The paradox enshrined in the Constitution and other documents is between the human right to freedom and property rights; slaves were not considered to be human (or not as human as whites) and slave owners investments in property were protected.

  4. MB says: ” there are good reasons (mostly long forgotten here) for why he [ Kosciusko ]
    was commemorated.”.

    You taught me something MB about good old Kosciusko “… was seeking to buy the freedom of Jefferson’s slaves.” And “… is the only non-American to be commemorated by a statue at West Point Military Academy. Kosciusko served as an engineer building cannon placements.”

    I’m impressed. I never thought of these things when I was using gravity to slide down Kunama Namadgi, Tar-gan-gil on skis.

    I vote to return to an Indigenous Australian name.

    Sooo quaintly terra nulus. The mountain has always had a name. Just that no one bothered to recoginse the owners and confering Indigenous Australians, as Wikipedia says to “Ancient Times by Indigenous Australians”.

    Consequently nobody asked the locals.

    They would have replied in Ngarigo language, from which which Paweł Edmund Strzelecki would have been able to grasp the mountains name: Kunama Namadgi, Tar-gan-gil.

    “First ascent:
    1840 by Paweł Edmund Strzelecki(Polish)[1][3] Ancient Times by Indigenous Australians

    “because of its perceived resemblance to theKościuszko Mound in Kraków, Poland.”

    And a bit of history. Australia abstained from voting on:
    “International Year to Commemorate the Struggle Against Slavery and Its Abolition”

    “The United Nations General Assembly declared 2004 as the International Year to Commemorate the Struggle against Slavery and its Abolition…

    “The General Assembly resolution in its entirety (of which this declaration was a single paragraph) was voted against by the Israel, Palau and the United States, with Australia and Canada abstaining.[2]

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