Jefferson and Slavery
A. D. White
Edited by Frank E. Grizzard, Jr.
Note: Jefferson and Slavery" was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1862.
Any one who feels deeply the truths in which our great men of old founded this Democracy, and who sees clearly the great lines of political architecture by which alone it shall stand firm or rise high, finds in the direct plan and work the agency mainly of six men.
These may be set in three groups.
So rising above the dust raised in our old quarrels, and taking a broad view over this Democracy, we see Jefferson firmly placed in each of these groups.
If we search in Jefferson's writings and in the contemporary records to ascertain what that power was which won him these positions, we find that it was no personal skill in cajoling friends or scaring enemies. No sound-hearted man ever rose from talk with him with a tithe of the veneration felt by those who sat at the feet of Washington or Hamilton or Channing. Neither was his position due to oratory: he could deal neither in sweet words nor in lofty words. Yet, in spite of these wants, he wrought on the nation with immense power.
The real secret of this power was, first of all, that Jefferson saw infinitely deeper into the principles of the rising Democracy, and infinitely farther into its future working, than any other man of his time. Those who earnestly read him will often halt astounded at proofs of a foresight in him almost miraculous. Even in masses of what men have called his puerility there are often germs of immense worth,taking years, perhaps, to show life, but sure to be alive at last.
Take, as the latest example of this, three germ-truths which have recently come to full life, after having been trodden under foot for fifty years.
Early in our national life Jefferson declared against the usurpations of the national judiciary. Straightway his supporters were divided, mainly between those who sorrowed and those who stood silent; while his opponents were divided only between those who laughed and those who cursed. But who laughs now? Jefferson foresaw but too well. The usurpations of the national judiciary have come into shapes most hideous,in the obiter dicta of the Dred Scott decision, and in the use of quibbles to entangle our defenders and set loose our traitors.
Take an example of another kind. In his early career Jefferson gave forth a scheme of harbor-defence by gun-boats and floating batteries. This was partially carried out, and only partially; so it failed. On these gun-boats and batteries his enemies never tired of trying their wit, and certainly seemed to make a brilliant point against his foresight and economy. But, in these latter years, many Americans besides ourself, visiting Cronstadt during the blockade by the Allied fleet, saw not only how the Allies failed of a conquest, the first summer, for want of gun-boats, but how the Russians protected themselves greatly, during the second summer, by means of them. We were shown, too, that not only could good work be done by those driven by steam, but that the greater number driven by oarsmen were of much service, not only in vexing the enemy, but in protecting the whole exposed coast. Here was Jefferson's scheme to the letter. Here was a despised though of the past become a proud fact of the present. Here had the Autocrat reared a monument to our great Democrat,gaining praise for Jefferson long after his enemies and their factious laughter had died out forever.
But take what the main body of cultured Americans have thought Jefferson's chronic whimsey,his belief that the heart of England must be ever set against all our liberty and prosperity. As we no breast the terrific storm which English reasonings and taunts had encouraged us to brave, and hear, swelling above the faint English God-speed, misstatements, gibes, reproofs, malignant prophecies, who of us shall say that the English character and policy of 1861 were not better foreknown by Jefferson in 1820 than by ourselves in 1860?
So much for Jefferson's insight and foresight. But there was yet a greater quality which gave him a place in each of these three great groups,his faith in Democracy.
At a time when the French Revolution had scared even Burke, and when the British Constitution was thought by many to have seduced even Washington, Jefferson held fast to his great faith in the rights and capacities of the people. The only effect on him of the shocks and failures of that period was to make his anxiety sometimes morbid, and his action sometimes spasmodic. Hence much that to many me has seemed unjust suspicion of Adams, and persecution of Hamilton, and disrespect for Washington. Yet all this was but the jarring of that strong mind in the struggle and crash of his times,mere spasms of bigotry which prove the vigor of his faith in Democracy.
Jefferson then, known of all men not fettered by provincial traditions as invested with this foresight and this faith, is become to a vast party an idol, and from his writing issue oracles. But the priests at his shrines, having waxed fat in honors, have at last so befogged his sentiments and wrested his arguments, that thousands of true men regard him sorrowfully as the promoter of that Slavery-Despotism which to-day blooms in treason. It is worth our while, therefore, to seek to know whether Jefferson the god of the Oligarchs is Jefferson the Democrat. Let us, by the simplest and fairest process possible, try to come at his real opinions on Slavery,- just as they grew when he did so much to found the Republic,just as they flourished when he did so much to build the Republic,just as they were re wrought and polished when he did so much to brace the Republic.
The whole culture of Jefferson's youth was, of all things in the world, least likely to make him support slavery or apologize for it. The man who did most to work into his mind ideas of moral and political science was Dr. William Small, a liberal Scotchman; the man who did most to direct his studies in law, and his grappling with social problems, was George Wythe. To both of these Jefferson confessed the deepest debt for their efforts to strengthen his mind and make his footing firm. Now, of all men in this country at the time, these two were least likely to support pro-slavery theories or tolerate pro-slavery cant. For while to Small's soundness there is abundance of general testimony the most pointed. We have but to take the first volume of Jefferson's Works, published by order of Congress, and we find Jefferson's anti-slavery letter to Dr. Price, written in 1785, urging the Doctor to work against pro-slavery ideas in the young men, and to exhort the young men of Virginia to the "redress of the enormity." Incidentally he speaks of Mr. Wythe as already doing great good in this direction among these same young me, and declares him "one of the most virtuous of characters, and whose sentiments on the subject of slavery are unequivocal.
So much for the direct influences on Jefferson's early culture.
Studying, next, the indirect influences on his early culture, we see that the reform literature of that time was coming almost entirely from France. Active, earnest men everywhere were grasping the theories and phrases of Voltaire and Rousseau and Montesquieu, to wield them against every tyranny. Terrible weapons these,often searing and scarring frightfully those who brandished them,yet there was not one chance in a thousand that any man who had once made any considerable number of these ideas his won could ever support slavery. Whoever, at that time, studied the "Contract Social," or the defence of Jean Calas, whatever other sins he might commit, was no more likely to advocate systematic oppression than are they who now read with reverence Dr. Arnold and Charles Kingsley; and whoever, at that time, read earnestly "The Spirit of the Laws" was as sure to fight slavery as any man who to-day reveres Channing or Theodore Parker. Those French thinkers threw such heat and light into Jefferson's young mind, that every filthy weed of tyrannic quibble or pro-slavery paradox must have been shrivelled.
And the young statesman grew under this influence as we should expect. In his twenty-seventh year he sat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and his first effort in legislation was, in his own words, "an effort for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected, and, indeed, during the regal government nothing liberal could expect success." His whole career in those years, whether as public man or private man, shows that his hatred of slavery was bitter. But there was such a press of other work during this founding period, that this hatred took shape not so much in a steady siege as in a series of pitched battles. The work to be done was immense, and Jefferson bore the bulk of it. He took upon himself one-third of the revising and codifying of the Virginia laws, and did even more than this. He undertook, in his own words, "a distinct series of labors which formed a system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy." He effected the repeal of the laws of entail, and this prevented an aristocratic absorption of the soil; he effected the abolition of primogeniture, and this destroyed all chance of rebuilding feudal families; he effected a restoration of the rights of conscience, and this overthrew all hope of an Established Church; he forced on the bill for general education,for thus, he said, would the people be "qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self government." In all this work his keen common sense always cut his way through questions at which other men stopped or stumbled. Thus, in the discussion on primogeniture, when Isaac Pendleton proposed, as a compromise, that they should adopt the Hebrew principle and give a double portion to the eldest son, Jefferson cut at once into the heart of the question. As he himself relates,"I observed, that, if the eldest son could eat twice as much, or do double work, it might be a natural evidence of his right to a double portion; but being on a par in his powers and wants with his brothers and sisters, he should be on a par also in the partition of the patrimony. And such was the decision of the other members.
But such fierceness against the bulwarks of aristocracy, and such keenness in cutting through its heavy arguments, carried him farther. Logic forced him to pass from the attack on aristocracy to the attack on slavery, just as logic forces the Confederate oligarchs of to-day to pass from the defence of slavery to the defence of aristocracy. He was sure to fight this vilest of tyrannies, and he gave quick thrusts and heavy blows. In 1778 he brought in a bill to prevent the further importation of slaves in Virginia. "This," he says, "passed without opposition, and stopped the increase of the evil importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication." Years afterward he wrote as follows:"I have sometimes asked myself whether my country is better for my having lived at all: I do not know that it is. I have been the instrument of doing the following things. Of these thing there were just ten. Just ten great worthy deeds in a life like Jefferson's!and one of these he declares "the act prohibiting the importation of slaves."
Close upon this followed a fiercer grapple,his third great legislative attack on slavery. In his revision of the Virginia laws he reported "a bill to emancipate all slaves born after the passing of the act." Attached to this was a plan for the instruction of the young negroes thus set free.
To follow Jefferson and understand him, we must bear in mind that the Virginia which educated him was not behind a dozen smaller States in fertility, enterprise, and republican feeling. Its best men were haters of slavery. The efforts of its leaders were directed to other things than plans for taxing oysters or filching the gains of free negroes. Forth from the Virginia of that time were hurled against negro slavery the thrilling invectives of Patrick Henry, the startling prophecies of Madison, and the declaration of Washington, "For the abolition of slavery by law my vote shall not be wanting."
For a mirror of that Virginia statesmanship, in its dealings with human rights, take the "Dissertation of Slavery with a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of it in the State of Virginia, written by St. George Tucker, Professor of Law in the University of William and Mary, and one of the Judges of the General Court in Virginia," published in 1791. It proves, that, between the passage of the act of 1782 allowing manumission and the year 1791, more than then thousand slaves had been set free. One is tempted to believe that the new Massachusetts school caught its fire from this old Virginia school; for this friend of Jefferson speaks of "the inconsistency of invoking God for liberty in our Revolution and imposing on our fellow-men who differ from us in complexion a slavery then thousand times more cruel than the grievances and oppressions of which we complained." Such was the utterance of the Virginia school of statesmanship in which Jefferson was trained.
And his views progressed as we should expect. On the occasion of a call for instructions to the first Virginia delegates to Congress respecting an address to the King, Jefferson drew up a paper, which, though greatly admired, was thought too bold. In one passage he goes beyond his masters, and says,"For the most trifling reasons, and sometimes for no conceivable reasons at all, his Majesty has rejected laws of the most salutary tendency. The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in these Colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But, previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated efforts to effect this, by prohibiting and by imposing duties which might amount to prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his Majesty's negative,thus preferring the advantages of a few British corsairs to the lasting interests of the American States, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice."
These words are hot and bright, but they are mere sparkles compared to the full flaming orb of freedom which our statesman gave afterward. For, take the Declaration of Independence, as it issued from Carpenter's Hall, after slavery-loving planters of the South and money-loving ship-owners of the North had, as they thought, made it neutral, and we all, North and South, recognize in it the boldest anti-slavery document extant. Why else do Northern demagogues ridicule it, and Southern demagogues revile it? Yet Jefferson made it far stronger and sharper against negro slavery than it is now. Look closely at the well-know facsimile:
(He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel (underlined) powers, is the warfare of the Christian (underlined) king of Great Britain determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold ([crossed out] and) he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this ([crossed out] determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold) execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he (underlined) has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he (underlined) 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 (underlined) of another.)
There stands to this day that precious original,hot first-thoughts and cold second-thoughts, all in Jefferson's own hand. Look for a moment at the rich current of internal evidence running through that rough draught, and through all its erasures, changes, and emphatic markings,evidence of the deepest hatred not only of all tyranny, but of all slavery. Thus, after he had written the passage, "determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold," the idea continues hot in his mind; for, after smouldering a few moments, it flames forth again, is written again in the same phrasing, with the same show of emphasis, before he bethinks himself to erase it. Then, too, the words Christian and MEN are the only words emphasized by careful pen-printing in large letters;and this labored movement of his pen marks the injury which he deemed the greater; for the largest letters and deepest emphasis are reserved for MEN. Evidently, that word points out the wrong which, as Jefferson thought, "a candid world" would forever regard as the supreme wrong.
We have now noted Jefferson's battle against slavery in the founding of the Republic: let us go on to his work in the building of the Republic.
In 1782 he gave forth the "Notes on Virginia." His opposition to slavery is as fierce here as of old, but it takes various phases,sometimes sweeping against the hated system with a torrent of facts,sometimes battering it with a hard, cold logic,- sometimes piercing it with deadly queries and suggestions,and sometimes, with his blazing hate of all oppression, biting and burning through every pro-slavery theory.
But in taking up the "Notes," we must understand the relation of Jefferson's way of thinking to his way of working. In his thinking, the slave system was evidently a violation of the whole body of good principals, for he calls it an "evil";a violation of morality, for he calls it an "enormity";a violation of justice, for he calls it a "hideous blot";a violation of the healthy action of our institutions, for he calls it a "disease"'a violation of our whole public happiness, for he calls it a "curse." But his way of working was more calm and cool,often displeasing those whose plans of action are formed far from any direct entanglement in the slave system.
This union of fervent thought and cool action has, of course, brought upon Jefferson the invectives of two great classes. One class have looked merely at his thinking, and have distrusted him as a dreamer. To these he is a dealer in oracles, at second-hand, from Voltaire and Diderot. The other class have studied his plans of practical philanthropy, with all his shrewd researches and homely discussions in agriculture, finance, mechanics, and architecture, and have ridiculed has as a tinker. To such Jefferson seems a grandmotherly sort of person,riding about in a gig arranged to register the length of his rides,walking about in boots arranged to register the length of his walks,weatherwise, and profound in dealing with smoky chimneys and sheep-breeding.
But whether men have cavilled at him for a dreamer or laughed at his for a tinker, they have been mainly foolish, for they have cavilled and laughed at the very combination which made him powerful. In no other American have been so happily blended highest skill in theory and highest strength in practice.
The remarks, in the "Notes on Virginia," on the colored race are clear and fair. He studied carefully and stated fully all that could be learned in his time. On the whole, his examination greatly encourages those who hope good things for that race. But one distinction must be made. As to those profound views of the character and destiny of the race which come only by observation of a long historic development, in a wide range of climate, in great variety of social position, Jefferson could, as he confesses, know almost nothing,for the same reason that the keenest observer of William the Conqueror's Norman robbers and Saxon swineherds would have failed to foretell the great dominant race which has come from them by free growth and good culture. But, on the other hand, of all that comes by observation of the daily life of the black race, as it then was, he knew almost everything.
He declares that the black race is inferior to white in mind, but not in heart. The poems of black Phillis Wheatley seem to him to prove not much; but the letters of black Ignatius Sancho he praises for depth of feeling, happy turn of though, and ease of style, though he finds no depth of reasoning. He does not praise the mental capacity of the race, but, at last, as if conscious, that, if developed under a free system, it might be far better, he quotes the Homeric lines,
Jove fixed it certain that whatever day/ Makes man a slave takes half his worth away.
And shortly after, he declares it "a suspicion only that the blacks are inferior in the endowments of body or mind,"that "in memory they are equal to the white,"- that "in music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for time and tune."
But there is one statement which we especially commend to those in search of an effective military policy in the present crisis. Jefferson declares of the negroes, that they are "at least as brave as the whites, and more adventuresome." May not this truth account for the fact that one of the most daring deeds in the present war was done by a black man?
Still later, Jefferson says,
whether further observation will or will not verify the conjecture that Nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head, I believe that in those of the heart she will be found to have done them justice. That disposition to theft with which they have been branded must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man in whose favor no laws of property exist probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favor of others. When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give reciprocation of right,that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience; and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave,and whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little from one who has taken all from him as he may slay one who would slay him. That a change in the relations in which a man is placed should change his ideas of moral right and wrong is neither new, nor peculiar to the color of the blacks.
Here Jefferson puts forth that very idea for which Gerrit Smith, a few years ago, was threatened with the penalties of treason.
But to quote further from the same source:
Notwithstanding these considerations, which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity. The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination must be hazarded with great diffidence.
The old hot though blazes forth again in the chapter on "Particular Manners and Customs." Can men speak against proclamations of Abolition Conventions after such fiery words from Jefferson?
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism, on the one part, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love for restraining the intemperance of passion toward his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose rein to the worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by its odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and moral undepraved by such circumstances.
(Here fire begins to flicker up around his words.)
And with what execration should a statesman be loaded, who, permitting one half the citizens
to trample on the rights
(note the word)
of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one and the amor patriae of the other! And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure, when we have removed their only firm basis,a conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are the gifts of God, that why are not to be violated but with His wrath?
(Now bursts forth prophecy. The whole page flames in a moment.)
Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever; that, considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of Fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.
Well may Jefferson say, immediately after this, that "it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various con siderations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil." For no Abolitionist ever branded the slave-system with words more fiery.
In 1784 Jefferson drew up the ordinance for the government of the Western Territory. One famous clause runs thus:
After the year 1800 of the Christian era there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been convicted to be personally guilty.
In Randall's "Life of Jefferson," a work in many respects admirable, this clause is glossed with the declaration that Jefferson intended merely to prevent an immense new importation of slaves from Africa to fill the Territory; but Mr. Randall would have shown far greater insight, had he added to this half-truth, that the idea of legally grasping and strangling this curse flows from the idea of the "Notes" as hot metal flows from fiery furnace,that the Ordinance of 1784 was but a minting of that true metal drawn from those old glowing thoughts and words.
But Jefferson's hatred of slavery is not less fierce in his letters.
Dr. Price writes a pamphlet in England against slavery, and straightway Jefferson seizes his pen to urge him to write more, and more clearly for America, and more directly at American young men, saying, in encouragement,"Northward of the Chesapeake you may find, here and there, an opponent to your doctrine, as you may find, here and there, a murderer." He speaks hopefully of the disposition in Virginia to "redress this enormity,"calls the fight against slavery "the interesting spectacle of justice in conflict with avarice and oppression,"speaks of the side hostile to slavery as "the sacred side." The date is 1785.
This welcome to Dr. Price's onslaught will serve as antidote to Mr. Randall's poisonous declaration, that Jefferson was opposed to interference with slave institutions by those living outside of Slave States.
In 1786 Jefferson wrote to correct M. de Meusnier's statement of the efforts already made for emancipation; and, referring to the holding of slaves by a people who had clamored loudly and fought bravely for freedom, he says,
What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man,who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself, in vindication of his own liberty, and, in the next moment, be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow-men a bondage one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose!
Here, in Jefferson himself, then, is the source of that venom with which earnest men, throughout the land, are stinging to death the organization which stole his name to destroy his ideas.
In 1788, Jefferson, being Minister at Paris, receives a note from M. de Warville tendering him membership in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave-Trade. Jefferson is forced by his peculiar position to decline, but he takes pains to say,
You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade, but of the condition of slavery.
Here is no non-committalism, no wistful casting about for loop-holes, no sly putting out of hooks to catch backers, not the feeblest germ of quibble or lie. The man answers more that he is asked. Is there not, in the present dearth, something refreshing in this old candor?
But some have though Jefferson's later expressions against slavery wanting in heartiness. Let us examine.
The whole world knows, that, when a wrong stings a man, making his fierce and loud, his direct expressions have often small value; but that his parenthetical expressions often have great value. This is one of the simplest principles in homely every-day-criticism, serving truth-seekers, wherever wordy war rages, whether among statesmen or hackmen.
Now, in Jefferson's letter to Dr. Gordon,written in 1788,he is greatly stirred by his own recital of the shameful ravages on his property by the British army. Just at the moment when his indignation was at the hottest, there shot out of his heart, and off his pen, one of these side-thoughts, one of these fragments of the man's ground-idea, which, at such moments, truth-seekers always watch for. Jefferson says of Cornwallis,
He destroyed all my growing crops of corn and tobacco; he burned all my barns containing the same articles of the last year, having first taken what corn he wanted; he used, as was to be expected, all my stock of cattle, sheep, and hogs, for the sustenance of his army, and carried off all the horses capable of service,of those too young for service he cut the throats; and he burned all the fences in the plantation, so as to make it an absolute waste. He carried off also about thirty slaves. Had this been to give them their freedom, he would have done right.
But we turn to a seeming discrepancy between these thousand earnest declarations of Jefferson the private citizen, and the cold, formal tone of Jefferson the Secretary of State. In this high office he reclaims slaves from the Spanish power in Florida, and demands compensation for slaves carried off by British at the evacuation of New York. For a moment that transition from personal warmth to diplomatic coolness is as the Russian plunge from steam-bath to snow-heap.
Yet if truth-seekers do not stop to moan, they may easily find a complete explanation. As private citizen, in a State, dealing with his home Government, Jefferson had the right to move heaven and earth against slavery, and bravely he did it; but, as public servant of the nation, dealing with foreign Governments, his rights and duties were different, and his tone must be different. As a private person, writing for man as man, Jefferson forgot readily enough all differences of nation. He wrote as readily and fully of the hideousness of slavery to Meusnier and Warville in France, or to Price and Priestley in England, as to any of his neighbors; but, as public servant of the nation, writing to Hammond or Viar, representatives of foreign powers, he made no apology for our miseries. England might be ready enough to act the part of Dives, but Jefferson was not the statesman to put America in the attitude of Lazarus,begging, and showing sores.
But we have to note yet another change in Jefferson's modes of work and warfare.
As he wrought and fought in this second period, which, for easy reference, we call the building period, he was forced into new methods. In the former period we saw him thinking and speaking and working against every effort to found pro-slavery theories or practices. Eagerness was then the best quality for work, and quickness the best quality for fight. But now the case was different. An institution which Jefferson hated had, in spite of his struggles, been firmly founded. The land was full of the towers of the slave aristocracy. He saw that his mode of warfare must be changed. His old way did well in the earlier days, for tower-builders may be driven from their work by a sweeping charge or sudden volley; but towers, when built, must be treated with steady battering and skillful mining.
In 1797, Jefferson, writing to St. George Tucker, speaks of the only possible emancipation as "a compromise between the passions, prejudices, and real difficulties, which will each have their weight in the operation." Afterwards, in his letters to Monroe and Rufus King, he advocates a scheme of colonization to some point not too distant. But let no man, on this account, claim Jefferson as a supporter of the do-nothing school of the Northern demagogues, or of the mad school of the Southern fanatics who proclaim this ulcerous mass a beauty, and who howl at all who refuse its infection. For, note, in that same letter to St. George Tucker, the fervor of the Jeffersonian theory: bitter as Tucker's pamphlet against slavery was, he says,"You know my subscription to its doctrines." Note also the vigor of the Jeffersonian practice: speaking of emancipation, he says,"The sooner we put some plan under way, the greater hope there is that it may be permitted to proceed peaceably to its ultimate effect." And now bursts forth prophecy again. "But if something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children." "If we had begun sooner, we might probably have been allowed a lengthier operation to clear ourselves; but every day's delay lessens the time we may take for emancipation."
Here is no trace of the theory of inflicting a present certain evil on a great white population in order to do a future doubtful good to a smaller black population. And this has been nowhere better understood than among the slave oligarchs of his own time. Note one marked example.
In 1801, Jefferson was elected to the Presidency on the thirty-sixth ballot. Thirty five times Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina voted against him. The following year Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina, feeling an itching to specify to Congress his interests in Buncombe and his relations to the universe, palavered in the usual style, but let out one truth, for which, as truth-searchers, we thank him. He said,
Permit me to state, that, beside the objections common to my friend from Delaware and myself, there was a strong one which I felt with peculiar force. It resulted from a firm belief that the gentleman in question [Jefferson] held opinions respecting a certain description of property in my State which, should they obtain generally, would endanger it.
We come now to Jefferson's Presidency. In this there was no great chance to deal an effective blow at slavery; but some have grown bitter over a story that he favored the schemes to break the slavery-limitation in Ohio. Such writers have not stopped to consider that it is more probable that a few Southern members, eager to drum in recruits, falsely claimed the favor of the President, than that Jefferson broke the slavery-limitation which he himself planned. Then, too, came the petitions of the abolition societies against slavery in Louisiana; and Hildreth blames Jefferson for his slowness to assist; but ought we not here to take some account of the difficulties of the situation? Ought not some weight to be given to Jefferson's declaration to Kerchival, that in his administration his "efforts in relation to peace, slavery, and religious freedom were all in accordance with Quakerism"?
We pass now to the third great period in which, as thinker and writer, he did so much to brace the Republic.
First of all, in this period we see him revising the translation and arranging the publication of De Tracy's "Commentaire sur l'Esprit des Lois." He takes endless pains to make its hold firm on America; engages his old companion in abolitionism, St. George Tucker, to circulate it; makes it a text-book in the University of Virginia; tells his friend Cabell to read it, for it is "the best book on government in the world." Now this "best book on government" is killing to every form of tyranny or slavery; its arguments pierce all their fallacies and crush all their sophistries. That famous plea which makes Alison love Austria and Palmer love Louisianathe plea that a people can be best educated for freedom and religion by dwarfing their minds and tying their handsis, in this book, shivered by argument and burnt by invective.
As we approach the last years of Jefferson's life we find several letters of his on slavery. Some have thought them mere heaps of ashes,poor remains of the flaming thoughts and words of earlier years. This mistake is great. Touch the seeming heaps of ashes, and those thoughts and words dart forth, fiery as of old.
In 1814, Edward Coles attacks slavery vigorously, and calls on the great Democrat to destroy it. Jefferson's approving reply is the complete summary of his matured views on slavery. Take a few declarations as specimens.
The sentiments breathed through the whole do honor both to the head and heart of the writer. Mine, on the subject of the slavery of negroes, have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger proof. The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a mortal reproach to us that they should have pleaded so long in vain.
No wonder that this letter of Jefferson to Coles seems to have been carefully suppressed by Southern editors of the Jeffersonian writings.
Take also the letters to Mr. Barrows and to Dr. Humphreys of 1815-17. Disappointment is expressed at the want of a more general anti-slavery feeling among the young men; hope is expressed that "time will soften down the master and educate the slave"; faith is expressed that slavery will yield, "because we are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and power of a Supreme Agent."
Entering now the stormy period of the Missouri Debate, we have one declaration from Jefferson which, at first, surprises and pains us,the opinion given in a letter to Lafayette, that spreading slavery will "dilute the evil everywhere and facilitate the means of getting rid of it." The mistake is gross indeed. To all of us, with the political knowledge forced upon us by events since Jefferson's death, it seems atrocious. But unpardonable as such a theory is now, was it so then?
Jefferson had not before him the experience of these last forty years of weakness and poverty and barbarism in our new Slave States,and of that tenacity of life which slavery shares with so many other noxious growths. Hastily, then, he broached this opinion. Let it stand; and let the remark on "geographical lines," and the two or three severe criticisms of Northern men, wrested from him in the excitement of the Missouri struggle, be tied to it and given to the Oligarchs. These expressions were drawn from him in his old age,in his vexation at unfair attacks,- in his depression at the approach of poverty,in his suffering under the encroachments of disease. Any one of those bold declarations in the vigor of his manhood will forever efface all memory of them.
The opinion expressed by Jefferson, at the same period, that "the General Government cannot interfere with slavery in the States," all our parties now accept as a peace policy; but if we are forced into an opposite war policy, let our generals remember Jefferson's declaration as to the taking of his slaves by Cornwallis "Had this been to give them their freedom, he would have done right."
But there is one letter which all Northern statesmen should ponder. It warns them solemnly, for it was written a very short time before Jefferson's death;it warn them sharply, for it struck one whom the North has especially honored. This son of the North had made a well-known unfortunate speech in Congress, and had sent it to Jefferson. In his answer the old statesman declares,
On the question of the lawfulness of slavery, that is, of the right of one man to appropriate to himself the faculties of another without his consent, I certainly retain my early opinions On that, however, of third persons to interfere between the parties, and the effect of Constitutional modifications of that pretension, we are probably nearer together.
There was a blow well dealt,through at one now greatly honored. We may refuse the subordinate idea in the letter, but we will glory in that main confession of political faith, in the last year of Jefferson's life; and we will not forget that the last of his letters on slavery chastised the worst sin of Northern statesmanship.
Jefferson, the, in dealing with slavery, was a real political seer and giver of oracles,always sure to say something; whereas the "leading men" who in these latter days have usurped his name are neither political seers nor givers of oracles, but mere political fakirs,striving, their lives long, to enter political blessedness by solemnly doing and seeing and sayingnothing.
Jefferson was a true political warrior, and his battle for human rights compares with the Oligarchist battle against them as the warfare of Cortes compares with Aztec warfare. He is the man full of strong thought backed by civilization: they, the men trying to keep up their faith in idols, trying to scare with warpaint, trying to startle with war-whoop, trying to vex with showers of poor Aztec arrows.
Jefferson was an orator,not in that he fed petty assemblages with narcotic words to stupefy conscience, or corrosive words to fill conscience, but in that he gave the world those decisive, true words which shall pierce all tyranny and slavery.
Jefferson was the founder of a democratic system, strong and full-orbed: "leading men" have fastened his name to an aristocratic system with mobocratic cries.
This great tree of Liberty which we are all trying to plant will, of course, not grow as we sill, but as God and Nature will. Some branches will be exuberant through too great wealth of sunshine,others gnarled and awry through too great fury of storms. We need find no fault with any growth, but we may admire some branches and prize some fruits more than others. Some grafts set by noblest hands have often blossomed in bad temper and borne fruit bitter and sour. Some fruitage has been of that poor Dead-Sea sort,splendid in coating, but inwardly ashes,wretched "protective" schemes and the like. The world may yet see that the limbs of toughest fibre and fruit of richest flavor have come from grafts set by just such strong men in theory and in practice as Thomas Jefferson.