Jefferson on Slavery
In “Was the Enlightenment Racist?” (July 9), Jonah Goldberg provides an insightful and nuanced account of the Enlightenment debate prompted by Jamelle Bouie’s Slate essay on recent books by Goldberg and Steven Pinker. I do take issue, however, with Goldberg’s characterization of slavery as “Jefferson’s blind spot.” To the contrary, Jefferson was well aware of the immorality of slavery and explicitly denounced it on more than one occasion.
In his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson writes:
[The king has] waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s [sic] 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. . . Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.
In correspondence with friends, Jefferson routinely expressed his opinion that slavery is a “hideous blot” and that it constitutes “moral depravity.” In a famous passage on slavery from his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson confesses: “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice can not sleep forever.”
Jefferson opposed slavery not only in theory, but also in policy. As a member of the Virginia state legislature in 1778, he led the effort to ban the slave trade in Virginia. He went on to propose a program of gradual slave emancipation a year later, and in 1784 he urged federal legislation that would have banned slavery in new U.S. territories.
It’s time Jefferson received the credit he deserves for being an early and effective opponent of “the peculiar institution.”
Stephen L. Dolson-Andrew
Jonah Goldberg responds: I am grateful — sincerely — for this lesson from Mr. Dolson-Andrew. I had not appreciated the extent of Jefferson’s expressed opposition to slavery. I say that with some embarrassment, for this is something I should have addressed in my book. My point about the hypocrisy of the Founders still stands, I think. Hypocrisy illuminates a principle. Jefferson was more aware of this hypocrisy than I had known. But that was probably small comfort to his 600 slaves. Still, in the grand scheme of things, it’s better that he recognized it.
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