Magazine | August 13, 2018, Issue


Detail of Thomas Jefferson portrait by Rembrandt Peale, 1800 (Wikimedia)

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
Glendora, Calif.

Jonah Goldberg responds: I am gratefulsincerelyfor 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.



Because of an editing error, “So Long, Shakespeare” (Kevin D. Williamson, July 30) conflated Sleep No More, an installation based on Macbeth, with Alan Cumming’s 2013 version of the same play. They are in fact separate.

The Week (July 30) misidentified the federal judge who ruled that the structure of the CFPB is unconstitutional as “Leon” Preska. Her first name is in fact “Loretta.”



“Battle of the Chesapeake” (Alexandra DeSanctis, July 30) related that one source had told the author that John Whitbeck was forced out of his role as state GOP chairman by Virginia’s congressional delegation after Corey Stewart’s primary victory in a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. On further reporting, we don’t have confidence in this claim and are withdrawing it. We stand by the rest of the article as published.


NR Editors includes members of the editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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