Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

by John Q on December 6, 2022

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.

I don’t recall ever seeing anything as clear as this on Jefferson’s support for slavery, and a quick search doesn’t producing anything. Have I missed something?



CLefaux 12.06.22 at 2:07 pm

From the same WaPo article,

“Of Black people, the former president wrote in his letter to Coles: “They are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them. Their amalgamation with the other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.”


Matt McKeon 12.06.22 at 3:02 pm

Young Jefferson held some anti-slavery views, some of which he included in the Declaration of Independence. But has he aged, despite understanding both how tyrannical slavery was, and the danger it posed to the nation, his efforts to protect it grew more intense.

The recent book “Master of the Mountain” by Henry Weincek explores this theme of Jefferson’s life.


Aardvark Cheeselog 12.06.22 at 3:14 pm

I don’t recall ever seeing anything as clear as this on Jefferson’s support for slavery, and a quick search doesn’t producing anything. Have I missed something?

I don’t have a cite, and the details are lost in the compost of memory, but there are letters from Jefferson, boasting about the money he was making breeding humans for sale.

Reading his papers, he was definitely racist AF, not believing that Africans were really capable of being educated and sophisticated.


Bruce Bartlett 12.06.22 at 3:36 pm


Oscar the Grouch 12.07.22 at 2:18 am

This is an interesting article about how greed and the economic benefits of slavery corrupted Jefferson’s views


Salem 12.07.22 at 3:41 pm

There’s a big difference between being racist, even extremely racist, and supporting slavery. Many prominent abolitionists were extremely racist, but still understood the horrors of slavery.


John Q 12.07.22 at 7:14 pm

Salem @6 Indeed, Abraham Lincoln was the most notable example – he liked the idea of freed slaves returning to Africa. But while not all racists were pro-slavery, (nearly) all supporters of slavery, including Jefferson, were racists.


Stephen 12.07.22 at 7:25 pm

Are we not here encountering Johnson’s Paradox:

“How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?”

From “Taxation no Tyranny”, an entirely futile response to the Declaration of Independence, by Dr Samuel Johnson: a High Church Anglican, a Tory if not when young a Jacobite, but a man utterly revolted by American slavery. I forget at which Oxford college dinner he was asked to propose a toast, and came up with “Here’s to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies”.


Adam Hammond 12.08.22 at 4:41 am

Gideon Pitts is another strong example of anti-slavery while strongly racist. His daughter, Helen, married Frederick Douglass, apparently a friend of Gideon. I don’t know what the primary evidence is that Gideon was a “devoted abolitionist,” but that is how he is described. Nevertheless, he strongly opposed the marriage, and the story among the modern Pitts family is that Gideon disowned Helen over it.

This is the conflicted conception of humanity that led to the creation of race, and the hierarchy of races. The idea of a white race was developed explicitly for the purpose of describing white supremacy. The concept allowed the evil of slavery to be abolished without admitting full citizenship or full humanity. You can see the ugly thread in the disgust with which Jefferson speaks of “pests in society” And you can see the impact that this construct has had on you , if you are brave enough to face an implicit association test. Are you sure there is a bright line between them and us?


William Meyer 12.08.22 at 12:05 pm

It’s always interesting at how racism has been treated as a sort of indicator of low class in this country, rather than what it is: a systemic ideology to justify economically exploiting a class of people. The lack of a primarily economic frame for thinking about slavery of course insulates the rich, the powerful, and the pro-capitalistic.


John Q 12.09.22 at 12:27 am

Stephen @8

I quote that line a lot.

Johnson walked the walk as well as talking the talk. His residual heir was his Black servant (a former slave), Francis Barber. Johnson paid for Barber’s education, and left him enough to set up a small business.

By contrast, Jefferson left the people he enslaved to be sold off to repay the debts of his lavish lifestyle.


Roxana 12.09.22 at 7:32 am

@JohnQ 7

I recall hearing that John Quincy Adams, in spite of his abolitionist views, held rather repugnant views about interracial relationships, including that depicted in “Othello”. [Can’t access this atm]

There’s also apparently a story of Adams having one of those conversations with someone either in such a relationship or related to someone who was, at some elaborate function.


dneus 12.13.22 at 1:08 am

After the War of 1812, the elderly Jefferson even wrote in favor of the EXPANSION of slavery throughout the continent. Astoundingly, he tried to claim that this would actually lead to more rapid emancipation, due to “diffusion” of the slave population over a larger area, rather than concentrating it in the South. He took this position during the debate on the Missouri Compromise, when he of course supported the admission of Missouri as a slave state.

Basically, during the last years of his life Jefferson completely lined up behind the nascent Slave Power agenda. Which is not too surprising when you understand that he was one of the main ideologues of Manifest Destiny to begin with. More on this in Howe’s What Hath God Wrought.

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