Project Paper: Thomas Jefferson’s Views about Black Inferiority
Thomas Jefferson penned many stirring tributes to human equality including the introduction to the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.
” However, slavery was vital to every aspect of Jefferson’s life. When he drafted the Declaration he owned more than 180 slaves. By 1822 Jefferson owned 267 slaves. (Dershowitz 124) Jefferson didn’t free most of his slaves during his lifetime, nor did he provide for any general emancipation in his will.
Jefferson bought, bred, flogged his slaves and hunted down fugitives in much the same way his fellow Virginia planers did. Jefferson’s life and words reflect the moral contradictions and practical concerns facing the founders of the new democracy that extolled freedom and equality. All of Jefferson’s actions or lack thereof were inherently racist and helped form an ideology designed to justify the unjust treatment of the subordinate group for the purpose of exploiting its labor power. Although Jefferson may have been torn in opinion regarding issues dealing with people of color, his inability to ever take a leading stance ultimately illustrated how he viewed blacks as inferior and was unable to significantly help change the situation for blacks at that time.
Jefferson clearly expropriated and exploited the labor power of his slaves. Monticello was a working plantation and Jefferson was eager to make it profitable. His slaves may have been members of his ‘family’ but they were units of production as well. (Wood 12) Monticello’s profitability was based on the exploitation of slave labor.
In broader terms this was true of the economy of Virginia, and of the entire American South. However, Jefferson’s racism extended beyond this explanation. Slaves were a significant element of Jefferson’s wealth. However, he was wealthy enough that he could have afforded, from a strictly economic sense, to release many more of his slaves. He did not support this situation because he believed that they were inferior and would pose a threat to white people.Jefferson’s racist ideology ran much deeper than any mere economic argument and renders explicable the apparent contradiction between his pronouncements on equality and his actions in the area of slaveholding.
Jefferson did not extend his concept of humanity to include African Americans. They were, in Jefferson’s mind, inferior to whites, mentally and physically. They were not men and consequently not included in the declaration ‘that all men are created equal.’ The fact that Jefferson did not view blacks as men shows how he thought people of color to be inferior.
In order to understand Jefferson’s antislavery and anti-abolition views we must understand what he meant by, “All Men are created equal.” These words to Jefferson were consistent with the perpetuation of slavery. Jefferson did not support the abolition of slavery in places where it had become part of accepted folkways; however, he opposed the adoption of slavery anywhere else in the world. Jefferson also opposed the spread of slavery to any area where it was not then practiced.
Jefferson did not want to end slavery in places where it had become part of accepted folkways because he feared that it would start a race war. Jefferson though that allowing slaves to live side by side with white would start a war with the, “better armed white slaughtering the former slaves, but with the death of many whites as well.” (Dershowitz 125) Jefferson’s writing contains an obvious sense of fear. His vision of a new order was constrained by his recognition of the depth of black anger and the power of white racism, “Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying” he goes on later to say that, “many other circumstances which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” (Academic Online)Jefferson continually suspected that the black man was inherently inferior to the white in both body and mind.
He argued for the mental and physical inferiority of blacks and for racial segregation. (Wood 88) Jefferson believed that all humans were products of head and heart. Jefferson believed that scientific observation established two conclusions in regards to black. The two believed scientific conclusions were that, “blacks were not as intelligent as whites and that this racial hierarchy was a matter of nature not nurture.
” (Dershowitz 126) These conclusions suggest that God intentionally created people of color intellectually inferior to whites. Thus you can infer that God made the whites superior to blacks.In Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia he describes what he has observed in regard to characteristics of people of color. Jefferson discusses their mental capacity, “comparing them by their faculties of memory, in reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior.
” (Dershowitz 129) Jefferson clearly states that blacks’ reasoning is not as good as whites, thus making the blacks inferior to the whites. This is evident yet again in these Notes on the State of Virginia when Jefferson states, “I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only that the blacks, whether originally a distant race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” (Dershowitz 131)Religion’s moral dimension was of great importance to Jefferson. He believed all rational human beings, whatever denomination, could unite in morality.
Jefferson believed that God implanted a sure moral instinct into every human. However, Jefferson’s views on morality only further prove his views about blacks’ inferiority. Jefferson stated, “That disposition to theft 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.
” (Dershowitz 132) Jefferson’s observation that blacks and whites are equal when it comes to morality contradicts with his other analysis that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites. How could Jefferson consider one group to be intellectually inferior and also claim that the inferior group should be able to grasp morality on the same level as the group who is superior to them intellectually? This contradiction shows the inherent racist views within Jefferson. He wanted his race to be “higher” than blacks intellectually, but then held to the same standard when it comes to understanding right and wrong. In order to make the right decision a person must have a thought process that makes them come to a decision. The fact that Jefferson claims that blacks and whites are capable of the same thought process in deciding what is right and wrong when it comes to morality, but not capable of the same thought process when it comes to intellectual matters is inherently racist and illustrates how Jefferson viewed blacks as inferior.
We must now look at how Jefferson’s views impacted his acts. In Jefferson’s perspective, African Americans were not ‘men’, were not equal and therefore, were not entitled to political rights or liberty. The early American electoral system applied property qualifications to the franchise. In the same manner, Jefferson attached racial qualifications to his definition of human and it did not include African Americans. This exclusion of African Americans from the category of human has two important consequences. In economic terms it justifies slavery and the subsequent exploitation of slave labor.
In political terms it justifies the exclusion of African Americans from the political process and from the protection of civil or human rights. It was argued that since blacks were racially inferior they were not entitled to equal rights; thus the implication was that they were not entitled to equal rights; therefore, they were subhuman and thus not deserving of humane treatment. (Elliot 34)However, Jefferson took more of a stance when dealing with the slave trade. Jefferson advocated ending the slave trade, but we must be careful when looking at the reasons for why he did so.
The topics surrounding the slave trade and abolition were a multifaceted mix of, “economic self-interest, moral ambivalences, and political realities.” (Dershowitz 137) When Jefferson drafted the Virginia Constitution in 1776 he wrote that “no person hereafter coming into Virginia shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever.” (Dershowitz 137) This illustrated how he didn’t want Virginia part of the slave trade and no new slaves would come in to Virginia that had not already been in America. Additionally, in one paragraph within his draft of the Declaration of Independence he blamed George III for keeping open “a market when men should be bought and sold.” From this we can conclude that Jefferson believed that both whites and blacks were endowed by their Creator with a sacred right and that the slave trade violated the “right of life and liberty” of slaves.Jefferson’s contradicting opinions and statements help further prove his overarching views of blacks as inferior.
He stated at one point that blacks were intellectually inferior. He has now also made the claim that blacks and whites have the same rights. How could someone who thought that blacks were intellectually inferior believe that the intellectually inferior group was endowed by the same rights as their superior? For Jefferson to advocate not bringing anymore slaves into America because they were endowed by the same rights as whites doesn’t seem to make much sense considering he didn’t consider them to be intellectually equal. However, the reason Jefferson would make such a claim does make sense because if looked at from his economic self-interest. Jefferson had more then enough slaves for his home at Monticello, but allowing slaves to come into America would only increase the supply available and thus make the price of his slaves lower. It is fact that Jefferson had to sell slaves throughout his life to pay off his debts.
(Dershowitz 136) Therefore, coming up with a reason for why the slave trade should be ended coming from Jefferson’s standpoint does make sense.Jefferson also served on a committee to revise the statues of the state of Virginia. There was a bill that was thought up of relating to the liberation of slaves in the conference. The bill is a gradual plan of emancipation providing that all children of slaves born after the passage of the act would be emancipated in their infancy.
These infant would be separated from their parents, and raised and educated at public expense until the females were 18 and the males were 21 years of age. At that time they would be colonized at public expense to some place outside of the United States where they would be deemed a free and independent people. The reason Jefferson gives for why this bill was never submitted was, “the public mind would not yet bear this proposition nor will it bear it even at this day (1821)” ( Jefferson 62) Even though Jefferson had expressed his views about the slaves’ natural right to seek freedom, no changes were made in the revised statues relative to that outlook. The requirements of the code dealing with slavery remained completely consistent with Jefferson’s property interest in slaves.The Louisiana Purchase is another example of how Jefferson’s economic self interest illustrated how he thought of blacks as inferior.
The Northern and Southern States were concerned with how the new purchase was going to affect the balance between slave or non-slave states. Regardless if the new area was slave state or not, Jefferson was not going to allow the slave trade to bring in new slaves for the area. Jefferson excluded slave importations from abroad, thus making Louisiana a whole new group of people anxious to buy slaves at high prices. Jefferson had stated that the slave trade violated the right of life and liberty of slaves. He defended this law by using the argument that the trade of slaves violated their rights. However, when one looks at the process of the trade slave it is merely just transporting a slave and then buying or selling the slave for a price.
Even though this is the very process that Jefferson argued violated the slaves’ rights, he still basically did the same thing because he sold his slaves to people who needed them in this new territory. Virginia’s domestic sales of slaves were almost doubling in just the decade when the Louisiana Purchase promised a rich new market for them. The highest traffickers of this new large market were Kentucky and Virginia, “Jefferson himself sold 85 of his slaves, a high number since he owned 199 in 1810.” (Wills 121)Jefferson’s views of black inferiority are apparent in his lack of action dealing with his relationship with Sally Hemmings.
DNA evidence has verified that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one of Sally Hemings’s children. (PBS Online) Jefferson never publicly addressed that he had any intimate relationship with a black person or that he had any black children at all. This lack of action shows how Jefferson viewed blacks as inferior because he was not willing to admit to having an affair with a black lady or to have himself, ‘a superior white male’, so closely associated with an ‘inferior black female’.There are similarities in the purpose of how we examine race and racism in HDR to that of Thomas Jefferson’s views about black inferiority. When we describe racism in HDR it is important to explicitly name power.
A racist system occurs when one group has the institutional and cultural power to make its prejudices in to laws, policies, practices and procedures and to shape the culture to support their ideology. Jefferson held the power at the time, and his actions or lack thereof were inherently racist which helped form an ideology designed to justify the unjust treatment of the subordinate group for the purpose of exploiting its labor power.Thomas Jefferson helped perpetuate certain aspects of systemic racism as it exists today. His thoughts on how blacks are intellectually inferior are still common in a variety of ways today. For example, in sports it had been the stereotype for awhile that African Americans were not smart enough to play the quarterback in football because it was a “thinking position.
” These thoughts of how black are intellectually inferior have caused Internalized Racisms which affects how people of color internalize inferiority. We can even connect this to the reading in Loewan where he explains that the two major impacts of slavery are, “the social and economic inferiority it conferred on blacks and the cultural racism it instilled in whites.” (Loewan 136) Because American slavery was based solely on race, in order to reassure themselves that they were good people, whites started insisting that they were superior to blacks, and this concept continues to exist today in the form of racism.While we have all taken in deeply rooted racist beliefs in today’s society, it is the nature of living in a racist society.
This does not mean we are overtly bigoted and prejudiced, but it does mean that we have a limited lens and that we need to do a lot of work to expand our thinking to see the “matrix.” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson was unable to expand his lens. Thomas Jefferson was unable to expand his “lens.” Since Jefferson never took a definite position in regards to slavery, he never significantly helped change the situation for blacks at that time.