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Jefferson’s Natural, Moral, and Political Philosophy of Race and Slavery September 14, 2012

Posted by Will Thomas in History of the Human Sciences.
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Update: For a great deal of excellent context concerning Notes on the State of Virginia and Jefferson’s discussions of race, please see Ricardo Brown’s new post on the subject at his blog, Until Darwin: Science and the Origins of Race.

For more on Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves, and his thinking about discipline, finance, and slavery on his own plantation, see this recent article at Smithsonian.com

Charles Willson Peale’s 1791 portrait of Thomas Jefferson, proponent of human liberty, slave-owner, opponent of race mixing, father of mixed-race children, and self-aware hypocrite

At The H-Word, Becky Higgitt recently posted about Thomas Jefferson’s strong interest in the sciences and the cause of improvement. Thony Christie and I commented with some further thoughts about Jefferson’s education in natural philosophy, and his range of interests as an Enlightenment thinker.  Other commenters were quick to dispel any notion that Jefferson is a straightforwardly heroic figure in history (as his interest in science might imply), given his ownership of slaves, and his sexual relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings, which resulted in children. Although the comments don’t accurately portray Jefferson’s attitude toward his slaves, the fact is that he owned other human beings, and that is vile enough.

The interesting thing is that Jefferson was not simply “a man of his time,” blithely oblivious to the possibility of alternative mores.  On the contrary, he was fully convinced that he and his beloved state of Virginia were on the wrong side of history.  Now, this is most definitively not to say that what Jefferson regarded as the “right” side of history corresponds to, or is even fully intelligible to, the ideas of our own time.

A quick look at Jefferson’s philosophical discussions of slavery and race in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1787) nicely illustrates how he felt the proper course of history could be discerned, as well as some of the more peculiar characteristics of Enlightenment-era philosophy.  It will also illustrate that, while Jefferson thought slavery was a depraved institution, this opinion arose from his political belief in universal liberty, not his conception of race, which is, quite simply, disturbing.

By and large, Jefferson’s Notes is a geographical treatise offering an empirical discussion of the land, resources, people, and institutions of the state.  It is, in this sense, similar to the travel accounts that supplied Enlightenment savants with much of the evidence for their more ambitious theories.  In the text, Jefferson occasionally diverges off into his own philosophical arguments.  Most famously, he used his book to refute the claims of the Comte de Buffon (certainly the most important figure in natural history in the world at that time) and his followers that living things in the Americas, including humans (including European settlers) had degenerated from the primeval state of their species.  Part of Jefferson’s argument in that respect was defending the qualities of America’s native inhabitants.

In Notes, Jefferson also applied philosophical thinking to questions of race and slavery.  He was unambiguous in his opinion of the institution of slavery, condemning it as “a blot on our country” (145), and a “great political and moral evil” (146), which degraded the “manners” and “morals” of slave and slave-owner alike.  He was also fully aware, in a famous passage, of the hypocrisy running between slavery and America’s intellectual basis for independence from Britain, that all men were granted “unalienable rights” (272):

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 these liberties are of the gift of God?  That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?  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.–But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil.  We must be content with the hope they will force their way into every one’s mind.

That said, on the policy question of emancipation, Jefferson was fully willing to consider “history natural and civil” in defending the proposal to “colonize” emancipated slaves in other parts of the world, and to induce “white settlers” to take their place.  He supposed, first, that lingering antipathies between slaves and their former masters would make for a tumultuous coexistence.  Additionally, he offered other “objections” to the proposal to allow emancipated slaves to remain in America, “which are physical and moral” (229).

Here Jefferson explicitly did not extend his 1776 statement that “all men are created equal” to all of humanity, making an extended argument for the inferiority of Africans.  From here on out, prepare yourself: Jefferson’s ideas are straightforwardly racist.

The first thing Jefferson held against Africans was their “colour”.  Acknowledging that the anatomy of skin color was not understood, he nevertheless held that “the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us.”  He held the “mixtures of red and white” in white people’s skin to have the virtue of changing with individuals’ emotions, which was “preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race”.  He also held that white people were better looking in general (230).

Jefferson is arguing here that beauty constitutes a natural quality, rather than what we would think of as a subjective evaluation.  The belief that aesthetics could be argued on absolute grounds goes back to antiquity, and a long parade of rhetorical disputation concerning what sorts of things are “more excellent” or “more perfect” than another thing (e.g., is night more excellent than day?)  But Jefferson does feel he has to argue the point, so he observes — and here things get even more weird — that even blacks make their “own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Orangootan for the black women over those of his own species.”  (This is probably from a travel narrative, but I don’t know the provenance.)  Also, “The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?”

Also, according to Jefferson, black people smell bad, which — in a typical argument of what historians call the “medical Enlightenment” — could be attributed to an anatomy appropriate for their natural climate: “They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.  This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites.”  He then invokes then-cutting-edge research: “Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist [Adair Crawford, who was still alive] has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the fact of inspiration, so much of that fluid [i.e., heat, or caloric] from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it” (230-231).

Jefferson then discusses the character and habits of slaves: their propensity to stay up late, to not grieve very long, to not be very romantic in their courtship, to not be very good at reasoning (“one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid”), to be “dull, tasteless, and anomalous” (?) in “imagination”.  He does allow that they are “at least as brave, and more adventuresome” than whites, and that their memory is comparable.

Aware that it might not be legitimate to derive conclusions about a people by observing them enslaved, but arguing that it “would be unfair[*] to follow them to Africa for this investigation,” Jefferson allowed it was necessary to “consider them here on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed” (unlike the orangutang thing, evidently).  Therefore it was also necessary to take care to try and uncover the natural characteristics of Africans by making “great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move.”  One solution to the problem was to introduce auxiliary hypotheses by comparing them to native Americans (233):

Some [slaves] have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad.  The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit.  They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation.  They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated.

Boston statue of Phillis Wheatley (c1753-1784), pioneering African-American poet whose work Jefferson deemed “beneath the dignity of criticism,” and evidence of the innate inferiority of her race

He then offers a critical appraisal of black art, allowing that they were “more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time,” but that they had no aptitude for painting, sculpture, or poetry.  (“Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry–Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.”)  He argued that the works of Phillis Wheatley and Ignatius Sancho were of insufficient quality to stand as refutation.

Finally, Jefferson pulls out the classics, in order to suggest that, while the white slaves of antiquity were treated much worse than the black slaves of his own time, they had greater integrity, and produced great writers, such as Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus.

Now, Jefferson’s ad hoc agglomeration of anatomy, aesthetic disputation, anecdotal ethnography, literary criticism, and scholarship in the classics was totally typical of argument in Enlightenment philosophy (and survived for a long time thereafter).  Interestingly, though, he was aware that this use of evidence was not reliable, and explicitly noted its inferiority to arguments in more observationally and cognitively accessible sciences.  He, therefore, did not hold the inferiority of Africans as definitively established (238-239):

The opinion that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the anatomical knife, to optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents.  How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various, and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them.  To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history.  I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

Yet, if Jefferson left the philosophical question of African inferiority open, this doubt did not justify implementing a policy that risked violating Nature’s apparently proper order.  How could this order be violated?  As we have seen, Jefferson did not believe inferiority justified enslavement.  What disturbed him was the likelihood that emancipation without deporting former slaves would lead to race mixing (240):

Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as Nature has formed them?  This unfortunate difference of color, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people,  Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty.  Some of these, embarrassed by the question, ‘What further is to be done with them?’ join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only.  Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort.  The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master.  But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history.  When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.

Well before eugenics and its overarching concern with Darwinian “fitness,” Jefferson could reach essentially similar conclusions on the basis of aesthetics.  Yes, that’s right: Jefferson asserted aesthetics as a legitimate argument against emancipation.  This is, of course, incomprehensible to the modern mindset, wherein aesthetics is relegated to the realm of the subjective.  What is subjective would surely be subject only to the dictates of individual liberty, which, of course, Jefferson held sacrosanct.  But Jefferson did not think this way.  For Jefferson, aesthetics was thing of Nature, and its principles, if suggested by intuition, were accessible to, and defensible by philosophical argument.  It is, in any case, a just irony that Jefferson has become the eighteenth-century’s most famous father of mixed-race children.

On the question of Jefferson’s personal behavior, we can make a couple of observations.  First, if Jefferson did seriously entertain the idea of freeing his own slaves (as George Washington did), he did not do so out of his sense of obligation to his estate, the finances of which were tumultuous.  He did, though, ultimately free some of Hemings’s family.  For more on Jefferson’s estate and slavery, see the Monticello website.  However, one gets the more general sense that Jefferson viewed the abolition of slavery as a political goal, rather than a matter of immediate moral imperative, to be accomplished in a long-term struggle within the deeply corrupted world of which he was a part.  We owe a great deal to Jefferson’s thinking, but it has thankfully become impossible for us to share his mindset about the nature of Nature, let alone his ideas on race.

*I have to assume “unfair” here means something like inconvenient, because otherwise I’m at a loss as to how we’re not already well beyond the bounds of unfairness here.

**This post is heavily informed by conversations I have had with Chris Donohue, and by his master’s thesis on 19th-century ethnology, which retained many of the aspects of the argumentation that Jefferson used.


1. Phi Paine - September 20, 2012

After decades or reading Jefferson’s works and various biographies, I still find the man infuriatingly inpenetrable. When one reads Franklin, there is no difficulty figuring out his motives, his values, his doubts and his certainties. His actions are easily connected to his ideas. But Jefferson is baffling. Because of some shining moments and brilliant words you want to admire him, but the murky undercurrents and contradictions make this very difficult to do.

Will Thomas - September 21, 2012

Thanks for the comment, Phil — very well put. I’ve never studied Jefferson in-depth myself (though my high school, like many others, was even named after him). Even at a cursory glance, though, one definitely gets the sense of an individual torn between, and trying not very successfully to reconcile the bookish world of Enlightenment-era idealism and the economic and social realities of living in the South circa 1800.

2. Mitch - November 2, 2012

Please have a look at this book: Introduction to Objectual Philosophy. You can find it on http://filosofia.obiectuala.ro/en/.

3. Block Negative Energy - July 9, 2021

Block Negative Energy

Jefferson’s Natural, Moral, and Political Philosophy of Race and Slavery | Ether Wave Propaganda

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