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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.