Mia Bay (Fellow, 2009–10)
June 26, 2012
In the 1850s, as the nation inched toward civil war, opponents of slavery claimed Thomas Jefferson as an ally, citing his ringing proclamations of inalienable rights. At the same time, proponents of slavery said he was on their side, quoting his views on Negro inferiority and pointing to his failure to free his slaves. Both sides could legitimately embrace him. In 1776, for example, he proposed an end to the importation of slaves, and in 1783 he urged the freeing of children born to slave parents after 1800. But he also supported bills that retained the most brutal features of Virginia’s slave system. How can we account for Jefferson’s equivocation? Was his belief in liberty undermined by racial prejudice? Were the values of the planter aristocracy so deeply ingrained in him that he could not transcend them? Or did he realize that much that made him Thomas Jefferson — his wealth, his social position, and his political influence — depended on slavery?