Jefferson’s Paradoxical Views on RaceBy: Mormon Heretic
I came across an interesting documentary called Thomas Jefferson: A View from the Mountain on Netflix. I watched it because I could see it was no longer going to be streamed, and I’m glad I did. (I hope it will be available again.) While the LDS Church often gets a bad rap about the ban on blacks from priesthood and temple ordinances, it was interesting to view Thomas Jefferson’s paradoxical views on race. On the one hand, Jefferson penned “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. On the other hand, he held 400 slaves. He spoke harshly about miscegenation, yet fathered children with his black slave, Sally Hemmings. He was for states rights, but wrote a piece of legislation that would have banned slavery by 1800 and prevented the Civil War. (The legislation failed by a single vote.) Jefferson was also considered by many an atheist, but he was the man who proposed religious freedom in our Constitution. The documentary was a truly fascinating insight into Jefferson.
The documentary starts discussing how and when African slaves came to America, and that slavery wasn’t initially because of race.
Narrator, “The first African slaves in an English colony, a group of about 20, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia arrived in 1619 aboard a Dutch man of war. By 1750, some 10 million Africans had been taken in chains to the western hemisphere with 400,000 coming to the American colonies.
Edward Ayers, Historian, “It was not clear at all for decades that African slavery was going to be the main economic institution of Virginia. For a long time slavery coexisted with indentured servitude, and if you had asked leading Virginians which they would have preferred, they would have said if we could have this be a white man’s country, if we could have enough English men and women come here willing to work hard for seven years, that would be the way that we would like to go. But, they’re not coming, and the ones who do come are dying quickly. If we’re going to be able to have the kind of plantations that we came here to establish in the first place, we’re going to have labor. Where’s that labor available from? It’s from the ships that are bringing from Africa and from the Caribbean.
The documentary then goes on to discuss how slavery was abolished in the North about the same time as the American Revolution.
Paul Finkelman, Historian, “There are slaves in all the 13 states in 1776 when they declared independence. By the end of the Revolution, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have outright abolished slavery. Massachusetts declares slavery to be ended because the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 uses language almost identical to the Declaration of Independence, declaring all men are born free and equal. Therefore, there can’t be slaves if you’re born free and equal.
Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have passed gradual emancipation statutes, which means that the children of all slaves will be born free and as the existing slaves die, the institution of slavery will die out. By 1804, New Jersey has become the last northern state, New York in 1799, to also adopt these gradual emancipation statutes. So the North creates itself.”
Gordon Wood, Historian, “The American Revolution created the anti-slave consciousness in a sense. For 100 years, slavery had existed in the colonies without substantial criticism. From the late 17th century to the middle of the 18th century, there’s very little criticism. Once in a while, a Quaker, a few isolated individuals, but by and large slavery is accepted as a given. But suddenly in the middle of the 18th century coincident with the rising sense of enlightenment values, particularly freedom, independence, slavery becomes a problem. People suddenly say, ‘well, this is inconsistent’, and from that moment on, and it coincides with the American Revolution, slavery is on the defensive. And it’s only then that you begin to get racial defenses of slavery. Nobody used race as an excuse or justification for slavery earlier because they didn’t have to.”
It was at this point that slavery became associated with race, and Jefferson was one of the proponents of this proposition.
Narrator, “So while Jefferson’s words about equality in the Declaration of Independence provide a spark for emancipation in the North, ironically, it is also Jefferson’s words, this time in Notes on the State of Virginia, that expressed the feeling of many slaveholders.
Jefferson, “Whether originally a distinct race or made distinct by time and circumstance, blacks are inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind. This unfortunate difference of color and perhaps of faculty is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”
Narrator, “Jefferson finds himself between two worlds moving on a collision course. He condemns the evils of slavery, but he doesn’t free his own slaves. Yet in Notes on the State of Virginia, he details a plan for emancipation, on the condition that when freed, blacks must be colonized in Africa or the Caribbean where they can live as free people. To that end, Jefferson proposes educating blacks now at the public expense. These ideas anger many slaveholders who have no interest in educating their slaves only to lose them. But colonizing blacks is crucial to Jefferson because he believes the history of pain and suffering makes it impossible for blacks and whites to live together in freedom.
Following the American Revolution, the original 13 colonies wanted to expand. Areas from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico not part of the original 13 colonies were known as the Northwest Territories at the time. Jefferson drafted a proposal that these territories should be free from slavery, and if failed by one vote.
Narrator, “As people move into the promised land [the midwest], they bring with them the question: will this be slave territory, or will it be free? Jefferson details a plan.”
Armstead Robinson, Historian, “In 1784 when Jefferson was a delegate from Virginia to the Confederation Congress, he introduced a bill to organize what became the Northwest Territory. This particular bill sought to describe the terms under which the territory roughly from the Appalachian Mountains to the Missippi, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf were going to be organized into states. Jefferson presented a plan that divided up into 15 different states, described how the territory would be converted into a state and in Article 6 said that slavery would be banned from this territory as of the year 1800.”
Merril Peterson, Historian, “Unfortunately, that provision was eliminated from the ordinance of 1784, the first plan of government for western territory, one vote, and he said that, ‘So the future of a whole race was hanging on that one vote and heaven was silent in that awful moment.’ The reason that one vote was not cast was because the congressman was ill in his lodgings and could not be on the floor. So he felt that was a terribly tragic circumstance. The same provision, however, for the restriction of slavery in western territories was included in the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which however applied only to the territories north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes. “
A single vote! Imagine how differently this country would have been without a Civil War! It is a shame that slavery was not outlawed by the 1784 vote. Jefferson was named our country’s first Secretary of State under George Washington, and he had to deal with the slave rebellion in Haiti.
Julius Scott, Historian, “Haiti at that time was a colony of France called Saint Domingue, was in fact at the time of the French Revolution the richest, the most prosperous and productive of all of the slave colonies in the Americas. In fact half of the world’s sugar and coffee was produced on this one-third of an island on the Caribbean.
There’s a massive slave rebellion which then leads through a series of successive stages toward independence for Haiti, which was declared on Jan. 1, 1804. The Haitian revolution is really very much a part of Thomas Jefferson’s world. We also know that Jefferson had a special interest partly because he was such a devotee of the French Revolution in France. There’s a lot of contrast, the main one being that in the Haitian case, you have a new polity that’s built on the fundamental principle of the abolition of slavery. That’s really what pushed this rebellion forward.”
Narrator, “Haiti is a dilemma for Jefferson and the new nation. During the American Revolution, Haitian soldiers fought for the colonies in their struggle for independence. But now in Haiti, this is a revolution of slaves. The slaves are rebelling against their white masters, masters who support French rule, and France is a powerful ally of the United States.
But Haiti also speaks to one of Jefferson’s greatest fears: a violent uprising of slaves in America. Unless something is done he warns, we will be the murderers of our own children. On Haiti, Jefferson remains neutral, a struggle lasting more than a decade. It results in Haiti becoming the second independent nation in the hemisphere.
Edward Ayers, Historian, “If you imagine living in Virginia, there are any number of things that could make even a relatively large slaveholder think twice about the future of slavery. First of all you have these ideas associated with the Revolution and of universal human freedom; the ideas are being expounded in France and England. But there is more than this, there are things that are much more immediate, much grittier, which is the fact that your plantation doesn’t seem to be nearly as profitable as it might be. When you travel to Pennsylvania or New Jersey and see the productive farms there, you wonder how productive Viriginia could be if we had free labor, instead of slave labor.
So you can find people who are not just sort of bitten with the infection of enlightenment ideas who could believe that as a very hard-headed sort of business proposition, the question of political economy that having slavery end gradually might not be all that bad.”
Narrator, “Like Jefferson, George Washington inherits most of his slaves through marriage. But during his life, Washington refuses to buy or sell his slaves. He also leaves instructions in his will that all his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife Martha. Early in his life, Benjamin Franklin owned a small number of slaves, but in his last years he becomes president of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Movement. Shortly before his death, he writes Congress, asking them to loosen the bands of slavery that all may enjoy the birthright of liberty. And Jefferson’s daughter Martha writes about her distress over the ownership of slaves.
Good God! Have we not enough? I wish with all my soul that the poor negroes were all freed. It grieves my heart when I think that these, our fellow creatures should be treated so terribly as they are by many of our countrymen.
Over the course of his lifetime, Jefferson owned some 400 slaves. He engages in the commerce of slavery, buying and selling them as a source of ready capital, or to keep slave families together. During his life he frees only three.
A good cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies. Persuasion, perseverance, are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others. The revolution on public opinion which this cause requires is not to be expected in a day or perhaps in an age, but time which outlives all things will outlive this evil also. (Thomas Jefferson)
I am just really amazed at Jefferson’s paradoxical positions on slavery. He condemned it, but didn’t free any of his slaves. The documentary states that Jefferson inherited a large plantation, and he needed the slaves to keep the plantation going. It didn’t make good business sense to free his slaves, though he was personally very opposed to it.
But the worst paradox is the rumors of his affair with his slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. These rumors came to a head when he became the third president of the United States.
Narrator, “in 1796, his party, the Republicans run against the Federalists, led by Jefferson’s old friend, John Adams. The Federalists win by 3 electoral votes, and Adams becomes the nation’s second president. For coming in second, Jefferson becomes vice-president. But in 1800, Jefferson and Adams face each other again. Jefferson writes, ‘I like everything about Adams except his politics.’ Now the two men who were so aligned at the Declaration of Independence disagree over the direction of the new nation.
Adams supports a strong central government; Jefferson, a more limited states-rights government. The campaign is cruel, and the attacks personal. Jefferson is labeled an infidel by the Federalists, in part for of his position on the separation of church and state. The Republicans label Adams a monarchist. Slavery is not a major issue. The election is so close, it takes 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to decide. But in the end, Thomas Jefferson becomes third president of the United States. Adams, weary of political life and embittered by the campaign, retires to Massachusetts.
Jefferson is under attack from the start of his presidency. But in September 1802 Jefferson finds himself facing accusations of a very different kind. The Richmond Recorder publishes a story alleging a relationship between Jefferson and a Monticello slave, Sally Hemmings.”
It is well-known that the man whom it delighteth he people to honor keeps and for many years past has kept as his concubine one of his own slaves. Her name is Sally. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking although sable resemblance to those of the President himself. The African Venus is said to officiate as housekeeper at Monticello. (James T. Callender)
Narrator, “In the 1790s, the Scottish born James Callender wrote against the Federalists, including stories about Alexander Hamilton and his affair with a married woman. After Jefferson is elected President, Callender expects to be rewarded with a political appointment, but Jefferson decides otherwise. Callender is angered by the rejection and now begins writing for the Federalists. One of his first stories is about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.”
Unknown woman, “This was the scandal of the day and in very short order, all of the Federalist press had picked up Callender’s story and was serializing it, all the way up to Boston.”
[song lyrics to Yankee Doodle Dandee]
“Of all the damsels on the green,
On mountain, or in valley,
Alas so luscious ne’er was seen
As Monticellian Sally.
Yankee Doodle, who’s the noodle?
What wife were half so handy?
To breed a flock of slaves for stock
A Blackamorr’s the dandy.
What Callender’s contribution if you want to call it that is to say publicly and in print, there’s really no difference between public virtue and private virtue, that if a man is a hypocrite and person who engages in miscegenation, a person who exploits his slaves, a person who has illicit sexual relationships, than that has a direct bearing upon his capacity to be a leader for his nation.
Narrator, “What makes the accusations so damning for Jefferson is that throughout his life, he has condemned miscegenation, the mixing of the races. Jefferson writes,
Amalgamation of blacks and whites produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence to the human character can innocently consent.
He feels so strongly, that he develops an elaborate mathematical formula for when the descendants of mixed blood can return to full white.
Two crosses with the pure white and a third with any degree of mixture, however small clears the issue of Negro blood. (Thomas Jefferson)
Narrator, “Yet as painful as the accusations about Sally Hemmings are, Jefferson’s defense is to say nothing.”
Woman, “And in fact his silence in a way fueled the newspaper stories because by not saying anything, the opposition press could say, ‘well, we’re still waiting.’ And Jefferson resolutely refused to deny, so the story continued and continued.”
Narrator, “What is held as fact by some, an impossibility by others, is that while in France, Jefferson fathered a boy named Tom by Sally Hemmings. At the time, Jefferson would have been 44, and Sally Hemmings 14.”
Minnie Woodson, Woodson Family Historian, “The position in the accounts that we have discovered through research is that Thomas Woodson, at that time just called Tom was conceived in Paris because Sally Hemmings was there with Jefferson after she had tried to help transport his youngest living daughter to him back in about 1787-1788. While there, she was given clothing, being educated, learned French, and most likely became his concubine. When she returned to the United States shortly after, Thomas Woodson was born in 1790.
Narrator, “According to account handed down in the Woodson family, Jefferson bends to pressure from the press, and in 1802 when the boy is 12, sends him to a nearby plantation. He takes the name of the plantation owner and becomes Thomas Woodson. There is almost no written history about this. Most slaves and slave descendants could not read or write, so many who trust the story rely on oral tradition.John Woodson, Thomas Woodson Descendant, “In the Woodson family, we have all of these people who have answered the question, ‘when did you first hear about Sally Hemmings-Thomas Jefferson relationship?’ And they come up with stories which are pretty close to being identical. These are among people who for four generations did not contact one another. This story runs through four different families in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. That sort of thing leads me to believe that it happened.”
Narrator, “Jefferson keeps lists of the children of his slaves in his farm book. Here he lists no child named Tom under Sally Hemming’s name. He does list a Tom with no last name, whom the Woodson family believed to be Thomas Woodson. Others claim him to be an itinerant farm worker. But Jefferson does record Sally having at least 5 other children: Beverly, Harriet (who died in infancy), a second Harriet, Madison, and Eston. Most believe that all of Sally’s children were fathered by a white man.Minnie Woodson, “Now all of the children were able to be Thomas Jefferson’s children according to the times when he was at Monticello. We know that he was President, and was away in Washington quite often. But nine to ten months before each one of them were born he was present in Monticello and Sally Hemmings was present in Monticello. The ability to father those children was there. No one contends that point. No one contends the point that he was there.”
Narrator, “Isaac Jefferson, a slave at Monticello leaves in his memoirs a description of Sally Hemmings.
Sally, mighty near white, she was the youngest child. Folks said Miss Hemmings was old Mr. Wayles children. Sally was very handsome, long straight hair down her back.“
Jan Lewis, Historian, “As best we know and this comes through oral tradition that no one really has disputed much, Sally Hemmings herself was the recorder’s white. She was the daughter of Betty Hemmings a mulatto that is half-black, half-white slave woman and John Wayles, who happened to be Jefferson’s father-in-law. Betty Hemmings, Sally’s mother, was John Wayles slave. After the death of his wife, he apparently took Betty Hemmings as his slave mistress, fathering some children, one of whom was Sally. What this means also is that Sally Hemmings would have been Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha’s half sister. She might well have resembled Martha Jefferson. She might have reminded Jefferson of his deceased wife.”
Narrator, “In 1873, an article appears in an Ohio newspaper dictated by Sally’s son, Madison Hemmings. Madison identifies Thomas Jefferson as his father, and describes in detail life at Monticello. Madison also tells how his mother’s duties were to care for Jefferson’s chambers and wardrobe. But recently, a first of its kind DNA study was undertaken with the descendants of Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. While not totally failsafe, it presented clear evidence to show no genetic link between Jefferson and Thomas Woodson. But it did show a link between Jefferson and Sally’s youngest son, Eston. Jefferson was present at Monticello at the time Sally conceived all of her children, leading many to conclude that Jefferson is most likely the father. While some contest the DNA results, others are re-thinking this chapter of the Jefferson legacy.”
Jan Lewis, Historian, “Jefferson’s greatest defenders among the historical profession have thought that Jefferson was a man of impeccable character, a man who hated slavery, a man who was uncomfortable with women and would have been uncomfortable the very idea of an extra-marital or a non-marital relationship with a woman, and given those considerations, it would seem impossible to them that Jefferson would have engaged in a dalliance or an affair or even a long-term loving relationship with a woman who was his slave.
Beginning in the late sixties and the early seventies, first with Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black, then with Fawn Brodie’s very famous biography, Thomas Jefferson: Intimate Biography, other historians began to look at the Sally Hemmings story, re-examine the Sally Hemming’s legend, and to say it’s not necessarily implausible. Some argue that to say that he was capable of a loving relationship with a slave-woman humanizes him. Other people who dislike Jefferson will say he is a hypocrite.; therefore all Americans are hypocritical. American democracy is in some fundamental way hypocritical. Jefferson—the way that you treat Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, that story then becomes sort of a symbol of what you think the legacy of slavery and American race relations is.”
And in an ironic twist, it is Fawn Brodie, author of No Man Knows My History (biography about Joseph Smith) who is credited with this re-evaluation of Thomas Jefferson. I’ve previously blogged about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign in which he proposed selling public lands to compensate slave-owners to free their slaves, and it is also noteworthy that Joseph Smith allowed as many as 6 or so early black Mormons to hold the priesthood (Elijah Abel even participated in some temple ordinances.)
Joseph Smith was born (1805) in the middle of Jefferson’s terms as President (1801-1089), and Jefferson died July 4, 1826, just before Joseph would have translated the Book of Mormon. Certainly talk of Jefferson’s amalgamation or miscegenation with Sally Hemmings would have been very familiar to Joseph. As you think about Mormonism’s history of race-relations, how does it compare with Thomas Jefferson’s? What do you make of Jefferson’s paradoxical positions?