jefferson's blood
homevideo reportsis it true?jefferson enigmaslaves' storychronologyview the story

Quiz
Jump to question 11
Answer: Yes and No.

Jefferson, near the end of his life, wrote:
"I wish the treatment of the native Americans was the only blot in our moral history, and that no other race had higher charges to bring against us. I am not apt to despair, yet I see not how we are to disengage ourselves from that deplorable entanglement. We have the wolf by the ear and feel the danger of either holding him or letting him loose. I shall not live tosee it but those who come after us will be wiser than we are, for light is spreading and man improving. To that advancement I look, and to the dispensations of an all-wise and all-powerful providence to devise the means of effecting what is right. [Thomas Jefferson to Lydia Sigourney, 18 July 1824.]

Jefferson had written earlier, in 1784, about the effects of slavery on both whites and blacks in his book, Notes on Virginia. This quote is from Quiery XVIII:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do.... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of small slaves, gives a loose to the worst passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. ..."

Earlier, in 1786, Jefferson wrote:

"What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment or death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose. But we must wait with patience the workings of an overruling providence, and hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not left to the guidance of blind fatality. " [26 June 1786, Thomas Jefferson to J.N Demeunier.]

Thomas Jefferson probably expected that slavery would disappear of its own accord, as he wrote in 1805:

"I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us. There are many virtuous men who would make any sacrifice to affect it, many equally virtuous men who persuade themselves ether that the thing is not wrong, or that it can not be remedied, and very many with whom interest is morality. ... But interest is really going over to the side of morality. The value of the slave is everyday lessening; his burden on his master daily increasing. Interest is therefore preparing the disposition to be just; and this will be goaded from time to time by the insurrectionary spirit of the slaves. This is easily quelled in its first efforts, but from being local it will become general, and whenever it does it will rise more formidable after every defeat, until we shall be forced, after dreadful scenes and suffering to release them in their own way, which, without such suffering we might now model after our own convenience.[Thomas Jefferson to Burwell, Jan 28, 1805]

"Jefferson was a man of many dimensions, and any explanation of his behavior must contain a myriad of seeming contradictions. He was a sincere and dedicated foe of the slave trade who bought and sold men when he found it personally necessary. He believed that all men were entitled to life and liberty regardless of their abilities, yet he tracked down those slaves who had the courage to take their rights by running away. He believed that slavery was morally and politically wrong, but still he wrote a slave code for his state and opposed a national attempt in 1819 to limit the further expansion of the institution. He believed that one hour of slavery was worse than the ages of British oppression, yet he was able to discuss the matter of slave breeding in much the same terms that one would use when speaking of the propagation of dogs and horses." (Willam Cohen,"Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery," in The Journal of American History, Dec 1970, pg 525.)

Explore The Jefferson Enigma section of this site




11. Was Thomas Jefferson racist?

·  Yes
·  No
·  Yes and No

home ·  view the report ·  is it true? ·  the jefferson enigma ·  the slaves' story ·  mixed race america
special video reports ·  discussion ·  links ·  quiz ·  chronology ·  gene map
interviews ·  synopsis ·  tapes ·  teacher's guide ·  press
FRONTLINE ·  pbs online ·  wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation


SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

RECENT STORIES

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS