The Enslaved People of Poplar Forest

Jefferson’s Views on Slavery

When Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743, slavery had existed in Virginia for nearly 75 years. He grew up on a plantation with enslaved workers, and owned nearly 200 slaves as an adult. Jefferson’s life and words reflect the moral contradictions and practical concerns facing the architects of the new democracy that extolled freedom and equality.

“A Hideous Blot”

Jefferson’s views on slavery and blacks are complex. At one time he thought blacks were naturally inferior to other races, but later conceded that servitude may have had an impact on their abilities. As a young Virginia legislator, he unsuccessfully advocated allowing private citizens to free their slaves. Later he introduced a bill barring free blacks from staying in the state. His original draft of the Declaration of Independence included strong language opposing the transatlantic slave trade. As president, he signed a bill outlawing that trade.

“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever…”
—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1782

Jefferson recognized the evils of slavery, but he remained tied to the system and freed only seven of his bondsmen, all were members of the Hemmings family at Monticello. His concerns about emancipation ranged from paternalistic to self-interest. He believed most former slaves couldn’t survive independently. He also feared for his own economic survival and the safety of whites at the mercy of former slaves who had, in his words, been subjected to “unremitting despotism” and “degrading submissions.” As an older man, he advocated freeing and returning slaves to Africa.

“There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity.”
—Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, September 1814

“Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence.” Thomas Jefferson to Banneker, August 30, 1791