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Thomas Jefferson On Slavery

“We Hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—“(Jefferson). These words are arguably the most recognized words ever written in American history and are the backbone of our countries right to freedom.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, is one of the few historical American leaders that need no introduction. Jefferson was born on April 13th, 1743 in Albemarle county, Virginia. Jefferson was a man of many talents that included, but not limited to, law, politics, writing, architecture, and planting. The three achievements that Jefferson wanted to be remembered for, which were inscribed on his tombstone, are, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the introduction of the Virginia bill of religious liberty, and the founding of the University of Virginia. Jefferson not only founded the University of Virginia but “He conceived it, planned it, designed it, and supervised both its construction and the hiring of the faculty”(Borden). Jefferson is considered one the greatest pioneers of America, but one issue that troubled him throughout his lifetime was slavery and his ownership of more than two hundred slaves.

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The question that puzzles most Americans is, how could the man who wrote, “All men are created equal” own slaves? This question has been asked over and over throughout the history of our great nation. This is the thing that contemporary Americans find most vexing about him. In order to answer this question we first must explore the society and times that Jefferson grew up in and considered being the standard.

In 18th – century Virginia, slavery was the fabric of society. Slavery was the backbone of Virginia’s economy and was common with plantation owners of this time. Although slavery was the norm in Jefferson’s lifetime, this cannot be used to justify his ownership of slaves.

Jefferson spoke out tirelessly throughout his life against the institution of slavery, slave trading, and for the right of black people to be free. Most people in today’s society would probably argue that he was a hypocrite for owning slaves and at the same time, denouncing slavery. We must place ourselves in Jefferson’s times and not judge on today’s standards. “Do not mistake me. I am not advocating slavery. I am justifying the wrongs we have committed on foreign people…On the contrary, there is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity” (Jefferson).

The question on his ownership of slaves should be stated in more historical terms: How did a man who was born into a slave holding society, whose family and friends owned slaves, who inherited a plantation that was dependant on slave labor, decide at an early age that the institution of slavery was morally wrong and declare that it should be abolished? When we examine this question in a more historical context, it could be argued that Jefferson went against his society and his own self-interest to denounce slavery and urge its abolition.

When the question of his ownership is explained this way, another question usually follows: If Jefferson knew holding slaves was wrong, why did he continue to enslave them. He did not release any of his slaves while he was living, although he gave five of them their freedom in his will. Jefferson’s decision to continue ownership of slaves is probably one that cannot be answered in our lifetime. One might argue that he needed the labor to keep up his plantation, others might say that the slaves did not want to leave because they were treated so well. Yet another view that might be taken, was Jefferson’s idea of emancipation.

Jefferson did not believe that if slaves were given their freedom and introduced into the community, that they would be able to assimilate themselves into eighteenth-century Virginia. “The cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not lost me a second thought, if in that way a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected; and gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be”(Jefferson).

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