In Paris, Thomas Jefferson revealed his true beliefs about slavery

JEfferson had touched upon the subject of slavery in Virginia State Notes, and the published version extended his views to a wide audience in America, England, and France, where he had held discussions with Enlightenment luminaries and French admirers of the United States, notably Lafayette, Nicolas de Condorcet, and Jacques Brissot, all three of whom believed that Jefferson was stopped at a bridge too far from where antislavery should go. They would not have known that at his residence, the Hôtel de Langeac, Jefferson had two mulatto servants who in America were legally his slaves. In France they were not, and by their simple declaration would be considered free, an opportunity neither Sally nor James Hemings took advantage of. They may not have known about this right, or they may have preferred a life of security with Jefferson to a life of uncertainty in France.

If it was their choice, it may have been by agreement with their master, including promises of special treatment and benefits. Aware that he was in violation of French law, Jefferson quietly evaded the laws. As always when it came to his slaves he did what was practical and in his best interest. As an intellectual, especially among friends and colleagues, he rarely hesitated to make it clear that he believed that slavery was, in theory, a moral iniquity, a blot on civilized society. However, his innate self-protective duplicity often came into play.

In France, in 1789, the year the French Revolution began, Jefferson’s good friend, Lafayette, of course knew that Jefferson owned many slaves. Who else in Jefferson’s salon and intellectual-political circle knew? When Jacques Brissot, a leading abolitionist and founder in 1788 of the Society of Black Friends, invited Jefferson to become a member, he declined. That would be inconsistent, he said, with his official position. If Lafayette was ever disappointed with Jefferson, it was with Jefferson’s refusal to act on his professed anti-slavery views, as well as his belief that blacks were innately less intelligent than whites. Sometimes Jefferson leaned a little on this point; sometimes, the other.

The idea that emancipated blacks could become capable, competent, and self-supporting free laborers seemed to him problematic but possible. In the fall of 1788, he received a request from Edward Bancroft, an American physician, scientist, and patriotic pamphleteer living in London, for information regarding an experiment by an anti-slavery planter in Virginia who had freed his slaves and hired as paid labor. Bancroft had told his circle of abolitionists in London that Jefferson had mentioned this incident when they were dinner guests of a mutual friend in 1785. Jefferson could not recall the occasion, but the subject had interested him. Bancroft served as an aide to Franklin during the Paris Peace Treaty negotiations in 1783. A double agent, he spied for the American colonies in London and Paris while also serving the British, although he apparently did not provide significant assistance on both sides.

Jefferson replied in early 1789 that “as far as I can judge from the experiments that have been made, to give liberty to, or rather to abandon, persons whose habits have been formed in slavery, is like abandoning children. To make them work, they had to be watched and even beaten. The slaves were not to blame, he said, for “a man’s moral sense must be unusually strong if slavery does not make him a thief. He to whom the law allows him to have no property of his own can hardly imagine that property rests on anything but force. These slaves preferred to steal from their neighbors rather than work. . . and in most cases were reduced to slavery again.” However, time, education, and proper modeling can transform slaves into morally responsible and productive free workers. Maybe, maybe not, thought Jefferson. “I am determined on my last return to America to try this one. I will endeavor to import as many Germans as I have raised slaves. I will settle them and my slaves in farms of 50 acres each, mixed together, and put them all on the basis of the metaers [tenant farmers] of Europe’, which meant that they did not have to own the property they farmed. “Their children will be brought up, like others, in habits of property and prudence, and I have no doubt they will be good citizens [as] some of their fathers will be so: others, I suppose, will need government. . . to oblige them to work as the laboring poor of Europe do, and to apply to their comfortable subsistence the produce of their labour, retaining such a moderate portion of it as may be a fair equivalent for the use of the lands they work [on].” Despite his intention to try the experiment, he never did, and his plan did not provide for ownership, only rent. If the plan was tried and successful, Jefferson would still be the rightful owner of the land.

Even if Jefferson felt uncomfortable when among his Parisian associates about the conflict between his opinions and his ownership of slaves, his hypocrisy was likely overlooked. It may never have appeared; perhaps it was tactically avoided. For them, Jefferson’s reality as a slaveholder apparently had far less presence than his moral opposition to the institution. None of his French friends owned slaves, a legal impossibility that distinguished him from abolitionists such as Brissot, Richard Price, Edward Bancroft, and the most prominent intellectual with whom Jefferson conversed in Paris, the Marquis de Condorcet. Well known for his brilliance as a mathematician and social scientist, Condorcet may have influenced Jefferson’s arithmetic, arguing that the length of a generation was nineteen years in his argument that each new generation should not be held responsible for the debts of the previous one.

Jefferson read Condorcet’s condemnation of slavery in Think about Negro slaverya highly eloquent text, two copies of which Jefferson purchased in 1788. He decided to translate it, a contribution to the effort to convince the next generation of Americans to do what his generation could not. At the end of 1788 he translated the opening passages. There is no evidence that he showed them to Condorcet or anyone else, and it was probably not intended that his name be placed as translator. He didn’t explain why he didn’t get further. Perhaps he decided the project was too risky. He kept the manuscript in his personal possession. Two years later, Jefferson wrote to Condorcet about a free African American, “a worthy and respectable member of society,” whose “very elegant solutions of geometrical problems” he had seen. “I should be glad to see these instances of moral elevation so numerous as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely an effect of their degraded condition, and does not arise from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intelligence depends .”

Did Jefferson believe Condorcet’s claim that nature endowed blackswith the same genius, the same judgment, the same virtues as the whites?” As he translated from French into English, were Jefferson’s convictions, as well as his pen, engaged with what the words expressly asserted? A translation can be a study or a conclusion, or both. Even if he agreed with Condorcet, the gulf between principle and practice remained, between his continued life as the benevolent slaveholder he believed himself to be and the moralistic philosopher for whom slavery in the abstract was a moral evil. The translation is another example, albeit oblique, of Jefferson’s dedication to writing, of his reliance on the written word to deal with subjects important to him, and also of the strangely ironic situation in which he placed himself: his pen in the service of what his daily life did not embody, what his intellect was capable of, and what his moral principles upheld, but what his practical life and the world into which he was born did not.

When Jefferson arrived at Monticello in December, 1789, the welcome he received from his slaves must have seemed quite consistent with the necessities of life and his sense of what he deserved. For him, slavery remained an essential reality of his time and place. Life as he knew it, and as he expected it to be for some time, allowed no change in its psychological and economic structure. The land he returned to owned him and he owned it. And his slaves, whatever his relations with them, were inseparable from the land. Since it was unthinkable that he could work the land himself or pay people to do it, he believed that it would do him no good without slaves, and the land and what he built on it were inseparable from the basic values, which he also held deeply—family, friends, education, knowledge, heritage, and patriotism.

Adapted from Kaplan’s new book His Master’s Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer

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