The Founders and Slavery
SPILLENG at MAIL.LAW.UCLA.EDU
Thu Apr 20 14:42:06 PDT 2000
I would add one brief note to what Paul has said, one that I'm sure he is
very familiar with. As I recall -- this is all from memory as the material
isn't in front of me -- the antislavery proviso in the earlier version of
the 1784 ordinance was deleted through a series of motions which, had there
been one more antislavery delegate present (several were absent), would have
come out the other way.
Jefferson said, years later, something to the effect of "But for one vote,
the spread of this insidious institution would have been prevented for all
time." (This is not a verbatim or accurate quotation, just a paraphrase.)
This, as Don Fehrenbacher and Paul and others have made clear, was the
merest fantasy, and strikes me as a rather escapist delusion on Jefferson's
part. I don't want to weigh in on the thumbs-up/thumbs-down referendum on
Jefferson, but I do think that this recollection of his illustrates the
strange self-deception he could exhibit on the slavery question. It is
consistent with what does seem to be the discrepancy between his abstract
words and his concrete deeds with respect to this issue.
UCLA School of Law
spilleng at mail.law.ucla.edu
Odd word errors may be caused by speech misrecognition or advancing
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Paul Finkelman [SMTP:Paul-Finkelman at UTULSA.EDU]
> Sent: Thursday, April 20, 2000 12:18 PM
> To: CONLAWPROF at listserv.ucla.edu
> Subject: Re: The Founders and Slavery
> I had attempted to end the discussion since I have no answers to
> Professor West's red baiting and name calling, and will not participate
> in such a discussion. However, Michael McConnell raises interesting
> questions. I will turn to the two he raises here.
> In June 1784 Jefferson entered Congress, then operating under the
> Articles of Confederation. Here he took a shot at slavery. Even if this
> salvo had landed on the target--and it did not--it would have been at
> best a glancing blow. Jefferson's "Plan of Government for the Western
> Territory" would have banned slavery after 1800. Congress rejected the
> antislavery proviso. At this time thousands of slaves were already in
> the West, and more were arriving daily in what later became Kentucky and
> Tennessee. Given the large slave population already in the territories
> south of the Ohio, as well as a fair number in what became Indiana and
> Illinois, it seems unlikely that Jefferson's proposal, delaying
> emancipation for sixteen years, would have been successful. As William
> M. Wiecek notes, the phrasing of Jefferson's proposed ordinance "was, in
> effect, a permission to the western territories and states to establish
> slavery and retain it to the year 1800." Delaying abolition in the West
> until 1800 would have given slaveowners sixteen years to populate the
> region and to lobby for a change in the law.
> Calling for a ban on slavery in the West was nevertheless an attack on
> institution, if for no other reason than it would have put the government
> on record as opposing its spread. In this sense, to answer Michael
> directly, TJ was more antislavery than some southerners, but not nearly
> as antislavery as many northerners. Nor was he has antislavery as many
> other Virginians. TJ had just come from his stint in the Va.
> legislature, where he had proposed a slave code so harsh that the
> legislature rejected it, and a set of rules for free blacks and
> mixed-race children. In this stint in the state legialture TJ has sat on
> the gradual emancipation proposal that others had offered to him, and not
> introduced it. Furthermore, he refused to even consider a bill to allow
> private manumissions of slaves in Va. This is significant, because in
> 1782, when TJ was temporarily not in any political office, the Va.
> legislature had passed such a law. Thus, if TJ had been interested in
> pushing an end to slavery it seems he would have been able to read the
> public mood, propose a law allowing private manumission (with the
> ex-slave remaining in the state). My point is that TJ does not want free
> blacks in his state, he fears and or hates them, which dovetails with his
> outrageously racist statements about blacks written in the Notes on the
> State of Va.
> Now, back to the proposed slavery ban in Congress. Had Jefferson's ban
> passed, and had it worked, which seems highly doubtful -- it was an
> extremely impractical proposal -- it would have been at best a chipping
> away at slavery at the margins. It was a step in the right direction, to
> be sure, and whatever his motivations--to reserve the West for free
> whites, to circumscribe the domestic slave trade, to diminish the demand
> for slaves in the new nation in order to undermine the African trade, or
> to strike a blow against an unjust institution.
> Significantly, however, it was also step, however, that Jefferson would
> later retract. During the debates over the Missouri Compromise Jefferson
> argued against prohibiting slavery in the West: a "geographical line,
> coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political" would stir the
> "angry passions of men." If Jefferson was inconsistent on slavery
> restriction, he was consistent in promoting what he considered best for
> white southerners.
> So, if we are to score points here, we can give TJ a partial score for
> proposing that as of 1800 -- 16 years in the future -- slavery would be
> banned in a place where slaves were entering rapidly with their masters.
> What would have happened to those slaves in KY, Tenn, and what becomes
> Miss and Ala. in 1800? Jefferson offers no clue, but since had refused
> to propose gradual emancipation in VA it is hard to imagine what he
> expected for the West. So, what would I "concede" about TJ -- that is he
> more worried or concerned about slavery than the average South Carolina
> rice Planter? Sure? That he is more concerned than the average
> Virginian? That is not at all clear? That he is consistent with members
> of the "Republic of Letters" across the world at the time? Hardly?
> However one looks at it, the proposal is not very well thought out, it
> does not take affect for years, when it would be too late, and that it
> does not indicate how it might be implemented.
> As for the draft "emancipation law."
> First, the dispute here is twofold. West believes TJ drafted the
> proposed grad eman. act, but I do not and I think internal evidence from
> TJ supports that others brought it to him. But, if I am wrong on this
> point, all this shows is that TJ drafted a bill which he flat out
> refused to offer it to the legislaure. What can we make of this? Some
> opponent of slavery. He won't introduce his own bill even though he is
> the most powerful player in the legislature. Here is the history of
> As chair of the committee to revise Virginia's laws, Jefferson was in the
> ideal position to work towards gradual emancipation. But he failed to
> take the lead. The record suggests, both from outside sources and from
> TJ's own account that other legislators darfted the bill and approached
> Jefferson with draft legislation with a gradual emancipation act for Va.
> As chair of the committee he declined to add it to the proposed
> revisions. He later explained in the Note on VA it was "better that this
> should be kept back" and only offered as an amendment, although it is
> unclear why this would have been a better strategy. It seems more likely
> that Jefferson simply did not want the issue brought to the floor for any
> debate. Confronted with a chance to work towards public emancipation or
> private manumission, Jefferson backpedalled.
> In his Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson wrote that a bill "to
> emancipate all slaves born after passing the act" was not "reported by
> the revisors," but that "an amendment containing it was prepared, to be
> offered the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up." Under
> this proposed amendment the children of slaves would be educated and then
> "colonized" out of the state. If Jefferson or anyone else ever prepared
> such an amendment, no copy of it has survived. The first appearance of
> the text of this amendment was in the Notes.
> Jefferson wrote Notes on Virginia in 1781, revised it in 1783-84, and
> made a final revision in France, "before turning his manuscript over" to
> his French publisher "late in 1784 or early in 1785." By the time
> Jefferson left for France it was clear that no one would introduce the
> emancipation/colonization scheme. In effect, what Jefferson wrote in the
> Notes was completely misleading. Nevertheless, Jefferson did not revise
> his account of the emancipation amendment. Jefferson repeated this
> account in his authorized edition published by John Stockdale in London
> in 1787. There is no indication why Jefferson persisted in telling his
> European readers that this law would be introduced, when he knew it had
> not been, and would not be, proposed.
> Curiously, Jefferson never altered the Notes to reflect what Virginia did
> do at this time, which was to pass legislation allowing masters to
> manumit their slaves. Virginia passed this law in 1782, well before
> Jefferson left for France. Jefferson's silence may reflect the fact that
> the manumission law was not part of Jefferson's program, but instead
> resulted from the pleas of citizens seeking to free their own slaves.
> Jefferson may have ignored the law because he did not like it--this law
> allowed manumitted blacks to remain in Virginia, whereas Jefferson wanted
> former slaves to be forced to leave the state. Finally, perhaps, in
> exaggerating the prospects for a general emancipation, Jefferson may have
> been telling his European friends what he thought they wanted to hear.
> His failure to revise the Notes created the false impression that
> Virginia was prepared to act boldly against the institution.
> Jefferson later claimed that the revisors of Virginia's laws never
> proposed the amendment because "the public mind would not yet bear the
> proposition." This account is diametrically opposed to his assertion in
> 1774 in A Summary View of the Rights of British America that "The
> abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those
> colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state." Yet
> it is clear that Jefferson was not seriously interested in either
> allowing for private manumission or ending slavery, whatever the state of
> the "public mind." He was far more concerned with ridding the state of
> free blacks and creating a criminal code to keep slaves in line.
> Jefferson introduced laws, which failed to pass, to make this happen.
> While Alexander Stephens may have disliked TJ, it is worth noting that
> the racist scientists of the late antebellum period, who defended slavery
> on racial grounds, considered TJ their "founder."
> Paul Finkelman
> Chapman Distinguished Professor
> University of Tulsa College of Law
> 3120 East Fourth Place
> Tulsa, OK 74104
> Fax 918-631-2194
> E-mail: paul-finkelman at utulsa.edu
> Michael McConnell wrote:
> > I hope the West-Finkelman discussion does not degenerate into
> > personal accusation, since it has been very illuminating (at least to
> > me). I do not understand Paul to be "denouncing" the founding "as
> > unjust and anti-black," or even to be siding with radical
> > abolitionists, like Garrison, over more prudent and moderate
> > opponents of slavery. Rather, I understand him to be arguing that
> > Jefferson (and maybe Madison, too, though less has been said about
> > him) opposed even the moderate and prudent measures that might have
> > advanced the cause at the time.
> > In this connection, I am struck by the fact that no less a witness
> > than Alexander Stephens shares Tom's view of the founders,
> > criticizing them for their hostility toward slavery. Moreover, that
> > Jefferson supported gradual, far-off emancipation in the Western
> > Territories (by which I am assuming that Tom and Paul mean the
> > Southwest Territories, since slavery was barred from the Northwest
> > Territorities by unanimous vote) seems to count for something. On
> > that issue, would Paul concede that Jefferson was more anti-slavery
> > than the political consensus of the day?
> > On the other hand, would Tom concede that Jefferson's advice to
> > slaveowners, such as Edward Coles, not to manumit their slaves, was a
> > rather serious matter? Note that here, Jefferson cannot be excused on
> > the ground that he is allowing prudence or self-interest to overcome
> > principle; he seems to be arguing against principle.
> > It also seems significant to me that the party of Jefferson, even in
> > the North, seems to have been more pro-slavery than the party of
> > Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. Note that here, the Jeffersonians
> > cannot be excused on the ground that politics is the art of the
> > possible, since they were ranged on the wrong side of the possible.
> > Finally, like Leslie Goldstein, I am especially interested in whether
> > Jefferson in fact supported gradual emancipation in Virginia. Paul
> > and Tom seem to disagree about this, but I am unclear about the
> > factual basis for their disagreement. Apparently (I haven't checked),
> > the Jefferson papers contain a proposal for gradual emancipation. Tom
> > seems to infer from this that Jefferson wrote, and therefore
> > supported, the bill. Is that a correct inference? (Some items in the
> > Jefferson papers were written by other people.) Paul states that
> > Jefferson, as chairman of the relevant committee, prevented the bill
> > from going to the floor. How do we know that?
> > -- Michael McConnell (U of Utah)
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