Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, and Slaves
61 Pages Posted: 20 Jun 2011
Date Written: June 17, 2011
Thomas Jefferson was a controversial and divisive figure during his own lifetime, and has not grown less so with time. Perhaps no other person had a greater impact on the shaping of the American legal system than Jefferson. And perhaps no other person so completely embodied the contradictions and hypocrisies of the early American approach to questions of slavery and race: as Frederick Douglass put it, "the contradiction in the Constitution." Arguments may and do rage about Jefferson's religious faith or lack thereof, and on his views on federalism and states' rights or on the balance between government and individual liberty. Yet nothing about Jefferson elicits as immediate and emotional a response as his peculiarly complex relationship to the institution of slavery, and consequently to race.
The three sections of this article provide a preliminary exploration of Jefferson's views on slavery and race, and his relationships with slavery and slaves. The first attempts to describe Jefferson's relationship to the institution of slavery, both as a slave owner and as a political figure; as much as possible, it presents Jefferson's views on slavery and on race in his own words. This section also sets forth some of the notable features of the law of slavery in Jefferson's time, and attempts to measure Jefferson's impact on slavery.
The second section discusses the case of Howell v. Netherland, one of the two cases argued by Thomas Jefferson preserved in the law reports of colonial Virginia (compiled by Jefferson himself). Samuel Howell, an indentured servant, brought an action against his master for freedom; Jefferson represented him, unsuccessfully, before a judge (George Wythe, Jefferson's former law professor) who was far less ambivalent than Jefferson in his personal opposition to slavery.
The third section discusses the relationship, or what is known and what is believed and disbelieved about it, between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Hemings, a slave, was the half-sister of Jefferson's wife, and he was and is widely believed to have been the father of her children. The lives of Jefferson, Hemings, and their children and other family members are historically interesting. Our latter-day reactions to ongoing discoveries about them are at least as interesting for what they say about us and the degree to which, as a nation, we have succeeded or failed in coming to terms with the divide that defined Jefferson and his times.
Keywords: American History, Sally Hemings, History, Samuel Howell, Human Rights, Legal History, Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, Slaves, George Wythe
JEL Classification: K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation