By Michael Popejoy
Recently I have been pretty hard on Thomas Jefferson without considering he was a complex man who not even history has finished fleshing out into a man we can easily understand. Jefferson was landed gentry in an era when that was the top of the food chain within the pecking order of colonial society. He was also an urbane intellectual.
With all that, he had a plantation which means in his time, he had slaves. A plantation with slaves represented wealth and status. It also represented a terrible financial burden on the plantation owner. Further, it is difficult to reconcile being a brilliant contributor to what we are today with being a slaveholder whose acceptability was in transition during his time and beyond.
Jefferson, the intellectual, did not approve of the morality or justness of slavery. But, his pragmatism informed the problem of what would happen to his slaves should he free them. He knew it would be a further injustice to call a meeting of the slave population in his front yard as he stood on the front porch of Monticello and say to all; “You’re free! Thank you for your service, now hit the road!”
Where would they go? What would they do? Who would accept them into both the society and the economy of the day?
Most slaveholders with any intelligence, including Jefferson, Madison, and others knew that they owned the slaves but they also owed the slaves. What did they owe? In exchange for their labor, plantation owners were responsible for their housing, clothing, health care, food and whatever other needs they had as people.
Were slaves abused as current history tells us so often? Yes, of course; however, not as much as history wants us to believe. Jefferson was never observed to have had any of his slaves whipped. Indeed, he fired one of his overseers for whipping one of his slaves. This did not mean that he was not racist; it just means he was a fair one. What a paradox; but, this is not impossible considering his intellectual preparation.
Jefferson spent his life conflicted over slavery. He was also sensitive to the criticisms coming from Europe over America’s slave institution. Colonials then, as we Americans today, do care about what is being said about them overseas. It cut deep for men like Jefferson to hear and read the opinions of others in Europe that America was immoral due to its commitment to slave labor which was seen as necessary to the survival of the southern agricultural economy despite the great European demand for southern agricultural goods.
In surviving letters, one of Jefferson’s young relatives who inherited a plantation full of slaves asked him what he should do about them since he did not want to be a slave holder. He did not know how to do it and also worried where the slaves would go or what they would do if freed. Jefferson advised against divestiture because he challenged the point of where would they go or what would they do if freed? How would they assimilate into a white, urban society as former slaves?
Jefferson knew of his paternalistic responsibilities to his charges who lived and worked on his land. Jefferson also struggled with the rising cost and reduced revenues of a slave based agricultural economy. Slaves were not free labor—although they were not free to leave to find other suns, they were not free to the plantation owner either. Jefferson feared for slaves freed into a society not nearly prepared or willing to absorb them into other sectors of the economy.
So, maybe we give Jefferson a pass. He wanted one thing but had to accept something more real to his times. He could have sent the slaves away and hired white itinerant farmers to work his plantation but the suffering the freed slaves would endure could have been even more insufferable than being slaves in the first place.
Jefferson was a complex man living in complex times. We may call him genius but he was a flawed genius at best. It is possible that is the reason there are so many biographies about him and more to come. We continue to try to understand his complex mind.