Was Jefferson a “Scientific Racist”?

Historians/History
tags: Thomas Jefferson



M. Andrew Holowchak is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rider University and the author of "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013).


“In one of my seminar discussions,” writes UVA professor Peter Onuf (now emeritus) in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, “one young woman described suddenly feeling the she ‘did not belong here,’ that Jefferson was telling her that there was no place for her in his ‘academical village.’ ” He continues, “She had read that black was anything but beautiful.” The young woman, having been schooled by Onuf about Jefferson’s contempt for Blacks, realized presumably that Jefferson would never have allowed a black person at the institution, were he still living. Onuf roundly castigates Jefferson: “Jefferson lived long enough for his racial thinking to evolve. It didn’t.”i

The notion that Jefferson was racist is widely held and unquestionably the received view among historians. That view, I have argued, is wrong for a number of reasons.ii Here I focus on just one—the scientific basis for Jefferson’s racism, or Jefferson’s avowed “scientific racism.”

A huge problem in the critical literature is that Jefferson is dubbed racist as if all persons are clear on just what “racism” means and entails. So, I begin by offering a definition of “racism.”

Racism=df The prejudged notion that humanity is divided into distinct biological groups (i.e., races), that certain races are superior to others, and that any superior race is entitled to treat an inferior race as lesser or with contempt.


There is also a considerable body of literature that argues Jefferson’s racism was axially or in part scientific. Annette Gordon Reed writes of “the pseudo-scientific racism in Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.” She then adds, “There can be no question that Thomas Jefferson was deeply and profoundly racist.”iii Andrew Burstein acknowledges that “racist” is anachronistic, as “the ideology we know as racial tolerance … did not exist until the twentieth century,” and concludes that there are other, more germane words. In spite of the caveat, he freely employs “racism” throughout the book. Immediately after his caveat, for illustration, he writes, “Class background or regional identity was not the only determinant of Jefferson’s racism; his attachment to the books in his library mattered, too.”iv Reference to the books in Jefferson’s library can only mean his scientific books—e.g., those of Buffon, Cuvier, and Hogarth—hence, his racism is doubtless of the scientific sort. Paul Finkelman says: “Jefferson was always deeply committed to slavery, and even more deeply hostile to the welfare of blacks, slave or free. His proslavery views were shaped not only by money and status but also by his deeply racist views, which he tried to justify through pseudoscience.”v Such accounts, in keeping with my definition of “racism,” are “scientific” in that Jefferson used the slanted science of his day as warrant for his slanted views.

Yet what precisely does it mean for racism to be scientific?

On the one hand, there is the casuistry thesis (TC): Jefferson’s racism was scientific in that it shaped the sort of scientific literature he read and assimilated. His deep and profound hatred of Blacks led to a selective, rationalized approach to the science he read, and he read only those scientists whose views aligned conveniently with his.

On the other hand, there is the pseudoscience thesis (TP): Jefferson’s racism was scientific because the leading scientists of his day had mistaken views of race. So, they were practicing pseudoscience, not science. Here Jefferson is culpable of scientific racism as he willingly assimilated their mistaken views.

Before evaluating those, let us look at a brief but representative look at the “science,” understood broadly, of Jefferson’s day.

“Race” is a vestige of the notion that the perceived physical differences (e.g. skin color or hair texture) between people geographically isolated from each other over time can be explicated biologically. The term originated when eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalists, attempting to examine the differences between species of living things, turned to explanation of the observed differences among humans. The different races—and naturalists wavered on the exact number of kinds—formed, for most naturalists, a hierarchy. Europeans tended to be at the top; Africans tended to be at or near the bottom.

In the tenth edition of Systema Naturae(1758), Carl Linnaeus listed four species of primates: Homo, Simia, Lemur, and Vespertilio. Simia included many species of primates (e.g., apes and orangutans); Homo included only humans.vi By the tenth edition, Linnaeus, using geographic location and color of skin, grouped humans into four subspecies. Under Homo diurnus, he subsumed:

1. Homo rusus, cholericus, rectus (red man; bilious [angry], upright or honest; Americanus)


2. Homo albus, sanguineus, torosus (white man; blooded [hopeful], muscular or fleshy; Europeus)


3. Homo luridus, melancholicus, rigidus (yellow man; black-biled [depressed] man, inflexible or harsh; Asiaticus)


4. Homo niger, phlegmaticus, laxus (black man; phlegmatic [stolid], lazy or relaxed; Afer)


Under Homo nocturnus, he lists Ourang Outang, suggesting that the key difference between humans and orangutans is one of habit—humans being diurnal; orangutans, noctural.

Comte de Buffon, in “On the Degeneration of Animals” (1766) and “On the Epochs of Nature” (1778), said that exposure to certain types of food and land over time led to “the general and constant characters in which we recognize the different races and even nations which compose the human genus.”vii Climates and foods, poorly suited for human thriving, would promote human degeneration. Civilized living would prevent human degeneration and promote improvement of internal form through better nutrition and some degree of taming climate.

Oliver Goldsmith, in An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature (1774), maintained that there were six “varieties” of humans: those persons “found round the polar regions,” the “Tartar race,” “southern Asiatics,” “negroes of Africa,” “inhabitants of America,” and “Europeans.” Negros (“this gloomy race of mankind”), Asiatics (cowardly and effeminate), and Americans (thoughtless and serious) were degenerative varieties.viii

“Georges” Cuvier in Le règne animal (1817) attempted to arrange all created beings into a “system of nature” according to “natural methods” and according to “true fundamental relations.”ix There are three “races” of humans, the “first order” of mammals, for Cuvier: “the Caucasian or white, the Mongolian or yellow, and the Ethiopian or negro.” Caucasians have beautiful oval heads, varied complexions, and varied color of hair, and comprise the most highly civilized nations. Mongolians have high cheek bones, flat visage, narrow and oblique eyes, straight black hair, scanty beard, and an olive complexion. They have had great empires, but are “stationary.” Negroes, “confined to the south of Mount Atlas,” are of black complexion, with crisped and wooly hair, compressed cranium, and a flat nose. Their hordes “have always remained in the most complete state of utter barbarism.”x

The philosophers and aestheticians did little to enhance the status of Blacks.

David Hume, an abolitionist, wrote unabashedly in a footnote to “Of National Characters” (1748) about black inferiority. “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences.” He argued for an “original distinction between these breeds of man.”xi

William Hogarth in The Analysis of Beauty (1753) states that white, “nearest to light,” is most beautiful, whereas all colors “absolutely lose their beauty by degrees as they approach nearer to black,” which represents darkness.xii

Edmund Burke, in a work on the beautiful and the sublime (1757), posits that darkness is more sublime and has a greater effect on the passions than light.xiii Being sublime, it is productive of terror. “Black will always have something melancholy in it, because the sensory will always find the change to it from other colours too violent; or if it occupy the whole compass of the sight, it will then be darkness and what was said of darkness, will be applicable here.”

Immanuel Kant was convinced that Blacks were a naturally defective race. Attending on the sentiments of Hume, he writes in Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764) that not one Black has contributed anything “great in art or science or any other praiseworthy quality.” He sums, “So fundamental is the difference between these two races of man, and it appears to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.”xiv

This smattering of the “science” of Jefferson’s time shows it was widely held that Blacks, as a race or subspecies of humans, were regarded as inferior or defective by many of the most esteemed scientists of his time. Jefferson—who argued that Blacks were inferior to Whites apropos of beauty, intelligence, and imagination in Notes on Virginiaxv—appropriated that literature. Ought he to be dubbed “racist” for echoing the received view?xvi

It is difficult to discuss the issue with objectivity in the United States given its history of racial bias and the large number of unspeakable acts of cruelty that have been performed by Whites on behalf of their perceived racial superiority. Mere utterance of “racism” often is sufficient to boil one’s blood. Yet the question redounds: Would it have been rational for a man, steeped in the science of Jefferson’s time, to reject outright the scientific utterances on biotic classification, racial classification included?

To answer that question, I turn to an evaluation of the casuistry and pseudoscience theses—TC and TP.

There are two weighty problems with TC. First, Jefferson nowhere expresses “deep and profound” enmity toward Blacks. He behaved kindly toward his slaves—he was much loved by most of them—he consistently wrote of slavery as a blight, and he acted both as attorney and legislator to eradicate the institution. Moreover, inferiority notwithstanding, he recognized they had the same rights as all other men. He writes to Bishop Grégoire (25 Feb. 1809): “Whatever be [Blacks’] degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.” Second, Jefferson did not have a selective view of the scientists he read on race. The leading scientists and thinkers of his day—e.g., Linnaeus, Buffon, and Cuvier—tended to view Blacks as an inferior race. Yet they also tended to view Native Americans and Asians, often all non-Europeans, as inferior. That should come as no surprise. The triumphs of the scientists of their time—e.g., Bacon, Priestley, Buffon, Harvey, Locke, Boyle, Cuvier, Kepler, Galileo, Linnaeus, and especially Newton—were prodigious; science was greatly prized in the day; and all such men were European. Thus, it is clear why naturalists judged Europeans the highest of the races. Still, the works of such naturalists betray no indication of hatred and the claims of the naturalists are framed such that they are not immune to revision given weighty evidence to the contrary. Again, the research of such naturalists on the differences between species and between races of men—research that hitherto had never been done—set the table for scientific exploration of the similarities between species and between the races of men—viz., for the evolutionary biology of our time. TC is untenable.

There is also a problem with TP—the weighty problem of defining “pseudoscience” as “false science,” which Finkelman seems to do, and classifying Jefferson as racist because he has taken up false science. If “pseudoscience” is merely false science, then almost everything that goes by the name of science today will be shown to be pseudoscience in time, and almost all of the science of the past—e.g., Aristotle’s views on the generation and passing of animals, Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe, Descartes’s theory of vortices, Priestley’s phlogiston theory, Werner’s Neptunism, and even Newton’s theory of gravity—must be categorized as pseudoscience, as it has not passed the test of time. That seems gratuitous. Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe, employing Aristotle’s false physics, turned out to be wrong, but still it was scientific. Copernicus’s heliocetric model also labored under Aristotle’s false physics, so it was no better an explanation of the observed phenomena than was Ptolemy’s. Pseudoscience cannot mean false science.

Yet pseudoscience, though not false science, is bad science of some sort, so we need not hastily bury TP. One way to get at what makes pseudoscience bad science is to try to delineate just what makes good science good.

Following neo-Positive approaches, for a hypothesis to be properly scientific, it must meet certain criteria of adequacy. It must be, at least in principle, unambiguously verifiable, and it must be articulated with regard to certain other criteria of adequacy—i.e., simplicity, fruitfulness, scope, and conservatism (the last condition being admittedly vague). It is pseudo-scientific if it fails to be at least in principle unambiguously verifiable or if it is not articulated with regard for the other criteria of adequacy.xvii Thus, to accuse Jefferson of scientific racism is to accuse him either of framing in-principle untestable hypotheses concerning Blacks of his day or of callous disregard of the other criteria of adequacy for scientific hypotheses.

Keeping aesthetic claims aside, it is clear that many of the claims Jefferson put forth concerning Blacks in his Notes on Virginia were straightforwardly or at least in-principle testable: e.g., being inferior to Whites in intelligence, having greater ardency than Whites with females, being less transient than Whites in their grieving, being equal to Whites in memory, being inferior to Whites in imagination, and being equal to Whites in morality.xviii Thus it is difficult to accuse him of dodging testability.

Moreover, though the other criteria—simplicity, fruitfulness, scope, and conservatism—are modern, it does not seem untoward to hold scientists of Jefferson’s day to at least implicit recognition of their merit. It is in keeping with the science of Jefferson’s time that the inferiority of Blacks was consistent with the evidence at the disposal of naturalists like Buffon and Cuvier. It is true that such naturalists were working within the framework of a model with many false or dubious hypotheses—e.g., Scala naturae, teleology,and the relative inflexibility of species—but that happens in all cases of scientific practice. Still disclosure of the defects of that model through persistent, dispassionate study of natural phenomena led to the implosion of the model and to adoption, decades later, of the notions of a non-teleological frame and of a more fluctuant understanding of “species”—Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). In short, the scientists of Jefferson’s day were guided by considerations of simplicity, fruitfulness, scope, and conservatism, but the scant data at their disposal disallowed them the opportunity to see the defects of their model. The notions of distinct races and of there being a hierarchy among those races was an unfortunate result of scarcity of relevant data, and those notions certainly shaped Jefferson’s thinking on Blacks. With the advent of gene theory, scientists have been able to discover that “race” is a scientifically vacuous category, though still of some heuristic value.xix

It follows that one can no more fault Jefferson for assimilating the leading science of his time than one can fault an eight-century philosopher for believing that the sun orbits the earth. If he can be shown to have been racist, it will not be because of his assimilation of the science of his day.

I end where I began—with Onuf. Just what experiences should Jefferson have had, what books should he have read, to prompt the evolution in his racial thinking Onuf says he ought to have had? They are the experiences and books to which Onuf, qua contemporary critic, has access, not the experiences and books to which Jefferson had access.

i Peter Onuf, The Mind of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2007), 206–8.

ii M. Andrew Holowchak, “Jefferson on African Americans,” Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012), 203–28; and “‘A Convenient Defect of Vision’: Jefferson’s View of Blacks,” Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History Of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2013), 211–44.

iii Annette Gordon Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997), 134. I ask, Can a deep and profound racist practice “pseudo-scientific racism”?

iv Andrew Burstein, Jefferson’s Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 120.

v Paul Finkelman, “The Monster of Monticello,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/01/opinion/the-real-thomas-jefferson.html?_r=0, accessed 12 Nov. 2014.

vi Linnaeus was uncomfortable with excluding humans from Simia.He writes in a letter to Johann Georg Gmelin (25 Feb 1747): “I seek from you and from the whole world a generic difference between man and simian that follows from the principles of Natural History. I absolutely know of none. If only someone might tell me a single one! If I would have called man a simian or vice versa, I would have brought together all the theologians against me.” From Justin E.H. Smith, “Natural History and the Speculative Sciences of Origins, The Routledge Companion to Eighteenth Century Philosophy, ed. Aaron Garnett (New York: Routledge, 2014), 723.

vii Georges-Louis Leclerc Buffon, “De la dégénération des animaux,” Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, vol. 14 (Paris: Imprimerie Royale, 1766) , 313–16, and “Des époques de la nature,” Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: supplément, vol. 5 (Paris: Imprimerie royale, 1778), 1–254.

viii Goldsmith also rejected the notion, held by some (e.g., Benjamin Rush), that Negroes’ skin was a “leprous crust”—the result of disease. Oliver Goldsmith, An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 8 vols. (Philadelphia: Edward Poole, [1774] 1823), 239–250.

ix Baron Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom, Arranged in Conformity with Its Organization, trans. H. M’Murtrie, vol. 1 (New York: G & C & H Carvill, 1831), 4–6.

x Baron Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom, 52.

xi David Hume, “Of National Characters,” Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), 208n10.

xii William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (Pittsfield, MA: [1753] 1909), 190–1.

xiii Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London, R. and J. Dodsley, 1757), 62–63 and 148.

xiv Immanuel Kant, Observations of the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, trans. John T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1960), 110–11.

xv Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1954), 138–39.

xvi There were of course notable exceptions like Condorcet (Réflexions sur L’esclavage des Nègres) and Bernardin de Saint Pierre (Voeux d’un solitaire).

xvii M. Andrew Holowchak, Critical Reasoning and Science: Looking at Science with an Investigative Eye (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2009), 245–47.

xviii Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 138–39. Verification or falsification of such claims, of course, nowise tells us if the causes are biological or environmental.

xix E.g., in linking diseases with races if only because of adaptation of people types through centuries of geographical isolation.



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