Jefferson's Time in Paris Revealed His True Beliefs About Slavery

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tags: slavery, Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings

Jefferson had addressed the topic of slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia, and the published version had extended his views to a wide audience in America, England, and France, where he had had discussions with Enlightenment luminaries and French admirers of the United States, particularly Lafayette, Nicolas de Condorcet, and Jacques Brissot, all three of whom felt that Jefferson stopped at a bridge far too short of where antislavery ought to go. They would not have known that at his residence Hôtel de Langeac Jefferson had had two mulatto servants who in America were legally his slaves. In France, they were not, and by their own simple declaration they would have been considered free, an opportunity which neither Sally nor James Hemings availed themselves of. They may not have known of this right, or they may have preferred a life of certainties with Jefferson to one of uncertainties in France.

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

In France, in 1789, the year of the start of the French Revolution, Jefferson’s good friend, Lafayette, of course knew that Jefferson owned many slaves. Who else among the members of Jefferson’s salon and intellectual-political circle knew? When Jacques Brissot, a leading abolitionist and the founder in 1788 of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, invited Jefferson to become a member, he declined. It would be incompatible, he said, with his official position. If Lafayette was ever disappointed in 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 one way 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 fall 1788, he had received a request from Edward Bancroft, an American doctor, scientist, and patriotic pamphleteer living in London, for information about an experiment by an antislavery planter in Virginia who had liberated his slaves and employed them as paid labor. Bancroft had told his London abolitionist circle 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 was of interest to him. Bancroft had served as Franklin’s assistant during the peace-treaty negotiations in Paris in 1783. A double agent, he had been spying for the American colonies in London and Paris while also serving the British, though apparently of little consequential help to either side.

Jefferson responded early in 1789 that “as far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children.” To get them to work, they needed to be watched and even whipped. It was not the fault of the slaves, he said, for “a man’s moral sense must be unusually strong, if slavery does not make him a thief. He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own, can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force. These slaves chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work . . . and in most instances were reduced to slavery again.” Time, education, and proper modeling might, however, make slaves into morally responsible and productive free laborers. Maybe, or maybe not, Jefferson thought. 

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