Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery

Founding Paradoxes:  1776 vs. 1619

JeffersonThomas Jefferson:  We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Gordon Wood:  It is in fact his views on black Americans and slavery that have made Jefferson most vulnerable to modern censure. If America has turned out to be wrong in its race relations, then Jefferson had to be wrong too.  Who could not find the contrast between Jefferson’s great declarations of liberty and equality and his lifelong ownership of slaves glaringly embarrassing?  Jefferson undoubtedly hated slavery and believed that the self-evident truths he had set forth in 1776 ought eventually to doom the institution in the United States…. So the shame and guilt that Jefferson must have suffered from his involvement in slavery and racial mixing best represent the shame and guilt that white Americans feel in their tortured relations with blacks…. Certainly, Jefferson’s words and ideas transcended his time, but he himself did not.

Nikole Hannah-Jones:  The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals…. My father…knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true ‘‘founding fathers.’’And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.

Debating Slavery at the Constitutional Convention

July 9, 1787

John Dickinson

JOHN DICKINSON (DE):  What will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves … The omitting the Word will be regarded as an Endeavour to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.


August 22, 1787

ROGER SHERMAN (CT) was for leaving the clause as it stands. He disapproved of the slave trade; yet as the States were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require it to be taken from them, & as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of Government, he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it. He observed that the abolition of Slavery seemed to be going on in the U. S. & that the good sense of the several States would probably by degrees compleat it. He urged on the Convention the necessity of despatching its business.

JOHN DICKINSON (DE) considered it as inadmissible on every principle of honor & safety that the importation of slaves should be authorised to the States by the Constitution. The true question was whether the national happiness would be promoted or impeded by the importation, and this question ought to be left to the National Govt. not to the States particularly interested…. He could not believe that the Southn. States would refuse to confederate on the account apprehended; especially as the power was not likely to be immediately exercised by the Genl. Government.

JOHN RUTLEDGE (SC):  If the Convention thinks that N. C. S. C. & Georgia will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those States will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest.