05 July 2012

Jefferson on slavery

When president John F. Kennedy addressed 49 Nobel laureates dining with him, he told them

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: John F. Kennedy, 1962, p. 347)

Thomas Jefferson was a most brilliant man indeed. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States was also an undogmatic and investigative scientific mind (he founded —and designed— the University of Virginia), and very skeptical of religion, to say the least. Some of his catching phrases are preserved on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. This is Panel Three:

Speaking of slaves, Jefferson is quoted in marble writing

Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate 
than that these people are to be free. 

Fine. But Jefferson continued as follows (which did not make it into the marble) 
Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, 
cannot live in the same government. 
Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines 
of distinction between them. 

(Relevant pages of autobiography here. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, collected and edited by Paul Leicester Ford, G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1892, Vol. 1, pp. 67-68)

During his lifetime Jefferson owned several hundreds of slaves of which he only freed two. He supported the mission of the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, founded with the purpose of repatriating freed slaves to Africa. It helped to found the colony of Liberia, which became independent in 1847.