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From the files of the Grand Inquisitor
Interrogation of Thomas Jefferson
(For an introduction to the Grand Inquisitor, please see here.)
GI: Your name and place of birth, please.
TJ: Thomas Jefferson, of Albemarle County, Virginia.
GI: You resided your whole life in Virginia, did you not?
TJ: Except for my ministership in Paris after our Revolutionary War.
GI: Your profession?
GI: But you are best known for your work in government.
TJ: If I am known, I suppose it is for that.
GI: Do you disagree?
TJ: No. But a man isn’t the best judge of what he will be remembered for.
GI: Yet you wrote your own epitaph and asked to be remembered for three things: drafting the Declaration of Independence, writing Virginia’s act for religious freedom, and founding the University of Virginia.
TJ: What we hope for and what we achieve are often quite different. In any event, the ink of history books is soluble in water; it washes away in a strong rainstorm.
GI: Yet you wrote your three accomplishments in stone.
TJ: That’s why I wrote them in stone.
GI: Of the three, which was the most important to you?
TJ: A father must choose among his children?
GI: I’ll rephrase the question. In what way was each important to you?
TJ: The Declaration broke the chains of British tyranny over America. The act of religious freedom broke the chains of religious orthodoxy. The university broke the chains of ignorance.
GI: I find it striking that you are so taken with the imagery of chains. You haven’t mentioned the chains on your slaves.
TJ: That’s because I failed to advance the cause of their freedom. I blame myself and my generation for not doing more.
GI: You could have freed your slaves.
TJ: Not as easily as you might think. Farming is an expensive enterprise. I was constantly in debt, with loans secured by my slaves. My creditors owned my slaves more truly than I did, and they were of no mind to free them. General Washington was able to free his slaves upon his death because he was a wealthy man. I had no such freedom. And so they had no such freedom.
GI: Yet you considered slavery a great evil.
TJ: I did indeed. But life is full of evils: war, disease, hunger, death. To acknowledge the evil in something is but a small step toward eliminating it. Even if I had freed my slaves, that would have weighed little in the overall balance in America, or even in Virginia. Better to work for a solution to the problem as a whole.
GI: Your action could have served as a positive example.
TJ: You—of all people—have greater faith in the power of example than I. General Washington was the model soldier, citizen and public servant, and his example in manumission had no effect that I could see. I would put the matter just oppositely. The example that would have had the greatest effect was that of a slaveholder working for a change to the institution. People are persuaded most effectively by those who share their circumstances. I don’t know if it eased the general’s conscience as he slipped away to know his slaves would be freed. But it did nothing to push slavery as a whole toward extinction.
GI: You have been described as a hypocrite.
TJ: For holding slaves while writing the Declaration? For owning men and women as property while declaring “All men are created equal”? Be assured, the charges aren’t news to me. But you have to understand something. If I hadn’t owned slaves, I never would have been in a position to write about equality that way. A Virginian of means and reputation in those days necessarily owned slaves. And Virginia’s support was crucial to the success of independence. Massachusetts’ endorsement was a foregone conclusion. Mr. John Adams was an able lawyer and an strong voice for independence, but his name on the document gave it no additional weight. Dr. Franklin was—well, Dr. Franklin, one of a kind. I was the one who was to speak for the southern colonies. And a spokesman for the southern colonies was, of necessity, a slaveholder. So my drafting of the Declaration wasn’t ironic or hypocritical. It was essential.
GI: What did you mean by “All men are created equal”?
TJ (smiling): As little or as much as anyone conjectured afterwards. Note the wording. I didn’t say all men were equal. That would have been patent nonsense. They were created equal, and quite possibly became unequal at once. In any event, my original draft, where I said, “All men are created equal and independent,” makes clear that I was speaking of political equality among the participants in public life. I wasn’t speaking of women, or children, or Indians, or indentured servants, or slaves. Dr. Franklin approached my draft with the stern eye of an editor and excised “and independent”, a revision to which I assented. But retaining it would have rendered the original context clearer. Obviously not everyone is independent; likewise, not everyone is equal. Perhaps the Doctor is the one who should have had to answer the charges all these years.
GI: But Dr. Franklin did not own slaves.
TJ: He had owned slaves. Besides, a city-dweller like him didn’t need slaves. Had he been a farmer in Virginia, it would have been a different story. There is another matter to consider. Nearly all of us at the time, slaveholders included, expected that slavery would disappear before long. It was losing support in the northern colonies, where it had never struck deep roots. And it seemed likely to do the same in the southern colonies, where tobacco had exhausted the soil and the plantation system was becoming a burden. Anyone who traveled through the several colonies noticed that the presence of slaves depressed ambition and prevented the growth of a prosperous yeoman class of farmers. Independence would make the differences between the slave regions and the free regions even starker. As it happened, the northern states ended slavery starting soon after independence; I and most others thought the southern states would follow in due course. I would add that I was the one most responsible for keeping slavery out of Ohio. I couldn’t end slavery where it already existed, but I could keep it from colonizing new regions.
GI: Events unfolded differently than you expected.
TJ: And for that you can’t hold me accountable. I didn’t invent the cotton gin, though I envied the ingenuity of Mr. Whitney. The cotton gin changed things dramatically. The price of finished cotton fell sharply, stimulating demand. Plantations became more valuable, as did the slaves who worked there. All the slaves in America might have been purchased in 1776 for a tiny fraction of what they commanded a generation later. Far from fading away, slavery grew more entrenched. But I didn’t see that in 1776, and neither did anyone else.
(To be continued)