Jefferson and His Slaves

The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Jefferson and His Slaves


"Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery" by Ari Helo and Peter Onuf, in William and Mary Quarterly (July 2003), Williamsburg, Va. 23187-8781.

It's a perennial puzzle: How could the author of the Declaration of Independence, with its soaring proclamation of human equality, justify in his own mind remaining a slave owner?

Thomas Jefferson "never thought that slavery was morally justifiable," write historians Held and Onuf, of the University of Helsinki and the University of Virginia, respectively. But neither did he think that he had violated "the natural rights of man" by having been born into a slaveholding family.

Jefferson's thinking was grounded in a complicated but coherent "historical conception of morality." Slavery- was as old as Western civilization, and even the great liberal philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had argued that victors in a just war were morally justified in enslaving (rather than killing) their captives. No longer, Jefferson insisted. The "moral sense" had shown a further "remarkable instance of improvement."

But that was not to say slavery needed to end immediately. Long before the American Revolution, white Virginians, in Jefferson's view, "had developed institutions of government and made laws for themselves and so had emerged as a distinct people with a civic and moral identity.

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