The Lost Cause of Thomas Jefferson—a Southland republic of free and independent yeomen—enjoyed three great opportunities for success, three brief “seasons of youth.” The first blossomed in Jefferson's home “country,” Virginia, during the Revolutionary period from 1775 through 1783, when half the states of the new Union set slavery on the way to abolition. None among the Virginian Founders was of a mind to defend human servitude as a component of a Southern way of life, and more than a few, including George Washington, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Robert Carter, manumitted their slaves, as neither Jefferson nor Madison did. James Wood took a bolder course: after serving as governor of Virginia, in 1801 he became president of its abolition society. He was not shunned for this dereliction, for he continued to serve on the Council of State until his death. These, too, were “men of their time.” 1
Jefferson sought to create the impression among his anti-slavery friends in France, especially the Amis des Noirs, that he was a man like Wood—that he had striven conscientiously, consistently, and with some success first to abolish slavery where it was and, failing in that, to prevent its spread. Here his memory failed him again, apparently, as it had in the matters of Western speculation reviewed in the previous chapter. Yet here again his version of events has been taken as gospel by many of his admirers, though he is the sole source for most of his assertions.
It would not have been easy for him to have been so bold, for though the “men of his time” listed above were present in Virginia and did take action against slavery, they were typical neither of Virginia planters nor of the other Southern constituents whose support Jefferson required to reach his national goals. Had he actually taken all the actions he claimed, in the ways he claimed them, that would have required him to be a man of Wood's mettle, and that was not his way to the presidency. Washington was an exception to many rules; many things were permitted a military hero of such massive gravitas. Jefferson was given less slack and did not pull very hard.