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Jefferson rejected even voluntary emancipation

December 7, 2022 - 18:17 -- Admin

The Washington Post has a long piece about a Virginia family whose current (substantial but not huge) wealth derives from their slaveholding forebears and who may now be greatly enriched by the discovery of uranium under their land. There’s an interesting discussion of the arguments for and against reparations

Buried in the middle of the article is something much more interesting, to me at any rate. One member of the family, Edward Coles, opposed slavery. He hid his views until he inherited ownership of 17 enslaved people, then took them to Illinois and freed them. None other than Thomas Jefferson wrote to Coles, seeking to dissuade him.

Jefferson wrote Edward a letter on Aug. 25, 1814, trying to talk him out of it.

[M]y opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them,” Jefferson wrote to Coles.

This is a pathetic evasion, amounting to a restatement of the standard enslaver claim that chattel slavery was a positive good compared to the alternative of earning a living in the capitalist economy (“wage slavery”). It undermines the idea that Jefferson maintained support for gradual and voluntary emancipation even after abandoning the idea of legal abolition. Adding weasel words about “until more can be done for them” doesn’t change that, given that Jefferson made no moves to do anything more, either politically or with respect to the hundreds he personally enslaved.

It seems that, having been genuinely opposed to slavery at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson came to realise that the profits of slavery, and particularly slave breeding, were too great to pass up. In this context, even his ban on the Atlantic trade slade looks bad. For a breeder like Jefferson, prohibiting import competition made perfect economic sense.