Partly in response to some of the discussion of Thomas Jefferson that occurred in the comments of this NoodleFood post a while back, Mike posted some of his own Passing Thoughts on the matter. He mostly quoted from an article entitled “The Anti-Jeffersonian Revolution: Academic Irrationalism and the Sally Hemings Controversy” published in the July 2002 issue of The Intellectual Activist. Here’s the bit from the article that Mike quoted:
Jefferson freed no more than a handful of Monticello’s 150 to 200 slaves for one simple reason: they were not his to free. British creditors held the Monticello slaves, as well as Monticello itself, as collateral on the massive debt that Jefferson inherited from his father-in-law, John Wayles. Rather than sell Wayles’s slaves to other masters, Jefferson sold all of the land he inherited from Wayles towards payment of this debt, but he was paid with paper fiat money that was soon worth next to nothing. Jefferson struggled to make Monticello profitable. He changed his crop from tobacco to wheat, experimented with the manufacture of nails and textiles, and sold his treasured book collection to Congress, but his debts proved insurmountable. The most he could do for his slaves was to avoid breaking up and selling off Monticello’s slave families during his lifetime. Upon his death, the state sold Monticello and its lands and slaves to the public in a special lottery, leaving Jefferson’s family without inheritance and his slaves without a home.
Even had Jefferson not been overwhelmed by debt and inhibited by pro-colonization convictions, he still faced many obstacles to the manumission of Monticello’s slaves. In response to Haiti’s slave revolt, Virginia tightened its slave code and manumission laws, requiring that manumitted slaves be deported from the state. The free soil of neighboring Ohio, with its stringent “black code,” was hardly welcoming to black freedmen. In most northern states, white prejudice blocked their economic aspirations — and state law their political rights — at every turn. As the wealthiest man in Virginia, George Washington could not only free all of his slaves but provide financially for their future. Until a plan for emancipation and colonization was implemented, Jefferson concluded, the best a struggling planter could do for unskilled black field slaves was to handle them as humanely as a system based on compulsion would allow. The retired statesman wrote in 1814: [...] Jefferson did as much good as he could within an evil institution he could neither escape nor destroy.
When I come to the American Revolution in my study of history, I’ll certainly spend some time on the life of Thomas Jefferson, as I’d very much like to know the truth behind the charges so often leveled against him. I already know that the now-standard claim that he had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings is based upon extremely weak evidence. The genetic tests done can only show that some male Jefferson fathered a child by Sally Hemings, but cannot identify any particular male Jefferson as the father out of those who lived at Monticello during that time period. Frankly, I’m not convinced that such a sexual relationship would necessarily be an awful crime, as I can imagine some unusual circumstances in which genuine consent would be possible between master and slave, shocking though that might sound.