The masters of slaves, it turned out, were themselves neither independent nor self-sufficient, but were bound to, and reliant upon, their slaves both for their welfare and their identity. This vague recognition in part accounts for the grim tone that Thomas Jefferson adopted in his analysis of slavery: He had to confront the prospect that Virginia, that America itself, was at least potentially as depraved as Europe.

“How is it,” wondered Samuel Johnson in 1775, “that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Nearly twenty years earlier, Dr. Johnson had written that “slavery is… where [sic] more patiently endured, than in countries once inhabited by the zealots of liberty.”[1] Notwithstanding Johnson’s ridicule, slavery had always been something of a problem for Englishmen and their progeny. The enslavement of Africans violated the English tradition of jurisprudence, for the common law did not recognize the legitimacy of slavery in England. Three years before Johnson posed his question, William Murray, Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, clarified the precedent. In Somerset v. Stewart (1772), he ruled that a slave brought to England could not be compelled to leave and, if coerced to do so, could apply for a writ of habeas corpus and assert his freedom.[2] The introduction of slavery into the English colonies, although legal, was thus, in important respects, a radical innovation of the kind that prudent Englishmen sought to avoid.[3]

No one embodied the dilemma of slavery that beset Englishmen, and later Americans, more painfully than did Thomas Jefferson. Writing to John Holmes in 1820, Jefferson described the ordeal that slavery had fixed upon the United States. “We have a wolf by the ears,” he proclaimed, “and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”[4] The existence of slavery was especially distressing because Jefferson had set forth an image of America as the repudiation of an Old World plagued by despotism, poverty, revolution, violence, and war. America, and in particular Jefferson’s beloved Virginia, exemplified the refinement of civilization. He imagined in America the emergence of a distinctly moral community, which independence from Great Britain had made possible—a community free of avarice and corruption, existing in tranquil and permanent harmony with nature. A body of free and independent citizens peopled this Novus Ordo Seclorum, a chosen people to be sure, but a people destined not to fulfill history as much as to transcend it.

Despite his personal opposition to slavery (he once declared that one hour of slavery was worse than ages of British oppression), and despite the threat that slavery would annul his vision of an American paradise, Jefferson actively participated in the world the slaveholders were making. He owned approximately 600 slaves during the course of his lifetime. Even while president, he engaged in the slave trade, conducting the transactions through an agent to conceal his identity. Like other slaveholders, he hunted down and punished runaways. He wrote a slave code for Virginia, and opposed any limits on the expansion of slavery throughout the United States. Although widely reputed to be a beneficent and humane master (contemporaries, in fact, accused him of having too great an affection for some of his female slaves), Jefferson emancipated only two slaves, Robert and James Hemings, while he was alive, and Robert bought his freedom for $200. Nor did he grant his slaves their freedom in his last will and testament. Like the country that he had helped to found and govern, Jefferson was locked into support of the slave system if for none other than pragmatic reasons. He simply could not afford to free his slaves because he needed them to work his 10,000 acres of land (not all of it at Monticello), which, without their labor, would have lost most of its value. Yet, for more than fifty years, Jefferson devoted himself not only to an economy based on slave labor but also to a defense of the idea that the slaves themselves constituted a legitimate form of property and slavery was an indispensable social practice. [5]

It was against the intellectual, moral, and economic background of the plantation world in which he resided that Jefferson projected the vision of America as an enlightened and redemptive community. In Query XVIII of Notes on the States of Virginia (1785), titled “On Manners,” Jefferson articulated the most thoroughgoing denunciation of slavery that he ever wrote. He found the problem of slavery so monstrous, so beyond the capacity of human reason even to fathom, that any solution required nothing less than divine intervention. In “On Manners,” Jefferson’s full horror at the problem of slavery reached its climax:

There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it…. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances….

Jefferson condemned slavery as a corruption of manners and morals so persistent and complete that it eliminated even the prospect of instruction in civility. Instead, both in the family and in the community, slavery offered an enticing summons to lassitude and an irresistible education in tyranny. And “with the morals of the people,” he lamented:

their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him…. And can the liberties of the nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: that considering numbers, nature, and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference![6]

With or without the intercession of Providence, this distinctive combination of vices nonetheless spelled disaster for the Republic. Jefferson had placed his hopes for the continued welfare of America on the enduring virtue of its citizens, which the fall into idleness, sloth, and tyranny placed in the utmost peril.

Jefferson’s qualms about the future of the Republic are nearly as pronounced as those of the Quaker abolitionist John Woolman. God, Woolman declared, had led Europeans to a paradise in the New World. As He had with the Israelites in the Old Testament, He again blessed His chosen people with abundance. But instead of being humbled by this gesture of divine munificence, and grateful for the bounty they had received, those who settled in the New World surrendered to greed. They forgot God and indulged their appetites, becoming absorbed in the pursuit of luxury and power, of which slavery was only the most depraved expression. If Americans continued to betray to their calling to redeem the world from sin, Woolman prophesied that they and their descendants would face the terrible justice of God’s wrath.[7]

Unlike Woolman, Jefferson was unconcerned about the detrimental influence of slavery on blacks. He never doubted that blacks were physically, intellectually, culturally, and morally inferior. Convinced that the inferiority of blacks was an immutable fact of natural history, Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, combined the antislavery principles of the Enlightenment with an impenitent racism. “Blacks,” Jefferson suspected, “whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind…. This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”[8] With many of his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, Jefferson shared an antipathy toward blacks, whose skin colored he regarded as a curse. He could not imagine living with black people as equal citizens in a free, multiracial society. Whenever Jefferson had occasion to contemplate the abolition of slavery, he found it impossible to conceive of it without colonization:

Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made freed, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.[9]

The freed slaves, Jefferson feared, could never live in peace and equality among their former masters, or with whites in general. This conviction, arising in part from Jefferson’s racism, also grew out of his equation of citizenship with independence and independence with the ownership of property. The presence of a huge mass of free, propertyless blacks was a blight on the social order and a cancer on the body politic.

More than once, Jefferson had voiced his distrust of propertyless men, whatever the color of their skin, whom he regarded as free in name only. No man could be economically self-sufficient or politically independent who did not own property or possess the means to provide for himself. Reliant upon others to secure a livelihood, the propertyless were a dangerous, evil company. Idle, miserable, and desperate, these unfortunate men could, and inevitably would, become vicious, ignore the law, steal, and perhaps kill to survive. They were also vulnerable to the intrigues of ambitious and unscrupulous politicians, of whom they became the willing but deluded advocates. They disrupted the virtuous, but always fragile, republican social and political order that honorable men had toiled long to establish and secure.

Jefferson worried lest the freed slaves become such an unmanageable and treacherous class of shiftless and vulnerable poor, who would create the same problems for United States as had their impoverished working-class counterparts in Europe. The former slaves, Jefferson asserted, accustomed to compulsory labor, would refuse to work when freedom removed the compulsion. Indolence alone foreclosed all possibility that blacks could ever become good citizens of the Republic. According to Jefferson, blacks, although a degraded people, had the potential, if freed, to destroy the beautiful harmony of his world. In Jefferson’s American paradise, indeed, at Monticello itself, there “lurked a beast… a sinister shadow in the foliage.”[10] Blacks were the snakes in Eden.

With Jefferson, nothing is ever simple. In Notes on the States of Virginia, he immediately followed the critique of slavery with a celebration of the independent, nonslaveholding yeoman farmers, whom, he acclaimed, were “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he had made the peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”[11] The unique virtue of the yeoman farmers derived from their labor in earth. The image of farmers living contentedly on the land and enjoying the fruits of their labor represented Jefferson’s tonic for the apocalyptic danger that slavery presented. The existence of an independent yeomanry restored Jefferson’s original faith in the New World as an alternative to the Old. The blessings of geography and history had spared America the vices of Europe, for Jefferson offered the reassurance that there was never, throughout the long course of history, an instance of the “corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators.” He affirmed that:

In Europe the lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator. Manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity not of choice, to support the surplus of their people. But we have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman…. Generally speaking, the proportion which the aggregate of the other classes of citizens bears in any state to that of its husbandman, is the proportion of its unsound to its healthy parts, and is a good-enough barometer whereby to measure its degrees of corruption. While we have land to labour, then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff…. Let our Work-shops remain in Europe. [12]

Devoted to self-sufficiency rather than to profits, small farmers were the lifeblood of the Republic and the warrant against its decay and death.

As a practical matter, Jefferson dealt with the problem of slavery largely by ignoring or dismissing it, perhaps hoping that it would solve itself in time, for he could imagine no human solution. He extolled the small farm rather than the slave plantation as the economic and moral center of the southern world, idealizing it as the purification of society. But the formulation of this image compelled him to exclude slaves from that community. To be fair, Jefferson had little choice; he seems to have intuited the logic of his own argument. If those who “labored in the earth were the chosen people of God,” then in Jefferson’s Virginia and throughout the plantation South, the slaves, juxtaposed between the masters and the soil, were, by Jefferson’s own analysis, the true repositories of virtue. This concession Jefferson could never admit, and so the independent farmers and the small farms had to supersede, if not displace, the slaves, the masters, and the plantations. Jefferson could not conceive of the slaves linking the masters to the soil. Unlike the European peasants, the slaves were too alien ever to enable the masters to project a representation of themselves in touch with the soil through them. As a consequence, Jefferson could regard the slaves only as isolating the masters from the land, thereby impeding the masters’ access to the source of virtue.

As an additional complication, the masters saw the slaves as mere extensions of their will, and demanded from the slaves’ absolute obedience. Yet, Jefferson contemplated the unthinkable notion that the masters had, quite unwittingly, rendered themselves dependent on their slaves not only for their material welfare, which, of course, originated from slave labor, but also for the very definition of themselves as masters. The master’s identity as a master depended on the willingness of the slaves to acknowledge his rightful authority. Subtly but unmistakably, the logic of this suspicion brought into focus the possibility that the slaves had some measure of autonomy and could not simply be dismissed as instruments of the master’s will, but were, instead, human beings with minds and wills of their own. Once the masters granted that the slaves had the ability to think for themselves, they had also to admit the prospect that the slaves could challenge the masters’ version of reality and, at a minimum, demand for themselves the dignity and respect accorded even to the most humble of God’s creatures.

Aristotle had maintained that slaves, by their very nature, possessed no interests or wills of their own. The embodiment of docility and submission, ideal slaves were the complete instruments of a master’s will, mere extensions of a master’s consciousness. They were not autonomous beings, free or able to think for themselves. “Anybody who by his nature is not his own man, but another’s,” Aristotle explained, “is by his nature a slave…. A man is thus by nature a slave if he is capable of becoming (and this is the reason why he also actually becomes) the property of another ….”[13] Endowed with reason, the master governed the slave, who had only the capacity of mind to understand, and the strength of body to carry out, the master’s commands. For all intents and purposes, Aristotle concluded, slaves differed little in their station from domesticated animals. Both served the master’s needs, eased the master’s burdens, and increased the master’s happiness. Yet, Aristotle’s definition of the perfect slave anticipated the problem of slavery in Western thought that, centuries later, Jefferson himself approximated and G.W.F. Hegel finally and fully clarified.

The problem for Western thinkers that Aristotle intimated was that the distinction between masters and slaves was not always as clear as nature apparently intended it to be. This ambiguity introduced a question about whether slavery was just, or whether it violated both the laws of nature and the edicts of man. Critics of slavery, Aristotle conceded, “regard it as a detestable notion that anyone who is subjugated by superior power should become the slave of the person who has the power to subjugate him, and who is his superior merely in power.”[14] With this admission, Aristotle implied that slavery rests on an existential absurdity. One human being cannot be so completely subsumed by another as to be the extension of another’s consciousness and will, even if the master is the “superior in goodness” and thereby justified in his rule over all who are inferior.[15]

Hegel extended Aristotle’s original insight into the paradoxical nature of enslavement. The more perfect the slave, Hegel observed, the more enslaved becomes the master. As Jefferson had conjectured, the master’s identity depends on having slaves recognize him as master and accept the legitimacy of his rule. The basis of the master’s free and independent consciousness, then, lies in the dependent and allegedly inessential consciousness of the slaves. Hegel recognized that slaves had voluntarily to acknowledge the master as a master. To do so was an act of free will, which meant that the slaves, according to the very conditions of their enslavement, had wills of their own. Hegel’s judgment suggested that, if slaves willingly accepted the master’s authority, they could, under other circumstances, just as willingly reject it and forswear their bondage. The master, of course, might then use force to compel the slaves to submit. But compulsion would only expose the pretense of the master’s ascendancy and dominion, revealing that his power originated in nothing more than naked aggression.

The masters of slaves, from Hegel’s perspective, were ensnared by their own power in which the slaves, at first overwhelmed by the fear of death, had acquiesced. The slaves assented to a definition of themselves as subservient and inferior, denying to themselves even the capacity to develop an independent consciousness and will equivalent to the master’s own. Ironically, Hegel proposed, even the slaves’ initial fear of death and the desire to preserve their lives pointed to a way out of slavery. Their fears and desires arose independently of their master’s will. In the depths of their weaknesses and degradation, then, the slaves had begun to discern in themselves a consciousness and will of their own.

By transforming the elements of the natural world, the labor of the slaves fashioned what Hegel identified an “objective reality” to confirm this emergent consciousness of self. He declared:

Thus precisely in labour where there seemed to be merely some outsider’s mind and ideas involved, the bondsman becomes aware, through this re-discovery of himself by himself, of having and being a “mind” of his own.[16]

Through compulsory labor, the slaves acquired patience, fortitude, and endurance. Yet, they alone had an interest in changing their circumstances, and looked always to the future, to that moment when they could shed their chains and become free. It is not too fanciful to interpret Hegel’s dissection of slavery as an enduring message to the downtrodden and the powerless. Writing across the centuries from different points of view and with different purposes, Aristotle and Hegel, like Jefferson himself, reached similar conclusions. The conditions of dominance and submission are not as simple and transparent as they may at first seem, and those who wield power in the present can never be confident about the future. The wheel of fortune turns ceaselessly, with or without divine intervention.

For Hegel, slavery lay at the core of human existence. All human relations were relations of power—that is, relations of dominance on the one part and submission on the other—that were fraught with a tension that often became murderous. At the same time, Hegel bequeathed to the modern world an original idea of freedom. He believed that human beings were independent and autonomous only insofar as they recognized the independence and autonomy of others. Like the brotherhood in Christ, to which Hegel’s idea of freedom bears more than a fleeting resemblance, it appears innocuous enough in the abstract. But Hegel entertained no illusions about how difficult and frightening a task it is to recognize and tolerate others who are themselves free to feel, think, act, and live as independent human beings.

Blacks’ assertion of the humanity that slavery denied them provoked such fears in Thomas Jefferson, rendering preposterous his dream of Virginia and America as an earthly paradise, the locus of political, intellectual, and spiritual independence from the crimes and sins of the Old World. The masters of slaves, it turned out, were themselves neither independent nor self-sufficient, but were bound to, and reliant upon, their slaves both for their welfare and their identity. This vague recognition in part accounts for the grim tone that Jefferson adopted in his analysis of slavery in Query XVIII. He had to confront the prospect that Virginia, that America itself, was at least potentially as depraved as Europe. For, in the end, Jefferson could deny neither the reality nor the importance of slavery to the success and prosperity of the New World. Slaveholding Virginians did not, after all, live in harmony with nature as God intended, but instead exploited nature and human nature alike for their own advantage. The more deeply Jefferson contemplated such a prospect, the more his rational control over the problem of slavery fell to pieces. Faced with such a disquieting truth, even the most resolute philosophe may be forgiven for uttering a dark prophecy that God, His justice at last roused from slumber, would in the fullness of time lay waste to the New Canaan of the South.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Samuel Johnson, “Taxation No Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American Congress (1775) in The Works of Samuel Johnson (London, 1801), Vol. 8, 203; Idler, No. 11 (June 24, 1758), in Selected Writings of Samuel Johnson, Peter Martin, ed., (Cambridge, MA, 2009), 72.

[2] Somerset v. Stewart, Loft 1 (1772). For a discussion of the historical background of the Somerset case and a review of the arguments of counsel, see A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., In the Matter of Color: Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (New York, 1978), 313-68. For a discussion of the application of the Somerset case to the development of American slave law, see Paul Finkelman, An Imperfect Union: Slavery, Federalism, and Comity (Chapel Hill, NC, 1981), passim.

[3] In 1827, William Scott, Lord Stowell, presiding justice of the High Court of Admiralty, clarified and limited the scope of Somerset. In The Slave, Grace, Lord Stowell determined that a slave, having been brought to England but returning voluntarily to a jurisdiction where slavery was legal, in this instance the West Indies, forfeited the right to sue for freedom and remained a slave.

[4] Thomas Jefferson to John Holmes, April 22, 1820, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. X, 1816-1826, Paul Leicester Ford, ed. (New York, 1899), 157-58. I have quoted the letter as it appears in Jefferson’s collected writings. In the original letter, Jefferson wrote “ear” rather than “ears.” Jefferson used the phrase a second time in a letter of July 18, 1824 to Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney, Magazine of American History, XXI (1891), 481. In The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (New York, 1913), 333, Suetonius attributed the phrase “wolf by the ears” to the emperor Tiberius. See Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics (Cambridge, MA, 1994), 264. On Jefferson and slavery, see John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery (New York, 1977).

[5] William Cohen, “Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery,” The Journal of American History LVI/3 (December 1969), 503-26; Lewis P. Simpson, The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature (Baton Rouge, 1983), 26; Miller, The Wolf by the Ears, 104-107. Jefferson did free five additional slaves in his will: Joseph Fossett, Burwell Colbert, Madison Hemings, John Hemings, and Easton Hemings. Although apparently never emancipated, three others, James Hemings, Beverly Hemings, and Harriet Hemings, left Monticello with Jefferson’s tacit consent between 1805 and 1822.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, William Peden, ed., (New York, 1954), pp.162-63.

[7] On John Woolman, see David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, 1966), 483-93.

[8] Jefferson, Notes, p. 143. See also Miller, The Wolf by the Ears, 46-59, 99-103.

[9] Ibid. See also Jefferson’s letter to John Holmes, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. X, 1816-1826, 157 and Miller, The Wolf by the Ears, 60-64, 264-72.

[10] Simpson, The Dispossessed Garden, 27. See also Miller, The Wolf by the Ears, 31-37.

[11] Jefferson, Notes, Query XIX: Manufactures, 165.

[12] Ibid, 164-65.

[13] Aristotle, The Politics, Ernest Barker, ed. and trans. (New York, 1958), 11, 13.

[14] Ibid., 14.

[15] Ibid., 15-17.

[16] G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, Second ed., J. B. Baillie, trans. (New York, 1964), 239-40.

The featured image is a sculpture of Thomas Jefferson seated for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville by Karl Bitter (1867–1915) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email