• Ideas
  • Books

In Paris, Thomas Jefferson Revealed His Real Beliefs About Slavery

8 minute read
Kaplan, an acclaimed biographer, is the author of the new book His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer

Jefferson had addressed the topic of slavery in Notes on the State of Virginia, and the published version had extended his views to a wide audience in America, England, and France, where he had had discussions with Enlightenment luminaries and French admirers of the United States, particularly Lafayette, Nicolas de Condorcet, and Jacques Brissot, all three of whom felt that Jefferson stopped at a bridge far too short of where antislavery ought to go. They would not have known that at his residence Hôtel de Langeac Jefferson had had two mulatto servants who in America were legally his slaves. In France, they were not, and by their own simple declaration they would have been considered free, an opportunity which neither Sally nor James Hemings availed themselves of. They may not have known of this right, or they may have preferred a life of certainties with Jefferson to one of uncertainties in France.

If this was their choice, it may have been by agreement with their master, including promises of special treatment and advantages. Aware that he was in violation of French law, Jefferson had quietly evaded the legalities. As always, when it came to his slaves, he did what was practical and in his own interest. As an intellectual, especially among friends and colleagues, he was rarely reluctant to make it known that he believed that slavery was, in theory, a moral iniquity, a stain on a civilized society. Still, his innate self-protective duplicity often came into play.

In France, in 1789, the year of the start of the French Revolution, Jefferson’s good friend, Lafayette, of course knew that Jefferson owned many slaves. Who else among the members of Jefferson’s salon and intellectual-political circle knew? When Jacques Brissot, a leading abolitionist and the founder in 1788 of the Society of the Friends of the Blacks, invited Jefferson to become a member, he declined. It would be incompatible, he said, with his official position. If Lafayette was ever disappointed in Jefferson, it was with Jefferson’s refusal to act on his professed anti-slavery views, as well as his belief that Blacks were innately less intelligent than whites. Sometimes Jefferson leaned a little one way on this point; sometimes, the other.

The idea that emancipated Blacks could become capable, competent, and self-supporting free laborers seemed to him problematic but possible. In fall 1788, he had received a request from Edward Bancroft, an American doctor, scientist, and patriotic pamphleteer living in London, for information about an experiment by an antislavery planter in Virginia who had liberated his slaves and employed them as paid labor. Bancroft had told his London abolitionist circle that Jefferson had mentioned this incident when they were dinner guests of a mutual friend in 1785. Jefferson could not recall the occasion, but the subject was of interest to him. Bancroft had served as Franklin’s assistant during the peace-treaty negotiations in Paris in 1783. A double agent, he had been spying for the American colonies in London and Paris while also serving the British, though apparently of little consequential help to either side.

More from TIME

Jefferson responded early in 1789 that “as far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made, to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children.” To get them to work, they needed to be watched and even whipped. It was not the fault of the slaves, he said, for “a man’s moral sense must be unusually strong, if slavery does not make him a thief. He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own, can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force. These slaves chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work . . . and in most instances were reduced to slavery again.” Time, education, and proper modeling might, however, make slaves into morally responsible and productive free laborers. Maybe, or maybe not, Jefferson thought. “I am decided on my final return to America to try this one. I shall endeavor to import as many Germans as I have grown slaves. I will settle them and my slaves, on farms of 50 acres each, intermingled, and place all on the footing of the metayers [tenant farmers] of Europe,” which meant they were not to own the property they farmed. “Their children shall be brought up, as others are, in habits of property and foresight, and I have no doubt but that they will be good citizens [as] some of their fathers will be so: others I suppose will need government . . . to oblige them to labor as the laboring poor of Europe do, and to apply to their comfortable subsistence the produce of their labor, retaining such a moderate portion of it as may be a just equivalent for the use of the lands they labor [on].” Despite his intention to try the experiment, he never did, and his plan did not envision ownership, only tenancy. If the plan had been tried and been successful, Jefferson would still have been the legal possessor of the land.

Even if Jefferson felt discomfort when among his Paris associates about the conflict between his opinions and his ownership of slaves, his hypocrisy probably was disregarded. It may never have come up; it may have been tactfully avoided. For them, the reality of Jefferson as slaveholder apparently had much less presence than his moral opposition to the institution. None of his French friends owned slaves, a legal impossibility, which differentiated him from abolitionists like Brissot, Richard Price, Edward Bancroft, and the most distinguished intellectual whom Jefferson conversed with in Paris, the Marquis de Condorcet. Well known for his brilliance as a mathematician and social scientist, Condorcet may have influenced Jefferson’s arithmetic in claiming that the length of a generation was nineteen years in his argument that each new generation should not be responsible for the debts of the previous one.

Jefferson read Condorcet’s denunciation of slavery in Reflections on the Slavery of Negroes, a powerfully eloquent screed, two copies of which Jefferson bought in 1788. He decided to translate it, a contribution to the effort to persuade the next generation of Americans to do what his generation could not. In late 1788, he translated the opening passages. There’s no evidence that he showed them to Condorcet or anyone else, and it probably was not his intention to have his name affixed as translator. He did not explain why he got no further. Perhaps he decided that the project was too risky. He kept the manuscript in his private possession. Two years later, Jefferson wrote to Condorcet about a free African American, a “worthy and respectable member of society,” whose “very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems” he had seen. “I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.”

Did Jefferson believe Condorcet’s claim that Nature had endowed Blacks “with the same genius, the same judgment, the same virtues as the Whites?” As he translated from French to English, were Jefferson’s convictions as well as his pen committed to what the words explicitly claimed? The translation could have been exploration or conclusion, or both. Even if he agreed with Condorcet, the gap be- tween principle and practice remained, between the continuation of his life as the benevolent slaveholder he thought himself to be and the moralistic philosopher for whom in the abstract slavery was a moral evil. The translation is another instance, though a slanting one, of Jefferson’s commitment to writing, his reliance on the written word to engage with subjects of importance to him, and also of the oddly ironic situation in which he placed himself: his pen at the service of what his daily life did not embody, of what his intellect was capable of and what his moral principles supported but what his practical life and the world into which he had been born did not.

When Jefferson arrived at Monticello in December 1789, the welcome he received from his slaves must have seemed to him entirely compatible with the necessities of life and his sense of what he deserved. For him, slavery remained an essential reality of his time and place. Life as he had known it and as he expected it to be for some time did not admit of an alteration in its psychological and economic structure. The land that he returned to possessed him, and he possessed it. And his slaves, whatever his relationships with them, were inseparable from the land. Because it was inconceivable that he could work the land himself or pay people to do so, he believed it would be of little use to him without slaves, and the land and what he built on it were inseparable from the fundamental values he also deeply held—family, friends, education, knowledge, patrimony, and patriotism.

Adapted from Kaplan’s new book His Masterly Pen: A Biography of Jefferson the Writer

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.