Thomas Jefferson and Slavery—by Jerry Newcombe

JEFFERSON AND SLAVERY by Jerry Newcombe, D.Min.

Looking back at  17th, 18th and 19th century American slavery, there is no justification from a moral and biblical perspective for “the peculiar institution.” Sadly, Thomas Jefferson was caught up in it, even though as a younger man, he did make some attempts to fight it.

In 1770, Jefferson’s religious beliefs apparently began to shape his work as a lawyer, for in one of his court cases, Howell v. Netherland, he argued against slavery by appealing to God’s higher laws. Jefferson agreed to represent a slave named Sam Howell against his master named Netherland. If won, it would have overturned the whole legal system of slavery in Virginia. In a hearing, Jefferson admitted that the laws of Virginia permitted slavery, but he appealed above Virginia law to the law of nature whose author, he said, was God. The judge rejected Jefferson’s argument and dismissed the case before it was tried.

Prior to the first Continental Congress meeting in September 1774, some delegates met in Virginia to discuss various issues, slavery being one of them. Because of illness, Thomas Jefferson was not able to be there, but he sent a paper which declared: “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But, previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition…”[1] This became the basis for “the Fairfax resolves,” which were strong declarations against the slave-trade passed in Virginia that same year. Both George Mason and George Washington played a major part in this proclamation against slavery:  “After the first day of November next we will neither ourselves import nor purchase any slave or slaves imported by any other person, either from Africa, the West Indies, or any other place.”[2]

But the British prevented this from taking place. The profits were too high. America’s first great historian George Bancroft writes: “The Virginians could plead, and did plead, that ‘their assemblies had repeatedly attempted to prevent the horrid traffic in slaves, and had been frustrated by the cruelty and covetousness of English merchants, who prevailed on the king to repeal their merciful acts.’”[3]

When Jefferson wrote his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, it contained the following denunciation of slavery. But the committee struck down as too extreme. It certainly reflects a Christian view of justice.

Wrote the Jefferson of 1776 (about King George III): “He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce, and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”[4]

Similarly, Jefferson denounced slavery in 1782, in his Notes of Virginia: “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…gives a 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.”[5] This showed his clear opposition—at the time—of slavery.

In 1782 Jefferson and Baptist preacher James Lemen met at Monticello and they discussed organizing religious groups in political activity against slavery. Lemen also recorded in his diary in 1785 that Jefferson sent him a hundred dollars so that he could move to the Illinois territory in order to start anti-slavery Baptist churches there.[6]

In Virginia, Baptist minister Rev. John Leland, having preached over 3,000 sermons and baptized 700 people in fourteen years, led the Baptists in their political activities. In 1790 he drafted a resolution condemning slavery which was adopted by the Virginia Baptist General Committee.[7] James O’Kelly, the most prominent Methodist minister and revival leader in Virginia, was among those condemning slavery at the Baltimore Conference of 1780. He led the political opposition for the Methodists against it by publishing a vigorous critique of slavery in 1789.[8]

Jefferson worked closely with ministers on issues such as slavery. Lemen said in his diary on January 10, 1809, that “I received Jefferson’s confidential message on Oct. 10, 1808, suggesting…the organization of a church on a strictly anti-slavery basis for the purpose of heading a movement to finally make Illinois a free state.”[9] Lemen continued, “I acted on Jefferson’s plan, and… formed a Baptist church at Cantine Creek, on an anti-slavery basis.”[10] Lemen’s political group was called the Illinois Friends to Humanity Association. John Waller of Spottsylvania (who had also preached in Albemarle County) was a Baptist preacher-politician who moved to South Carolina in 1793.

In 1783, Rev. David Rice of Bedford County moved west, started three churches and became known as the Father of Presbyterianism in Kentucky. In 1792, he wrote a pamphlet, Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy, and he was elected to the state convention of 1792 to draft the first constitution for Kentucky. There he led a movement to insert a clause that would have ended slavery, but it failed.[11]

Methodist Rev. Philip Gatch of Buckingham County had been a leader in the Second Great Awakening in 1788. Around 1800 he moved to Ohio and continued to be active in both church and state. He worked to abolish slavery, became a judge and served on the committee drawing up the first Constitution of that state.[12]

The Anti-slavery Society (1833) was clearly revival-oriented and controlled by the New School movement from the beginning. From 1830 to 1860, Christianity primarily became “a means of social control”, and obvious contradictions emerged: segregation and laws against Black preachers and against teaching slaves to read and write, yet maintaining campaigns for oral instruction in the faith and for more humane treatment of slaves.[13] In this light, Rev. David Rice summed up the prevailing southern view concerning slavery best by saying: “I am convinced that anything we can do will injure religion…As slavery exists among us; the only possible chance of deliverance is by making the people willing to get rid of it.”[14] Sadly, slavery in America also now began to even be defended biblically for the first time.[15] Abolition was no longer being promoted strongly by Christians in the South—religious work and education were instead.

Meanwhile, back directly to Jefferson. We see that despite his protestations against slavery, he  had many slaves and inherited even more upon the death of his father-in-law. Unlike President Washington, Jefferson didn’t even free his slaves on his deathbed. In journalist Virginius Dabney’s book, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal, he quotes Jefferson biographer Merrill Peterson, who comments on the change over time of Jefferson away from his earlier fierce opposition to slavery. Merrill Peterson wrote The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, winner of the Bancroft Prize.[16] Peterson asked: “How was it possible to reconcile the Jefferson of 1784 [anti-slavery] with the Jefferson of 1820 [opponent of the Missouri Compromise]?”[17]

Is it possible—and this is speculation—that just as Jefferson seemed to change on religion (moving away from Christ), so also he seemed to soften his stance in favor of abolition, moving toward slave-owning rights?

The Bible will keep us from sin or sin will keep us from the Bible. Some people will justify their immorality by their unbelief. Their immorality will blind them from embracing the truth. Light has come into the world, but men prefer darkness because their deeds are evil.

Maybe there was a hardening of Jefferson’s heart over time, moving away from Christ and thus away from anti-slavery feelings. It seems as if the younger Thomas Jefferson (who was more Christian) was more troubled by slavery than was the older Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps he felt that it was too difficult to remove in his time. We’re reminded of the Woody Allen joke where he tells his psychologist that his sister thinks she’s a chicken. The shrink asks why he doesn’t try and talk her out of it. Woody responds, “I would—but I need the eggs.” As much as the immorality of slavery weighed on him—as he trembled, knowing that God is just and His justice won’t rest forever—the entrenched nature of slavery as a way of life was too much for him to uproot this evil.

From a biblical perspective, no one can justify American slavery. Attempts to do so fail, including even claims of the Bible supposedly allowing for slavery misread the Scriptures, which do allow for indentured servitude—but not outright treatment of other human beings as property. God clearly condemned slavery as in the example of the Egyptians’ enslaving the Hebrews (a type of slavery similar to that in North America against the blacks), and He judged the Egyptians for it severely. In his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln wondered aloud if the terrible scourge of the Civil War was not God’s punishment on our nation for more than 200 years of stolen labor.

No doubt some professed Christians justified slavery using the Bible. But more importantly, the Bible was the inspiration for those who fought slavery tooth and nail—beginning (in more modern times) with William Wilberforce and his compatriots in England, who managed to rid the British Empire of this evil. The Scriptures thus proved to be the death knell of slavery. Wilberforce’s successful crusade ultimately  helped paved the way for our successful abolition—again at a much higher price in human blood.

Another controversy that is beyond the purview of the book, Doubting Thomas [written by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe] is that of Sally Hemings. Did Thomas Jefferson sleep with his slave? At Monticello, the tour guide says yes. David Barton insists that the DNA testing proved he did not. Our focus in Doubting Thomas is on Jefferson and faith. One modern woman observed that if Jefferson moved away from the Christian faith later in life, perhaps it was to justify that which he knew was wrong. This is like the old observation cited above: sin will keep us from the Bible or the Bible will keep us from sin.

It’s our understanding that the DNA testing from one of the sons of Sally Hemings could tie him to one of the Jeffersons, but not necessarily Thomas. Many modern writers assume it’s true that Thomas Jefferson slept with her. Hemings was the half-sister of his wife. How so? Apparently, Jefferson’s father-in-law slept with a slave years before, and light-skinned Sally Hemings was conceived. Jefferson’s wife, Maria, died in 1782. Before she did, she extracted a promise from him—to never marry again. He never did and lived for more than 40 years after her death. [Some historical accounts note that Randolph, Thomas’s brother, did spend much time in the slave quarters of Monticello, even playing the fiddle, etc. Randolph Jefferson may well have slept with Sally Hemings.]

Meanwhile, many contemporary accounts of Thomas Jefferson describe him overall as a man of great character. Christopher Hitchens accuses Jefferson of supposedly having intimate relations with Maria Cosway in Paris. But we are not aware of any evidence to document that. Jefferson may have been tempted to be with her, but being tempted is not the same as giving into temptation. He even wrote her a famous letter explaining how the heart may desire something that the head knows is wrong and that the head, not the heart, should win such a debate.


[1] George Bancroft, History of the United States of America, From the Discovery of the Continent, Six Volumes (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1890), Vol. IV, 34.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 318.

[4] Virginius Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1981), 100.

[5] Ibid., , 99.

[6]   William Warren Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier: The Baptists 1783-1830 (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1931), 88. Three years earlier Lemen recorded on December 11, 1782: “Thomas Jefferson had me to visit him again a short time ago;…and he says he will give me some help.”

[7]   Ibid.,  79. However, it became quite controversial among Baptists and in 1793 the Baptist General Committee decided that the subject should be decided by each person individually.

[8]   H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, eds., American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation With Representative Documents (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), I:, 465-489.

[9]   Jefferson to Lemen,  October 10, 1808. Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, 91,95,96. See also John Hammond Moore, Albemarle: Jefferson’s County, 1727-1976 (Charlottesville, Va.: Albemarle County Historical Society and University Press of Virginia, 1976), 120-121.

[10]   Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, 91.

[11]   John E. Kleber, et. al. ed.s, The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1992) 771. See also Clement Eaton, The Freedom of Thought Struggle in the Old South (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1940), 21. Rice also helped organize Transylvania Seminary and in 1785, held its first classes in his cabin since he served as its first headmaster. (He resigned in 1794 at the same time as Wallace.) He opposed the Kentucky camp meeting revivals and died in 1816. Rice’s son-in-law, James Mitchell, was a Presbyterian minister who also moved from Bedford County to Kentucky in 1785, and became Transylvania’s first teacher. When Wallace and Rice resigned from the Board of Trustees in 1794, Mitchell moved back to Bedford, Virginia and resumed his pastoral ministry. William Henry Foote,  Sketches of Virginia, Historical and Biographical (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1850). 419-420. Niels H. Sonne, Liberal Kentucky, 1780-1828 (Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 1968), 46,48-49.

[12]   For more on Gatch see Elizabeth Connor, Methodist Trail Blazer: Philip Gatch (Rutland, VT.: Academy Books).

[13]   Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made. (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 185-186.

[14]   Robert B. Davis, et al., Virginia Presbyterians in American Life: Hanover Presbytery 1755-1980, (Richmond, Va.: Hanover Presbytery, 1982), 74.

[15]   A local example was Rev. Ebenezer Boyden, rector of Grace Church in Cismont from 1839-1880 and simultaneously for the first ten years at Christ Church/Glendower. He wrote a defense of slavery entitled The Epidemic of the 19th Century (Richmond, Va.: C. H. Wynne Printer, 1860). He also moved into the tavern at Sunnyside in 1845 and opened a school. Rev. Robert Ryland, who graduated from UVa in its earliest years and went to Richmond, became a professor in the seminary there, set a positive example by starting the first all-black Baptist Church in all of Virginia in 1841 which he led for over 25 years before turning it over to a black pastor in 1866. George Tucker, who was the first professor of moral philosophy at the University was bold when in 1837 he published an economic attack on the institution of slavery entitled The Laws of Wages, Profits, and Rents. However, it also criticized the northern abolitionists. Eaton, The Freedom of Thought Struggle in the Old South , 221-222.

[16] Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals, 106.

[17] Ibid.

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