Rise of Antislavery Sentiment in late 18 th Century. Fueled by Spread of Enlightenment ideals/ revolutionary ideology Evangelical Christianity – all men equal in eyes of God. Thomas Jefferson on Virginia’s Early Antislavery Movement.
“In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county in which I live, & continued in that until it was closed by the revolution. I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success.
“Our minds were circumscribed within narrow limits by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government, to direct all our labors in subservience to her interests, and even to observe a bigoted intolerance for all religions but hers.”
“The importation of Slaves into the Colonies from the Coast of Africa hath long been considered as a Trade of great Inhumanity, and, under its present Encouragement, we have too much Reason to fear will endanger the very Existence of your Majesty’s American dominions.”
Total Population: 567,614
Enslaved Persons of African Descent: 270,762 (48 percent)
“We are sensible that some of your majesty’s subjects in Great-Britain may reap Emoluments from this Sort of Traffic, but when we consider that it greatly retards the Settlement of the Colonies with more useful inhabitants, and may, in Time, have the most destructive Influence, we presume to hope that the Interest of a few will be disregarded when placed in Competition with the Security and Happiness of such Numbers of your Majesty’s dutiful and loyal subjects.”
“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, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty's negative: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice.”
Jefferson warned that the American colonists risked enslavement at the hands of a King who had shown no moral scruples over the continuation of the international slave trade or the perpetuation of domestic slavery in the British American colonies.
“Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day,” he wrote, “but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.”
April 1775 – Outbreak of war
June 1775 - Virginia’s royal governor, Lord Dunmore, takes asylum aboard ship in Yorktown
August 1775 – Dunmore initiates unofficial policy of soliciting slaves to augment his military guard
October 1775 – “Lord Dunmore sails up and down the river, and where he finds a defenceless place, he lands, plunders the plantation and carries off the negroes.”
November 1775 – Dunmore issues proclamation establishing martial law.
“I do require every Person capable of bearing Arms, to resort to His MAJESTY'S STANDARD, or be looked upon as Traitors to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Government, and thereby become liable to the Penalty the Law inflicts upon such Offenses; such as forfeiture of Life, confiscation of Lands, &. &. And I do hereby further declare all indented Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining His MAJESTY'S Troops as soon as may be, foe the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper Sense of their Duty, to His MAJESTY'S Crown and Dignity.”
Colonial propagandists urged slaves to cast their lot with their Virginia masters, “who pity their condition, who wish in general to make it as easy and comfortable as possible, and who would willingly, if it were in their power, or were they permitted, not only prevent any more negroes from losing their freedom, but restore it to such as have already lost it.”
Virginia colonial authorities made an official “offer of mercy” to those slaves who had been “seduced” into taking up arms for the British.
Jefferson’s draft includes this indictment of King George:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people [Africans] who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. 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 this execrable commerce …”
The Continental Congress, meeting behind closed doors in Philadelphia, voted to delete all but the most oblique references to slavery from the final draft of the Declaration. As Jefferson later explained in his autobiography:
“The clause . . . reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina & Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary still wished it to continue. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho' their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.”
Jefferson’s rough draft (cont’d)
“ . . . 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 has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off further crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”
We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happinesses;
that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;
that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?
“Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: 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! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.”
Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Query 14, “Laws”
“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; for man is an imitative animal…”
Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Query 18, “Manners”
“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, & as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them.”
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison
Paris, January 30, 1787
Jefferson on Virtues of Rebellion
“I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.”
Jefferson to Abigail Adams,
Feb. 22, 1787
“In the struggle which was necessary, many guilty persons fell without the forms of trial, and with them some innocent. These I deplore as much as any body, & shall deplore some of them to the day of my death. But I deplore them as I should have done had they fallen in battle. It was necessary to use the arm of the people, a machine not quite so blind as balls and bombs, but blind to a certain degree…
The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest, and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?”
Jefferson to William Short
January 3, 1793
Jefferson on French Revolution
“It is unfortunate, that the efforts of mankind to recover the freedom of which they have been so long deprived, will be accompanied with violence, with errors, & even with crimes. But while we weep over the means, we must pray for the end.”
Jefferson to François D'Ivernois
Feb. 6, 1795
“Haitians were the first, and remain the only, enslaved people in human history to have overthrown slavery and established an independent polity rule by former slaves in place of one controlled by their masters.”
--Historian James Sidbury