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 Happiness.
These words have been used to justify egalitarianisms of all kinds – but what did Jefferson really mean by them? Someone has suggested that Jefferson would have done much better to specify that he meant “all men are created equal, in that they are endowed…” Our third President was certainly no strong egalitarian. He was, after all, a believer in government by a natural aristocracy of talent. But what did he believe about racial abilities?
Jefferson was certainly an opponent of slavery. Like Montesquieu, he regarded slavery as lacking a real moral foundation, and as producing bad effects in both master and slave. Concerning the danger to the masters, he put it thus:
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. . . . The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, 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.
Though Jefferson wanted to abolish slavery, he wanted abolition to be followed by deportation back to Africa. After all, the differences between the races render integration impossible even today.
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [blacks] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu filled up by free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up. We should in vain look for an example in the Spanish deportation or deletion of the Moors. This precedent would fall far short of our case.
One of the reasons for Jefferson’s opinion that blacks and whites could not coexist happily – an opinion that, while it might have seemed benighted in the halcyon days of the 1960’s, has in fact been substantially vindicated by history – is the inferior intellectual ability of the blacks. While Jefferson was keenly aware that slavery contributes to blacks’ lack of accomplishment, and therefore is hesitant to judge the matter, he looked over a lifetime of experience with blacks in various circumstances, as well as with American Indians, and concluded that there was a natural difference in intellectual powers to the disadvantage of blacks.
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one [black] could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.
A keen naturalist, Jefferson defends his judgement on the grounds of biological diversity, commenting that
It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
However he might oppose slavery, Jefferson was not a devotee of the now fashionable notion that the slavery of the negroes in America was crueler than the slavery which prevailed throughout world history, but rather he claims that Roman slavery was harsher. Yet Roman (white) slaves were often men of great intellectual ability – yet more proof of the biological basis for the inferiority of the negro intellect.
We know that among the Romans, about the Augustan age especially, the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the blacks on the continent of America. The two sexes were confined in separate apartments, because to raise a child cost the master more than to buy one. Cato, for a very restricted indulgence to his slaves in this particular, took from them a certain price. But in this country the slaves multiply as fast as the free inhabitants. Their situation and manners place the commerce between the two sexes almost without restraint… With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture. Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence. When a master was murdered, all his slaves, in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death. Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman. Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children. Epictetus, Diogenes, Phaedon, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction.