Opposing Slavery in Early America: The Story of Thomas Jefferson And Edward Coles
In 1814 a young man took up his pen and nervously wrote to a living legend, none other than Thomas Jefferson, who by then had settled into retirement at Monticello after five decades of distinguished public service. “I never took up my pen with more hesitation or felt more embarrassment than I now do in addressing you on the subject of this letter. The fear of appearing presumptuous distresses me, and would deter me from venturing thus to call your attention to a subject of such magnitude, and so beset with difficulties, as that of a general emancipation of the Slaves of Virginia, had I not the highest opinion of your goodness and liberality, in not only excusing me for the liberty I take, but in justly appreciating my motives in doing so” (Letter - Coles to Jefferson). Thus began a revealing exchange of letters capturing two diverging worldviews that began to emerge at this time, one defending slavery, and the other rejecting it.
That young man, Edward Coles, was a 28-year-old Virginia slave owner with an idea that had been fermenting in his mind since his university days. After inheriting slaves when his father died in 1808, he couldn’t bear the thought of keeping them in chains. But he had no idea how to free and resettle them in a way that didn’t worsen their situation. At 28, he found himself property rich but money poor, and such a project would require lots of money he didn’t have yet.
On the other side, Jefferson was the Father of Liberty, a living symbol of the Revolution’s ideals, and celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic as a champion of liberalism. His resume was second to none, having authored the Declaration of Independence as well as championing religious liberty and the separation of church and state. He also served as governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and did two terms as President. Pretty impressive. His distinguished public career was one of service and leadership to the young nation. When we talk about the Founding Fathers, Jefferson rightly comes to mind. Few did more to make the idea of America a reality. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising that Coles reached out to Mr. Jefferson, convinced that no other living American was better qualified to take the lead.
This makes Jefferson’s reply to Coles one of the most dispiriting letdowns in American letters. Essentially, Jefferson offered little more than hopes and prayers, those two blankest of rounds in the arsenal of justice. Discouraged but not defeated, Coles, in turn, fired off one of the most cordial call-outs in American letters. Not surprisingly, Jefferson never replied, and both men got on with their lives.
This is the story of that cordial exchange, how the two men got to where they were by 1814, and what it meant for America.
Coles’ First Letter to Jefferson - 31 July 1814
Coles was convinced slavery was a betrayal of the American Revolution’s founding principles. It needed to end as soon as possible. But what could he alone do about it? Any effort to kickstart an anti-slavery movement held little prospect for success without a champion who had the stature to grab people’s attention. Coles knew this. Who, then, could be such a champion? In his mind, the answer was obvious. Only one other living American had the reputation for such an endeavor: Thomas Jefferson.
Having settled on his man, Coles sat down, took up his pen, and began his letter.
After getting past the customary introductions and expressing his “fear of appearing presumptuous,” Coles got to the point: “My object is to entreat and beseech you to exert your knowledge and influence, in devising, and getting into operation, some plan for the gradual emancipation of Slavery” (Letter - Coles to Jefferson).
Who but one of “the revered Fathers of all our political and social blessings” could inspire change? Jefferson was undoubtedly a member of that exclusive club. Coles then implored him to live up to “the principles you have professed and practiced through a long and useful life.” And what were those principles? In case Jefferson had forgotten, Coles reminded him. The author of the Declaration of Independence had always been the “foremost in establishing on the broadest basis the rights of man, and the liberty and independence of your Country.” Coles felt Jefferson should take up one more noble cause in his retirement, something worthy that would cement his greatness to posterity.
Jefferson could “put into complete practice those hallowed principles contained in that renowned Declaration, of which you were the immortal author, and on which we bottomed our right to resist oppression, and establish our freedom and independence.” Ever so slightly, just beneath the surface of all this southern hospitality and flattery, lurks the hint of censure, that perhaps Jefferson had not quite lived up to those “hallowed principles.” What Coles was proposing was a chance to reconcile this contradiction.
Undoubtedly, a man like Jefferson raising the banner against slavery would carry immense weight. And so what if he died before ending slavery? Well, then he will not have died in vain: “Your memory will be consecrated by a grateful posterity, what influence, irresistible influence will the opinions and writings of Thomas Jefferson have on all questions connected with the rights of man, and of that policy which will be the creed of your disciples.”
Anticipating (correctly) that Jefferson might plead old age as a reason to sit this one out, Coles suggested a role that would tap Jefferson’s undeniable political talents without making too many physical demands. Jefferson was in his 70s, after all. He called on Jefferson to set an example, that “you exert your great powers of mind and influence, and to employ some of your present leisure, in devising a mode to liberate one half of our Fellow beings from an ignominious bondage to the other; either by making an immediate attempt to put in train a plan to commence this goodly work, or to leave human Nature the invaluable Testament—which you are so capable of doing—how best to establish its rights.”
In other words, Jefferson didn’t need to really do all that much other than be Thomas Jefferson. He could do the heavy intellectual lifting by contributing a plan for emancipation. Meanwhile, Jefferson and his supporters could utilize his immense reputation to move public opinion. After that, an inspired and invigorated posterity could take the baton and do the rest. More than anything, Coles just wanted Jefferson to be a leader and symbol of the Revolution's highest ideals, not a crazy request of a man who had spent his life dutifully leading his nation in other various capacities.
Coles closed his letter by reaffirming his “repugnance” toward slavery and his inability to live with the status quo. “I have not only been principled against Slavery, but have had feelings so repugnant to it, as to decide me not to hold them; which decision has forced me to leave my native state, and with it all my relations and friends.” Coles was so disgusted with the current state of affairs that he resolved to sell his land and leave Virginia with his slaves. If he couldn’t emancipate and settle them in Virginia, he’d do it elsewhere.
Coles sent off his letter with that final cri de coeur and then hoped for the best.
Who was Edward Coles?
“I had my attention first awakened to the state of master & slave”
Edward Coles' 1844 Autobiography
Who was this young man who demanded leadership from his generation's most remarkable political figure? In a way, it’s not surprising that Coles chose Jefferson to write to in 1814. Jefferson had been a good friend of his father, John Coles, and the two families ran in the same Virginian social circles. For many reasons, Jefferson was a perfect choice. After all, the two men had much in common. Both were set up for success early in life. Like Jefferson, Coles was a product of Virginia’s slave-owning elite class, educated, exclusive, and politically powerful. Coles’ father had accumulated over 14,000 acres and dozens of slaves spread over several plantations by his death in 1808.
Like Jefferson, Coles inherited property run by slaves. He was the fifth son of ten children, and after his father’s death, he found himself in possession of a fertile 782-acre plantation called Rockfish farm and as many as twenty slaves (Guasco 35). Moreover, both men studied at the University of William & Mary in Williamsburg. Like Jefferson, Coles could have lived out his life as his father and grandfather had done before as respected members of Virginia’s planter aristocracy, managing his estate, earning income from his slaves, writing long, eloquent letters to his friends, while perhaps serving in the government or hobnobbing with elites in Richmond or Washington, before eventually retiring to his estate for a well-earned retirement and more eloquent letter writing. All of this could be bought and paid for by his slaves. This is what Jefferson and most other Virginia planters of his generation had done. And why wouldn’t they? That was the norm; it was the path to the good life, wealth, and respectability, and so was the obvious course for Coles.
But Coles had other ideas, the seeds of which were planted during a philosophy course (of all things!) he took at William & Mary.
Since time immemorial, university students in philosophy courses have fallen into three broad categories. The first are those who muddle through, perplexed, confused, overwhelmed by the jargon and barely understanding anything. They check the course requirement box and never ever look back, or inward, for that matter, ever again. Then there are those who find in philosophy an exciting new world of ideas. They see existence differently for the first time. The readings are demanding but also rewarding. For a short season, they immerse themselves in Plato, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, and Camus (of course). But it’s a phase, that’s all. Then they graduate, get a job, a family, debts, and never look back, or inward, for that matter, ever again.
But those belonging to the third category are different. Like the second, they discover exciting new ideas in philosophy. However, what they learn is not part of some transient phase but instead grows into something more. These are not merely concepts to memorize for an exam or sound clever at coffee shops. Rather they become nagging truths that burrow into the self, challenging and unsettling the conscience while also threatening to demolish a life of unreflected assumptions. Those in this third category have the potential to radically change the world, if not themselves. They are those rare pearls that universities sometimes (but not often enough) produce.
Edward Coles belonged to this third category.
While at William & Mary, he studied under Bishop James Madison (a second cousin to President James Madison), one of the era’s great teachers. A theologian and educator, Madison was a committed advocate of the Revolution’s values of liberty and equality. His curriculum drew from John Locke, Jacques Rousseau, Abbe Raynal, Baron Montesquieu, the Marquise de Condorcet, Thomas Paine, and Adam Smith, just to name a few of the intellectual powerhouses that fueled the Enlightenment and the imaginations of the Founders.
His course on moral philosophy challenged his students to think critically, to view the world with skeptical eyes to better defend the republican principles for which the Revolution had been fought. He wanted them to “be trained not only to a knowledge, but [also] to a just sense of the duty of asserting and maintaining their rights” (Guasco 22). Madison’s courses represented the noblest traditions of the university, training young minds to think independently and arrive at conclusions on their own, rather than slavishly following convention.
Coles zeroed in on the concepts of natural rights and equality from these courses and how those played out in theory, in practice, and in the world around him. In his class notes from 1806, Coles wrote: “The terms Slavery & Justice are contradictory and reciprocally exclusive of each other” (Guasco 27). In that one short statement was the central truth that burrowed into his mind and pushed him to emancipate his slaves.
He concluded that “all men are born equal and with equal natural rights” (Guasco 27). Not just white men but all men (sorry, ladies, but equality for women was still far off). This sounds little different than Jefferson’s famous words, “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.” But from this similar philosophical starting point, the two men went in very different directions.
Jefferson never seriously considered emancipating his slaves, even in the headiest days of the Revolution. They were his piggy bank. However, soon after taking his inheritance, Coles declared his intention to do just that. As you might expect, his family was horrified and trotted out the usual arguments to dissuade him: It would cost too much and ruin him financially. And for what? Youthful idealism? Let it pass, Edward, for Christ's sake!
They warned him about “the folly of throwing away property which was necessary to my comforts, and which my parents all their lives have been laboring to acquire” (Wiencek 238). And anyway, what else was he going to do? Coles had no other marketable skills by which to earn an income. When his father and brother got sick in 1807, he dropped out of college to help run the farm, so he didn’t even have a university degree to fall back on. Coles was primed to be a slave-owning planter and that was about it.
Again, an easy road lay before him if he so desired. Why not, his family reasoned, keep the slaves for the income and treat them more humanely (Leichtle 4)? That was the approach Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other enlightened slave owners took. This was the supposed humane middle ground that so many Virginia planters felt they occupied. Since large-scale emancipation wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, it was better to accommodate oneself to the system and make the best of it. That’s what Jefferson did.
However, Coles’ immediate plans to free his slaves ran into financial and legal challenges. His father left him land and slaves but also $500 in debt that had to be repaid. His property had potential but wasn’t all that productive (Leichtel & Carveth 20). Remember, he was the fifth son of ten kids, so the inheritance was a little thin by the time his portion was allotted. In addition, Virginia passed a law in 1806 that forced freed slaves to leave the state within a year or risk re-enslavement. If Coles wanted to free his slaves, they couldn’t stay in Virginia.
This added another level of complexity to any emancipation plan. Coles needed to find somewhere else out west to settle them. Such an undertaking required money, and lots of it, to get them established elsewhere. But where? “Out west” was the answer, but which state offered cheap land and better opportunities for freed blacks to thrive? There were few good options, and even those came with caveats. Eventually, Coles settled on Illinois as the place, which was considered “the west” at that time. Illinois was sparsely populated, with cheap and incredibly fertile land. Even better, Illinois was not a slave state, though Coles would later play an essential role in keeping it that way.
The Myth of Jefferson’s Anti-Slavery
“How is it we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”
Jefferson did not take long to respond to Coles, sending off a letter of his own a few weeks later. But if Coles had hoped to find encouragement from a kindred spirit, he was disappointed. It turns out Jefferson wasn’t the champion Coles thought he would be. On the contrary.
Given what scholars now know about Jefferson’s actual beliefs and practices, and not the public image he so carefully cultivated throughout his life, his response was a document of half-truths and outright lies, capturing the yawning chasm between his ideals and practice, the hypocrisy, the misrepresentation of his actual views, and a savvy politician’s chameleonlike ability to tailor message to audience.
He tells Coles that his views “on the subject of the slavery of negroes have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root” (Jefferson Letter to Coles). It’s true in his younger years Jefferson had spoken out against slavery though his relatively meager record of accomplishment on this was decades old by 1814. Maybe the public was aware of Jefferson’s views “on the subject of slavery,” but that “stronger root” didn’t nourish anything that bore fruit. Indeed, Virginia’s powerful slave-owning lobby had nothing to fear from Jefferson. He was one of them. For reasons that have been debated ever since, whatever youthful idealism he had went silent sometime in the 1780s. As historian Henry Wiencek noted, “During the post-Revolutionary decade, from 1783 to the early 1790s, Jefferson’s misgivings over slavery seem to fade” (Wiencek 66).
Another biographer, Jon Meecham, also noticed that Jefferson decided during the 1780s that emancipation’s time had not come. He wasn't willing to fight for a lost cause and all the political damage it would likely inflict. This tactical shift in midlife forever removed slavery from his list of priorities. When challenged about this silence, he would hearken back to an increasingly stale reputation as someone who wanted slavery to end (Meecham 187). Then he would reaffirm some vague theoretical commitment to ending slavery while proclaiming that “the hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. it will come” (Jefferson Letter to Coles). But not now. Never now.
This silence is even more striking when you consider that Jefferson’s best days politically were still ahead of him in the 1780s when he gave up on the issue. In the coming years, he served as Secretary of State (1790-1793), Washington’s Vice President between 1797-1801, and President twice between 1801-1808. As his political star ascended, his willingness to rein in slavery evaporated. Meecham was right: this was probably a calculated decision; one could even plausibly argue it was a pragmatic decision, given the realities of the time.
In his letter to Coles in 1814, he at least seemed aware of this long silence and felt the need to address it. He wrote that “from that time [late 1770s] till my return from Europe in 1789, and I may say till I returned to reside at home in 1809. I had little opportunity of knowing the progress of public sentiment here on this subject."
Rarely in American history has one man with so much power done so little to combat a recognized injustice. At the pinnacle of power in the first decade of the nineteenth century, if anyone could have moved public opinion and effected change, it was Jefferson. This claim holds up even while accounting for powerful pro-slavery constituencies in Virginia and the deep south.
As Paul Finkelman wrote: “His words are those of a liberty-loving man of the Enlightenment. His deeds are those of a self-indulgent and negrophobic Virginia planter (Finkelman 210). That’s spot on. From a distance, his Enlightenment-soaked rhetoric inspired men like Coles to action. But when actually confronted to do something, he deflected and procrastinated.
I also want to argue that Jefferson’s active period of anti-slavery advocacy was a bit of a mirage. The anti-slavery language he drafted for the Declaration did not survive the group editing process. So that amounted to nothing. His draft proposal for the Ordinance of 1784 establishing territorial governments north of the Ohio River had a clause abolishing slavery in those areas. That also did not make it into the final product, though the later Northwest Ordinance of 1787 did ban slavery in those territories.
Indeed, it is inaccurate to see the period before the great silence as a golden age of ambitious anti-slavery activities by Jefferson. It wasn't. In fact, the opposite was true. During this period, we get a preview of the overt racism that appeared a few years later in his Notes on the State of Virginia.
For example, chairing a committee to modernize Virginia’s law code in 1778, Jefferson was in a powerful position to improve the lives of Virginia’s slaves and free blacks. But he went the other way instead. What is shocking is that some of his proposed laws were too harsh even for the pro-slavery Virginia legislature. Among those proposals: free blacks were prohibited from becoming citizens; any newly emancipated slave had to leave Virginia within one year; any white woman who bore “a child by a negro or mulatto” was banished from Virginia. Interestingly, except for the ban on free black citizenship, which passed, the other proposals were too harsh even for the Virginia legislature and were never passed (Finkelman 195).
The idea that Jefferson was somehow a thwarted emancipator must contend with several other unflattering facts. He freed only three of the roughly 600 slaves he owned during his lifetime: two in the 1790s and one in 1822. That ain't much. The records show that Jefferson was a notoriously begrudging liberator. Unlike Washington, who freed all of his slaves in his will, Jefferson only freed another five in his after he died in 1826 (Finkelman 204). That’s it.
Why Jefferson Gave up on Fighting to End Slavery
Why did he go silent?
I argue two primary reasons account for this.
The first was Jefferson’s views on race and dismissal of black ability tended to overwhelm his more generally progressive ideals. His one published work, 1785’s Notes on the State of Virginia, opens a window into his thoughts on race. Notes is also the moral quagmire where Jefferson’s most ardent defenders go to die. And this wasn’t a one-off anomaly that Jefferson later disowned, either. Decades later, he was still referring people to Notes for an accurate summary of his views on race and what America needed to do about it (Miller 208).
He felt that slavery and nature had rendered blacks so much inferior to whites that the two races could never live together in harmony. Blacks “…are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising the young. in the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them. their amalgamation with the other colour produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent” (Jefferson Letter to Coles). To the Master of Monticello, blacks are like naughty little children needing a firm hand to guide them.
Therefore, any solution to slavery had to take this into account. Emancipation had to be gradual and involve the large-scale removal of black populations from the United States, but only after preparing them for the transition. This latter requirement was fundamental to Jefferson’s solution to America’s race problem and one he never deviated from.
If done Jefferson’s way, parents would remain slaves for the rest of their lives. Their children would “then he brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should he colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper” (Notes).
Such an undertaking was absurdly impractical, both in terms of cost and logistics, not to mention the casual cruelty of forced repatriation. Framed this way, a plan like this was unlikely to happen anytime soon. A project that involved retraining and repatriating hundreds of thousands of former slaves would have been ruinously expensive to the public purse. In the United States, the slave population stood at 1.191 million in 1810 (Statistica). The very implausibility of Jefferson’s scheme gave him an easy out.
Jefferson's biographer Joseph Ellis notes that this plan became the centerpiece of Jefferson’s mature position on slavery. It “…allowed him to retain his moral principles while justifying inaction on the grounds of seasoned wisdom and practical savvy. He thereby kept his principles pure and intact by placing them in a time capsule; there they could stay until that appropriate time in the future when the world was ready for them” (Ellis 104).
Digging deeper into Jefferson’s racial views is a sobering experience for those today who prefer their Founding Fathers as pristine marble men of impeccable virtue perched atop tall pedestals or majestically adorning a mountainside on Mount Rushmore. We’ve already seen that he considered blacks childlike in their inability to plan for the future or carry themselves as responsible citizens.
Jefferson understood, at least in theory, if not practice, that slavery hurt both the owner and slave, creating a “despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” In these circumstances, “the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals un-depraved by such circumstances” (Notes 162). We must assume that Jefferson somehow considered himself one of these prodigies.
Meanwhile, he disparaged black intellectual capabilities. “Comparing them [blacks] 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 could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous” (Notes 139).
Confronted with evidence of black intellectual refinement, Jefferson bristled. Celebrated black poet Phyllis Wheatley had written a poem supporting General Washington’s army during the Revolution. Washington so admired it that he arranged for the poem’s publication and invited her to visit his headquarters to thank her. Wheatley demonstrated she was not only a gifted black intellectual but also a patriot. Jefferson scoffed at this and dismissed her accomplishments outright.
“Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic], but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.” (Notes 140).
Jefferson bluntly says he thinks blacks are inferior, though he caveats it as a “suspicion only.” One wonders what he would have thought of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Barack Obama.
“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Notes 143).
Believing blacks could not participate in a free society with whites, Jefferson meant to make it impossible for them to do so. There’s irony here. Monticello was run by black talent, a fact foreign visitors recognized and Mr. Jefferson seemed blind to.
In 1796, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, one of Jefferson’s friends from his Paris years, observed all of Monticello's contradictions with the keen eye of an outsider. The Duke wrote, “His negros are nourished, clothed, and treated well as white servants could be.” So far, so good for Jefferson. But what the Duke saw actually contradicted the “negro as child” narrative he’d heard Jefferson opine so often about in France. On the contrary, the Duke saw master craftsmen working diligently as “cabinet-makers, carpenters, masons, bricklayers, smiths, etc.” How are these people not ready for freedom, the Duke wondered?
What the Duke then wrote got to the heart of the matter: “The generous and enlightened Mr. Jefferson cannot but demonstrate a desire to see these Negroes emancipated.” But then, he keenly observes, “He [Jefferson] sees so many difficulties in their emancipation [and] adds so many conditions to render it practicable, that it is thus reduced to the impossible.” Race remained an impenetrable barrier to emancipation for Jefferson. If blacks were freed, it had to happen all at once, and then they all needed to be transported far away to prevent “blood mixed without means of preventing it” (Wiencek 95).
This last horror of racial mixing might ring discordant to a modern reader aware that Jefferson was at this time carrying on an intimate relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemmings. This relationship lasted for years, with DNA analysis recently confirming that several of Hemmings’s children were fathered by Jefferson (Wiencek 201).
Race wasn’t the only reason Jefferson went silent on emancipation. The second reason was economic: Jefferson relied on his slaves for his financial well-being. For a man like Jefferson, accustomed to living beyond his means, it’s no wild claim to say his silence on slavery emerged about the same time as his debts began piling up. To put it bluntly, he was utterly dependent on his slaves to keep him afloat financially down to the end of his life. He saw most of his slaves as economic units of value rather than as human beings.
He noted that human capital (slaves) generated a reliable 4% annual profit, making it a dependable asset in one’s investment portfolio. He wrote to George Washington in 1792, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four percent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers” (Wiencek 90).
The “breeding women” who replenished Jefferson’s stock of slaves, ideally one every two years, were the most profitable. “I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” He then quipped, “In this, as in all other cases, providence has made our interest and our duties coincide perfectly” (Stanton 150).
In the 1790s, he advised a neighbor to use whatever cash he had on hand to invest “every farthing…in land and negros.” Another time he chided a friend who had suffered severe financial losses that he “should have been invested in negroes” (Wiencek 8). Whenever debt threatened to overwhelm him, he sold slaves to raise money (Wiencek 89-90). Slaves also had other economic uses. They could be rented out for a fee or used as collateral to obtain loans, something Jefferson did with a Dutch bank in the 1790s to raise money for additional Monticello building projects (Wiencek 97). The examples could go on.
Jefferson’s talent at finding ways to make money was always less than his gift of spending it. He proved a genius in using new debt to pay down old debt while accumulating even more debts. Most of his adult life was spent struggling to stay afloat financially, and much of this financial precarity was his fault.
To cite just one example: During his first year as President in 1801, Jefferson overspent his official salary of $25,000 by about $8,600. The balance sheet for that year shows $2,797.38 for fine wines and $3,100 for a new horse and carriage (Hochman 223-225). This was a typical year for Jefferson, who often spent more than he took in, especially when holding public offices which (he felt) demanded the ostentation of lavish expense at levels beyond what the public purse was willing to provide.
Not surprisingly, only death freed Jefferson from his creditors, though not so for his slaves. They had one more economic role to play as they were auctioned off to pay those debts. Less than a year after his death, 130 of Jefferson’s slaves went on the auction block, where many families were uprooted and broken apart (Stanton 147).
Ever the begrudging emancipator to the bitter end, Jefferson only freed five slaves in his will. Among them was his loyal and talented blacksmith, Joe Fossett. It was a bittersweet moment, however. Fossett watched in dismay as his wife, two teenage daughters, and two infant sons were sold to three different bidders, bringing in $1,350 (Stanton 147).
Jefferson had only freed Joe in his will and not his family. An unintentional omission? Or merely a thoughtless one? No matter, they didn’t count. Jefferson’s rewarding of Joe’s long and loyal service feels negated by the insensitivity of this omission.
But Joe wasn’t defeated, and what came next thoroughly debunked Jefferson's notions of black inferiority. Joe worked hard as a free blacksmith for the next ten years and was eventually able to buy freedom for his wife and four out of five children. Joe couldn’t rescue his son, Peter, however, who spent another decade as a slave. But Peter was made of sterner stuff like his father. He eventually gained his freedom and was reunited with his family in Cincinnati where they all ended up living more or less happily ever after, Joe as a blacksmith and Peter owning a successful catering business (Stanton 169-172).
This is hardly the story of former slaves “by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves” and who become “pests in society by their idleness.”
Jefferson and the Momentum of Inertia
In Jefferson’s mind, slavery remained because the younger generation had failed to live up to the principles of the Revolution. We don’t know how Coles took this, but it had to be infuriating that the man who would offer nothing but thoughts and prayers blamed the younger generation for the lamentable status quo.
“I had always hoped that the younger generation, recieving [sic] their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, and had become as it were the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood, and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathised with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it. but my intercourse with them, since my return, has not been sufficient to ascertain that they had made towards this point the progress I had hoped” (Jefferson Letter to Coles).
Jefferson was both right and wrong. First, where he was wrong: Coles wasn’t the only one whose conscience prodded him to act. Others had led by example, though they were a distinct minority and none had the stature or public voice that Thomas Jefferson had in 1814.
During the Revolutionary era, the Quakers were the first abolitionists, illegally freeing their slaves in the 1770s. One, Daniel Mifflin, illegally freed ninety-one of his slaves in 1775, declaring it an “injustice” to hold “my fellow Creatures in bondage” (Wolf 55). Others followed suit and lobbied for the law passed in 1782 allowing owners to free their slaves legally, a law that was very similar to an earlier one Jefferson shadow-sponsored in 1769.
Or consider Robert Carter, whom Robert Levy aptly describes as the “anti-Jefferson." He was a slave-owner from one of the most prominent families in Virginia. Starting in 1791, he gradually began freeing all 452 of his slaves and was hated for it by his neighbors because he refused to relocate them, instead choosing to pay them wages to work for him as free blacks (Levy 144-152).
But I don’t want to overstate the reality. Jefferson’s pessimism had some basis in fact. By 1810, Virginia had a slave population of 346,968, or roughly 39% of the population. For some perspective: Between 1782 and 1806, a period when manumission laws were relatively permissive, only 8,000-11,000 slaves were freed. This represented a tiny drop in a vast ocean of bondage (Wolf 43). Slavery was deeply embedded in Virginia and Jefferson was a comfortable part of that. In this respect, Jefferson was correct that nothing would change during his life; slavery was here to stay for the foreseeable future.
But here we come to a critical aspect of Jefferson’s dissimulation. He was comfortable leading a rebellion against the British; he had no problem assuming a leading role in establishing religious freedom and toleration. When the cause was something he felt passionate about, Jefferson led and led well. That was curiously not the case when it came to slavery. Then he assumed an uncharacteristic reticence, an apathy that contrasted with his otherwise dynamic intelligence. Now, he wanted public opinion to spearhead change, though he wasn't willing to do much to move that opinion in the kind of direction Coles hoped.
His letter to Coles embodies this moral apathy or, more charitably, a utilitarian calculation that his best interests (i.e., class interests) would not be served by embarking on an anti-slavery crusade almost certainly doomed to fail, at least in the near term. Doing so would be quixotic folly, and he knew it. Jefferson was many things, a political theorist, a pragmatist, and a committed compromiser to get things done. He wasn’t going to become a martyr for negroes.
Accepting the status quo while working to alleviate the condition of his own slaves became the moral compromise Jefferson adopted to soothe his conscience. By many accounts, Jefferson did treat his slaves well. However, it’s fair to point out that “treating slaves well” borders on the oxymoronic, especially when alternatives were available that might have allowed posterity to say that Jefferson had “treated his freed slaves well,” much like Robert Carter and Edward Coles. But we know that did not happen for the vast majority of the 600 slaves Jefferson owned during his life.
Jefferson counseled Coles to not do anything rash. Coles should endeavor to follow Jefferson’s lead, but not how he had hoped. Jefferson wrote, “…my opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them” (Letter Jefferson to Coles).
Coles is counseled to “reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition." And while embracing the Thomas Jefferson model of benevolent patriarchal slavery, he should work on the margins to advance the cause of abolition in whatever ways he could, like Jefferson many, many years ago but no longer. In short, Jefferson can only offer “all my prayers, and these are the only weapons of an old man.” Yes, that’s right, Jefferson can only offer his thoughts and prayers.
Curiously, just two weeks after Jefferson offered Coles his thoughts and prayers, he proclaimed in a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper there was “nothing that I would not sacrifice” for a plan to abolish slavery. Really? Nothing at all? Clearly there was nothing he would sacrifice to end slavery. Coles finally began to realize this.
Coles Responds and Pushes Back
Coles had to be disappointed by such tepid advice. But to his credit, he didn’t let Jefferson off the hook so easily. His response politely but thoroughly addressed Jefferson’s rationalizations. The genteel language was typical of the era, and the tone was appropriately deferential. Still, the underlying message is clear: An epic cause in the name of justice needed a giant of a man to lead it. You could be that man, Mr. Jefferson, you should be that man, but sorry to bother you, I guess I was mistaken, never mind, I'll do it myself.
Here we get to a crucial difference between Coles and Jefferson which shows the latter as a creature trapped in his ways while the former was a harbinger of the future. As we’ve seen, Jefferson had long resigned himself to slavery. This wasn’t just the resignation of old age. Jefferson had given up decades earlier, calculating that since he couldn’t reform the whole system, it wasn’t worth acting at the individual level. What would be the point? It would financially ruin him, and for what? Silly ideals? Self-sacrifice like this would have changed nothing.
Coles had a very different moral calculus which was much more liberal in its outlook. Here the onus fell on the individual to address injustice, no matter whether or not the rest of society was in sync. The individual's duty was to act when confronted with injustice. He understood in a very modern liberal sense that we’re each responsible for our moral choices. So what if society practices an injustice? That’s no excuse to shrug and ignore as Jefferson did.
Coles bravely swam against the current and chose otherwise. If Virginian society couldn’t change, he’d take his slaves elsewhere, free them, and offer them the opportunity to make their own way in the world. He had it in his power to do that much, to right the wrongs in his own life. Acquiescing to the status quo represented a moral failure his conscience wouldn’t accept. In other words, Coles chose the hard right over the easy wrong. Jefferson didn't. He tells Jefferson he plans on “carrying along with me those who had been my Slaves, to the Country North West of the river Ohio” (Coles Letter to Jefferson).
Having told Jefferson what he plans to do, contrary to his advice, he then proceeds to dismantle his mentor’s arguments for inertia. Thoughts and prayers to heaven are all fine and good, yet reform won’t happen “but with influence on earth.” He outright objects to Jefferson's assertion that fighting slavery was a job for the younger generation to spearhead.
Coles countered that the young are poorly placed to lead radical social change. The older generation's wisdom, leadership, stature, and credibility were needed, traits never “possessed in so great a degree by the young as by the old.” Here Coles engages in an interesting linguistic device. He slips into the third person plural and begins describing the kind of people needed to lead the movement against slavery. It's apparent who he has in mind. What kind of men are these leaders?
They will have “extensive powers both of mind and influence.” Unlike a young man who can be easily “buffeted by the waves of opposition” and cowed into conformity, they will have “gained by a previous course of useful employment the firmest footing in the confidence and attachment of their Country.”
He goes on with more distancing third person plural. “It is with them…that the subject of emancipation must originate; for they are the only persons who have it in their power effectually to arouse and enlighten the public sentiment, which in matters of this kind ought not to be expected to lead but to be led; nor ought it to be wondered at that there should prevail a degree of apathy with the general mass of mankind, where a mere passive principle of right has to contend against the weighty influence of habit and interest" (Coles letter to Jefferson).
He continues to refer to Jefferson without ever mentioning his name. An implied rebuke creeps in. How could it be, Coles muses, that the public could have such apathy about such an enormous injustice, where “a mere passive principle of right [all men are created equal] has to contend against the weighty influence of habit and interest?” Of course, the crushing weight of ‘habit and influence applied doubly to Jefferson, and both men know it. To overcome the inertia of habit and interest required “those who have acquired a great weight of character, and on whom there devolves…a most solemn obligation.”
One can almost hear Coles pause here to clear his throat. He then drops the distancing third-person pronouns when he continues and now addresses Jefferson directly. He writes, “It was under these impressions that I looked to you, my dear sir, as the first of our aged worthies, to awaken our fellow Citizens from their infatuation to a proper sense of Justice and to the true interest of their country, and by proposing a system for the gradual emancipation of our Slaves, at once to form a rallying point for its friends, who enlightened by your wisdom and experience, and supported and encouraged by your sanction and patronage, might look forward to a propitious and happy result.”
Coles must have understood that Jefferson wasn't the man he was looking for. He wraps it up by reminding Jefferson that the great Benjamin Franklin didn’t let age stop him from working toward ending slavery in Pennsylvania. “Your time of life I had not considered as an obstacle to the undertaking. Doctor Franklin, to whom, by the way Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.”
But it was no use, and Coles must have realized he wouldn’t change Jefferson’s mind. He apologizes for the inconvenience and concludes the letter. Jefferson never responded. What more was there to say?
“Was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?”
- John Stuart Mill
Though Coles maintained a deep admiration for Jefferson for the rest of his life, the contrast between the two men is revealing. Coles felt compelled to live his values, no matter how costly, who practiced what he preached, no matter how inconvenient, and who refused to live a life of leisure at the expense of slave labor. What Coles did highlights what Jefferson did not do; indeed, it reveals what Jefferson no longer believed was possible.
What did Coles do after this exchange of letters? His service in the Madison administration kept him busy until 1817. He then traveled to Illinois to scout out places to settle his soon-to-be-free slaves. Finally, in 1819, Coles sold his property in Virginia, gathered up his slaves, and headed for Illinois. Floating down the Ohio River on a barge, Coles freed them, a scene depicted on a mural in the Illinois State House. He used his connections in Washington to get him the job as Register of the Land Office in Illinois, giving him some say in how land was allotted, a key position for someone looking to settle newly freed slaves.
He bought land and equipment and got them set up as tenant farmers upon arrival. They prospered, contrary to Jefferson’s worry that newly freed blacks might become “pests” to society. Just three years later, Coles was elected governor (1822-1825), where he became instrumental in keeping the new state from modifying its constitution to allow slavery (Guasco 69-74). Coles worked over the coming decades to address the evils of slavery.
Interestingly, as Coles aged, he moved closer to Jefferson’s attitude in some respects, though never to the point where he defended slavery. He found Jefferson's disappointment in the current generation warranted. The racism he’d escaped in Virginia was alive and well in Illinois, though not nearly as entrenched. This was discouraging.
Coles found he needed to broaden his appeal if he was to make any progress. A blunt abolitionist message that slavery was immoral was a good start but not enough to win electoral majorities; he also had to appeal to settlers’ economic self-interests to make the case. For example, that free labor was more productive than slave labor and therefore was better for the economy. Many small farmers had settled in Illinois to escape suffocating southern hierarchies that advantaged the rich over the poor. Did they want Illinois to become another slave economy like Virginia and the deep south, where poor white farmers were pushed out by wealthy slave owners? The answer for many was no.
His sobering experience in Illinois had shown him how ingrained slavery and racism were in American society. Even Americans who hated slavery didn’t want large black populations living nearby. In Illinois, he found that his Enlightenment ideals were not shared by a majority of the people, at least when it came to slavery. I imagine Jefferson's ghost somewhere whispering, "I told you so." Nevertheless, Coles adapted and kept at it instead of giving up. Compromises were required if any progress was to be made. Something he realized from his Illinois experience was that free blacks would never be accepted as equals in American society because of racism.
Given the two centuries of racial iniquity that followed, was Coles wrong? In another nod to Jefferson, he later joined the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that advocated for emancipation and then colonization of blacks abroad (Guasco 139). But his moral baseline was ultimately quite different from Jefferson’s. Coles at least tried to advance an anti-slavery agenda when he could.
The three letters between the two men revealed an emerging fracture in American society, between slave-owning elites mired in self-interested contradictions, men like Jefferson and Madison, and proto-abolitionists like Coles committed to ending the practice. Jefferson’s was a world that would tenaciously cling to slavery until Grant’s armies battered it out of existence fifty years later. Men like Coles made that possible.
But slavery's violent demise was still far off. This was 1814, not 1865, and Jefferson’s stubborn worldview was still ascendant. Abolitionism as a movement was still in its infancy. Coles’ troubled conscience did not represent the mainstream view of race and slavery. Though neither knew it at the time, Coles represented the future that Jefferson claimed he wanted to see, despite being unable to escape the fatal contradictions of the nation he helped found. It would take a bloody civil war to break the status quo.
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30 May 2022