Thomas Jefferson Summary and Analysis
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743, well into the era of the Enlightenment and the precise year Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society to increase secular knowledge. To proponents of the Enlightenment, “light” meant knowledge, Europeanness, and whiteness. At the same time, the slave trade was flourishing: as Europe got richer, the idea was propogated that God deemed Europe superior. Carl Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae divided the human species into four varieties, by race. Other Enlightenment thinkers were also ranking groups within the European continent as well as within Africa. Senegambians, for example, were superior to Angolans because they “made better slaves.” This ethnic racism divided natural allies on American plantations and helped suppress resistance.
Voltaire proposed the polygenetic theory that “the negro race” was distinct from white humanity and that Black people could never become “white,” whereas others, including Buffon, maintained the older assimilationist idea. However, he distinguished six races or varieties within the human species and described Africans as barbaric, although he felt they could change if transported to Europe.
Jefferson was raised in a house with Black slaves, but they were not Christianized. Meanwhile, John Woolman was arguing that sanctioning slavery was a misuse of God's gifts, and he soon set off a Quaker abolitionist movement. Woolman argued that nobody was inferior in the eyes of God, and he urged Quakers not to keep slaves.
Jefferson's father died when he was fourteen. In 1760, he enrolled at William & Mary and studied Enlightenment ideas before studying to become a lawyer. In the House of Burgesses, he protested English taxes, and argued for the freedom of fugitive slave Samuel Howell, saying “all men are born free.” He lost his suit, but the case marked the beginning of a trend.
Phillis Wheatley was purchased as a child and raised and educated by a white family. She showed an early affinity for poetry and the Classics. When she wanted to publish a collection, the Wheatleys had a panel of Boston elites assess her so that it could not be doubted that she had written her own poems. Other “remarkable Barbarians” were exhibited: John Montagu, as an experiment, sent a freed Jamaican Black man, Francis Williams, to school and then to Cambridge University, where he excelled. Williams returned to Jamaica to open a grammar school for slaveholders' children. However, David Hume was not moved, arguing that all non-Whites are “naturally inferior” to Whites. He opposed slavery without realizing his segregationist thinking made this stance a contradiction. Likewise, Franklin felt that “extraordinary Negroes” were the exception, not the rule. They defied the law of nature rather than proving segregationist ideas wrong.
Selina Hastings promoted the writings of Christian Blacks to show their capacity for conversion and helped them publish their slave narratives—but the implication was that African traditions had to be abandoned. Britain's chief justice, Lord Mansfield, freed a Virginian runaway and ruled that English antislavery law took precedence over colonial law, which roused the abolitionist movement. Benjamin Rush argued that any “vile” tendencies in Africans were the result of slavery, not natural Black inferiority. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded in 1774, a year after the Boston Tea Party. Londoners condemned American slavery, resulting in the freeing of Wheatley, whom George Washington and Voltaire both praised.
Meanwhile, Jefferson was overseeing the construction of his plantation. He and his group feared the rise of abolitionism in Britain, as abolition would make it more difficult to build a new nation. In a pamphlet published in 1774, Jefferson claimed that the king had rejected the American “desire” to abolish the slave trade, making American slavery the fault of Britain. Meanwhile, Jamaican...
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