December 26, 1820 – Jefferson Argues for the Morality of Extending Slavery Westward

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Albert Gallatin, who at the time was U.S. Minister to France. Having retired from the presidency, Jefferson continued to correspond with many of the country’s leaders, spending several hours a day writing letters.

He first complains about the infirmities of aging (he would die six years later at the age of 83) and then comments on the “storms gathering” in Europe. But things are not going well in the U.S. either, he contends, largely because of the Federalists, of course, i.e., his political enemies.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

In particular he mentioned the Missouri Compromise, which was touted as a “moral” solution to the conflict over slavery. He wrote:

Moral the question certainly is not, because the removal of slaves from one state to another, no more than their removal from one county to another, would never make a slave of one human being who would not be so without it. indeed if there were any morality in the question, it is on the other side; because by spreading them over a larger surface, their happiness would be increased, & the burthen of their future liberation lightened by bringing a greater number of shoulders under it.”

Moreover, Jefferson argues, let Congress start regulating the condition of the inhabitants of the states, and before you know it, it could “next declare that the condition of all men within the US. shall be that of freedom.” The horror! The whites would have to evacuate their states!

On the other hand, he somewhat contradicts himself by suggesting that as a positive side effect, the whole controversy “has brought the necessity of some plan of general emancipation & deportation more home to the minds of our people than it has ever been before.”

His proposal for all slaveholders (or maybe all but him), is that:

. . . the holders should give up all born after a certain day, past, present, or to come, that these should be placed under the guardianship of the state, and sent at a proper age to St Domingo. there they are willing to recieve them, & the shortness of the passage brings the deportation within the possible means of taxation aided by charitable contributions. in this I think Europe, which has forced this evil on us, and the Eastern states who have been it’s chief instruments of importation, would be bound to give largely. but the proceeds of the land office, if appropriated to this would be quite sufficient.” (emphasis added)

You can read the entirety of the letter here.

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