Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787)

Excerpted below are Jefferson's responses to two of the queries, or questions, he used to organize his work, Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in London in 1787. Each addresses the condundrum of slavery in the new republic. Query XVIII, included here first, discusses manners; Query XIV, which follows, analyzes Virginia laws and their revision. In the sections included, Jefferson expresses a racism that is jarring. Ironically, though Jefferson supports emancipation of slaves here, his racism in part justifies their previous enslavement and is critical for understanding Jefferson's preferred solution to the slavery dilemma -- removal of African Americans from the United States after emancipation and colonization of the freed population in Africa.


The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state?


It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners

of a nation may be tried, whether catholic, or particular. It is more difficult for a

native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by

habit. 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. This quality

is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do

what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or

his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should

always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient.

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. And with what execration should

the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the

rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys

the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other. For if a slave can have

a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born

to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature,

contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the

human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations

proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is

destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make

another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small

proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. 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 I 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. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through

the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must

be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a

change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of

the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying,

the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation,

and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the

masters, rather than by their extirpation.



[the answer to this query begins with a description of the laws of Virginia, then
proceeds to discuss how those laws might be revised. The excerpted portions
here discuss slavery.]

To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act. The bill reported by the

revisors does not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it was

prepared, to be offered to the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up, and

further directing, that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then

be brought up, at the public expence, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their

geniusses,till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age,

when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should

render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of houshold and of the

handicraft arts, feeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c. to declare them a

free and independant people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they

shall have acquired strength; and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of

the world for an equal number of white inhabitants; to induce whom to migrate

hither, proper encouragements were to be proposed. It will probably be asked, Why

not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of

supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep

rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the

blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions

which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties,

and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of

the one or the other race. -- To these objections, which are political, may be added

others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of

colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between

the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the

colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the

difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known

to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater

or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white,

the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one,

preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that

immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to

these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour

of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference

of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The

circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of

our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides

those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a

difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by

the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and

disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant

of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in

the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious (*1) experimentalist has discovered

to be the principal regulator of animal heat,may have disabled them fromextricating,

in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in

expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black, after

hard labour through the day,will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit uptill

midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the

morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may

perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger

till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or

steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems

with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment

and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which

render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less

felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to

participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their

disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in

labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be

disposed to sleep of course. 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 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. In music they are more generally

gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been

found capable of imagining a small catch (*2). Whether they will be equal to the

composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet

to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. --

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; but it could not

produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity

of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that

poem. Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his

letters do more honour to the heart than the head. They breathe the purest effusions

of friendship and general philanthropy, and shew how great a degree of the latter

may be compounded with strong religious zeal. He is often happy in the turn of his

compliments, and his stile is easy and familiar, except when he affects a Shandean

fabrication of words. But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes

incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its

vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a

meteor through the sky. His subjects should often have led him to a process of

sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration.

Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own

colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we

compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly

with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to

enroll him at the bottom of the column. This criticism supposes the letters published

under his name to be genuine, and to have received amendment from no other hand;

points which would not be of easy investigation. The improvement of the blacks in

body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been

observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of

their condition of life. 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, (* 3) 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. -- The same Cato, on a principle of ;oeconomy, always sold his

sick and superannuated slaves. He gives it as a standing precept to a master visiting

his farm, to sell his old oxen, old waggons, old tools, old and diseased servants, and

every thing else become useless. `Vendat boves vetulos, plaustrum vetus,

ferramenta vetera, servum senem, servum morbosum, & si quid aliud supersit

vendat.' Cato de re rustica. c. 2. The American slaves cannot enumerate this among

the injuries and insults they receive. It was the common practice to expose in the

island Suet. Claud. 25. of Aesculapius, in the Tyber, diseased slaves,

whose cure was like to become tedious. The Emperor Claudius, by an edict, gave

freedom to such of them as should recover, and first declared, that if any person

chose to kill rather than to expose them, it should be deemed homicide. The

exposing them is a crime of which no instance has existed with us; and were it to be

followed by death, it would be punished capitally. We are told of a certain Vedius

Pollio, who, in the presence of Augustus, would have given a slave as food to his

fish, for having broken a glass. 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, 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. -- Whether further observation

will or will not verify the conjecture, that nature has been less bountiful to them in

the endowments of the head, I believe that in those of the heart she will be found to

have done them justice. That disposition to theft with which they have been

branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral

sense. The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself

less bound to respect those made in favour of others. When arguing for ourselves,

we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of

right: that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force,

and not in conscience: and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve,

whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for

him as well as his slave? And whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little

from one, who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who would slay him?

That a change in the relations in which a man is placed should change his ideas of

moral right and wrong, is neither new, nor peculiar to the colour of the blacks.

Homer tells us it was so 2600 years ago.

[text in Greek in original here.]

  • _Od_. 17. 323.
  • Jove fix'd it certain, that whatever day

    Makes man a slave, takes half his worth away.


    But the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites. Notwithstanding these

    considerations which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find

    among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among

    their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity. --

    The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be

    hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many

    observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to

    Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is

    a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the

    senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined;

    where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let

    me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would

    degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator

    may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a

    century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men,

    they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. 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. It is not against experience to suppose, that

    different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess

    different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the

    gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to

    keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This

    unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to

    the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to

    vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and

    beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done

    with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid

    avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave,

    when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with

    us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed

    beyond the reach of mixture. . . .


    (* 1) Crawford.

    (* 2) The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither

    from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the

    four lower chords of the guitar.

    (* 3) {Tos dolos etaxen orismeno nomismatos omilein tais therapainisin.}

    -- Plutarch. Cato.