Thomas Jefferson was born into a family with a history of owning slaves. He was himself a slave owner and married the daughter of a slave owner. He owned hundreds of slaves throughout his adult life. However, as a political figure, he spoke out against slavery, calling it morally depraved and hideous. Understanding this paradox requires a look at the society of Jefferson's America as well as his own personal identity.
Slaves in Colonial Times
The first slaves in the colonies arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1617. Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, traders captured and transported millions of Africans to work as slave labor in the New World, primarily on plantations growing tobacco, indigo or rice in Maryland, Virginia and along the southern coast.
Around 5,000 slaves fought on the side of the colonists in the Revolutionary War. During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the founding fathers recognized slavery as a part of the country's infrastructure in the U.S. Constitution. They agreed that for the purposes of representation, each state could count each resident slave as two-thirds of a citizen.
Despite originating the phrase, "all men are created equal," in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. So did Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Hancock, Edward Rutledge and James Madison. The majority of the 56 lawmakers who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. The practice was not at all unusual in the latter part of the 18th century, and many saw it as a necessity due to their large landholdings.
Public Opinion on Slavery in Colonial Times
Before the American Revolution, few white people expressed public opposition to slavery. Even the Quakers, who would later become outspoken opponents of the practice, were largely silent on the subject.
Thomas Jefferson's Slaves
Jefferson owned as many as 600 slaves. He acquired 56 slaves from his father, from whom he inherited 5,000 acres at the age of 24. After his marriage to Martha Wayles in 1772, the couple inherited 135 slaves from her father as well as two additional plantations. By virtue of their vast landholdings and slave ownership, the Jeffersons enjoyed the privileges of the wealthy Virginia elite.
Jefferson's Public Stance on Slavery
Nevertheless, as a Virginia legislator in 1778, Thomas Jefferson spearheaded a bill that banned importing slaves to the state, making Virginia one of the first to pass such a law. As governor, Jefferson advocated the eventual emancipation of slaves rather than their immediate release. During the gradual process, he said, slaves would get the training they needed to support themselves as free people.
Despite his statement in "Notes of the State of Virginia" that slavery was a negative influence on both owners and slaves, Jefferson remained a slaveholder until his death, freeing only five slaves in his will, all of whom were male relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings. His heirs sold the 130 slaves who remained as a part of his estate to pay off part of the debt he had accumulated.
In 1807, President Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which made it a federal crime to bring new slaves into the country. Even so, the slave trade continued to thrive within the U.S.
After completing two terms as president, Jefferson returned to Monticello, deeply in debt. He had long lived beyond his means. He loaned money to friends and family that he could not afford, and he used his slaves as collateral to obtain his own loans.
Although he was philosophically opposed to slavery, in practice, Jefferson unabashedly profited from that institution. He wrote in his autobiography that he believed slavery would inevitably come to an end in the U.S., but that the black and white races would never be equal or live under the same government.
Thomas Jefferson exemplified the dichotomy between words and actions. As a writer and speaker, he criticized slavery, yet as a plantation owner, he depended upon it. In an 1870 letter to a friend, he perhaps best expressed the strange paradox of his life, saying that justice was in one side of the scale and self-preservation was in the other.