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America Didn’t “End” Slavery After the Civil War -- We Simply Exported It

One of the most enduring myths we love here in America is that we ended our involvement with slavery.

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The next year, he proposed at a national level a law banning slavery in the “Northwest Territories” – the Midwest and western states – and stating that any state admitted to the union would have to declare any person of any race born in that state after 1800 to be a free person. His proposal lost by a single vote, although parts of his proposed legislation were lifted and inserted into the Northwest Ordinance, which became law when Jefferson was in Paris in 1787.

Despite his best efforts, and those of his more firebrand contemporaries like John Quincy Adams, slavery was still alive and well as Jefferson was passing into old age.

In 1820, for example, Missouri and Maine were being admitted as states to the Union, and a fierce debate had erupted over whether Missouri should be allowed to join the nation if it continued to allow slavery (Maine was free of slavery). In the ultimate compromise, which was passed by Congress, Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state.

Congressman John Holmes of Massachusetts wrote to an elderly Thomas Jefferson to inform him of the compromise, and on April 22, 1820, just six years before his death, writing with a quill pen, his hands cramped by arthritis, Jefferson candidly expressed his despair in his response to his old friend and colleague. In it, he foresaw the day, after his canoe or “bark” had crossed the River Styx to his death, when the nation would be torn apart across a “geographical line” over the issue of human beings being considered “that kind of property.”

“I thank you, dear Sir,” Jefferson wrote, “for the copy you have been so kind as to send me … on the Missouri question. … I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers, or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant.

“But this momentous question, like a fire-bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.

 “It is hushed, indeed, for the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper.

“I can say, with conscious truth, that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. …

“But as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

After pondering the legal issues involved, Jefferson – who, as president, had signed into law an 1808 Act banning the slave trade with Africa – finally poured out his anguish in this private letter to Holmes, again foreseeing the unthinkable possibility of a civil war over slavery, which gave the lie to freedom in America and was thus a “treason against the hopes of a world” that looked to America as the beacon of liberty.

“I regret that I am now to die,” Jefferson wrote, “in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of 1776, to acquire self-government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be, that I live not to weep over it. If they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away, against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves, and of treason against the hopes of the world.”

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