Book Excerpt: Why Thomas Jefferson Is The "Founding Theorist of White Supremacy in America."


(This article is excerpted from The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry by Ned and Constance Sublette and is published here with permission of the publisher. For more information.)

With Notes of the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson definitively established himself as a founding theorist of white supremacy in America, laying out in condensed form in 1785 key points of racialized thought that pro-slavery writers would consistently reaffirm and that would echo in the cant of modern day white supremacists. He linked his ideas to a deportation scheme that was, in effect, a foolproof way to avoid ending slavery, though he didn’t package it like that. Quite the contrary: he pitched his impossible project as the only way slavery could be ended.

Jefferson, writing for a European audience while U.S. envoy in France, insisted that manumission, or freeing the enslaved, required the immediate deportation of the emancipated. This would be necessary, Jefferson explained, in order to avoid “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” To avoid this conjectured race war of annihilation, emancipation required what is now called ethnic cleansing: Jefferson stamped that demand with a founder’s seal and a philosopher’s sigh.

The reviewer for the Mercure waxed enthusiastic about Jefferson’s solution for the problem of slavery. That Jefferson would consider emancipation under any circumstances and would speak badly of slavery, even in abstract terms, was enough to trip the hair-trigger anger of many American slaveowners, which is perhaps why he had wanted to keep the book off the general market. It cost him some political support, especially in South Carolina.

Jefferson’s plan was to deport flotillas of black youth, in wave after wave, year after year. He would “by degrees, send the whole of that population from among us,” until the “race” itself was gone, and simultaneously replace them with white immigrant laborers—a plan for total removal that did not acknowledge the presence in the United States of free people of color. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he proposed:

“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 household 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.”

To better understand what Jefferson had in mind, we flash forward to a February 4, 1824, letter he wrote to Jared Sparks, the Unitarian minister who published the North American Review. In it, the 80-year-old Jefferson outlined a scheme for accomplishing the “colonization” that would rid the United States of its proliferating African Americans once and for all, before they got any more numerous, and proposed a timetable for accomplishing the expulsion of about a sixth of the nation’s population:

“There are in the US. a million and a half of people of colour in slavery. to send off the whole of these at once nobody conceives to be practicable for us, or expedient for them. let us take 25. years for it’s accomplishment, within which time they will be doubled. their estimated value as property, in the first place, (for actual property has been lawfully vested in that form, and who can lawfully take it from the possessors?) at an average of 200.D. each, young and old, would amount to 600. millions of Dollars, which must be paid or lost by somebody.”

Jefferson went on to propose the creation of a fund, financed by the sale of western lands, for purchasing infants on the cheap, raising them as wards of the state, and deporting them—to “St. Domingo” (he did not ever use the name “Haiti”). But, he suggested:

“The estimated value of the new-born infant is so low, (say 12 1⁄2 Dollars) that it would probably be yielded by the owner gratis, and would thus reduce the 600,000,000 millions [sic] of Dollars, the first head of expence, to 37 millions & a half. leaving only the expense of nourishment while with the mother, and of transportation.

Jefferson calculated that though it would take 25 years to accomplish the entire project, by the last nine years, the number of “breeders” (he used the word) would have diminished considerably. He imagined a fleet of 50 vessels recursively sailing away full of black youth and coming back empty for more until every last one of them was gone:

“Suppose the whole annual increase to be of 60 thousand effective births, 50 vessels of 400 tons burthen each, constantly employed in that short run, would carry off the increase of every year, & the old stock would die off in the ordinary course of nature, lessening from the commencement until it’s final disappearance. in this way no violation of private right is proposed.

The “private right” Jefferson was talking about was, of course, that of all those men who were created equal. Black people did not have “private right.” But separating them from their children was not all that bad, thought Jefferson, because, as he explained in Notes:

“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.”

This was the classic rationalization for minimizing the damage caused by systematically destroying African American families, and it was a libel: being simple creatures, they’d get over it. Accordingly, Jefferson concluded his letter to Sparks: “The separation of infants from their mothers . . . would produce some scruples of humanity. But this would be straining at a gnat, and swallowing a camel.”

Were the United States not purged of its black people soon, Jefferson warned Sparks, the demographics guaranteed armed slave resistance: “A million and a half are within [slaveowners’] control; but six millions, (which a majority of those now living will see them attain,) and one million of these fighting men, will say, ‘we will not go.’” This did in fact happen, though the numbers were different: there were four million enslaved African Americans in 1860, not six million; and there were officially 186,097 soldiers and sailors who fought in the US Army and Navy against the Confederacy, in effect saying, “we will not go.”

Confiscate all African American children from their mothers and ship them off to thrive or die: that was Jefferson’s vision of a final solution for the Negro problem. Presumably such a massive expulsion as Jefferson contemplated would have required a fully totalitarian state apparatus to implement, and would have resulted in the death of many of the deported; mortality rates were high in the few miserable “colonization” attempts that were made.

Jefferson had not suddenly gone mad in his dotage. This had been his idea all along, as he explained to Sparks: “This was the result of my reflections on the subject five and forty years ago, and I have never yet been able to conceive any other practicable plan. It was sketched in the Notes on Virginia, under the fourteenth query.” If this kind of massive deportation couldn’t be achieved, he insisted throughout his career, emancipation could not take place. This conviction would be strengthened by the Haitian Revolution that erupted in 1791 and by Gabriel’s unenacted rebellion of 1800, and would be taken as gospel by pro-slavery Southerners. It would spur the founding of the American Colonization Society, whose ostensible mission was to deport all free people of color.

Having outlined the “physical” reason for exile in Notes, Jefferson proceeded to the “moral” reason, pursuant to which he described a long list of inferiorities attributed to “them,” which we will not quote here. This was perfectly in line with the thinking of many European intellectuals. Citing David Hume, the leading light of the Scottish Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant had written in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764) that, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that arises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who are transported elsewhere from their countries [etc] . . . ” But the point was less urgent to Kant, whose wealth did not consist of black people, than to Jefferson and Madison.

A mere 75 years later, as Southern states left the Union, pro-secessionist radicals argued to their unconvinced countrymen some of the same points as Jefferson’s: the “negro” was inferior and not the equal of whites; emancipation would result in a race war to the death, or in the purity of the white race being sullied by the horror of mongrelization; and slaveowners’ property rights must be respected.

There was, however, a solution of sorts to the perceived problem of black overpopulation, and it was highly profitable: if Virginia’s black people could not be emancipated and deported, they could be sold away into the new territories as America expanded westward.

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