JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph letter signed ("Th:Jefferson") to Jared Sparks (1789-1866), editor (1823-1829) of The North American Review, Monticello, 4 February 1824.
4 pages, 4to (251 x 204mm.), page one with inscription by Sparks in blank margin ("See N.A. Review for Jan, 1824, p.40-The article was written by J.S."; Sparks's endorsement at bottom off page 4. In superb condition.
JEFFERSON'S MOST EXPLICIT LATE STATEMENT ON THE ISSUE OF SLAVERY, OUTLINING HIS PLAN FOR COMPENSATED EMANCIPATION, SUGGESTING A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT, AND SUGGESTING THE COST SHOULD BE MET BY THE SALE OF PUBLIC LANDS IN THE TERRITORIES
A truly remarkable letter, frequently quoted in the vast and still-growing literature dealing with Jefferson and his paradoxical position on slavery, and published (from a retained copy) in every edition of Jefferson's letters since 1829. This remarkable letter, to historian and editor Jared Sparks, constitutes one of Jefferson's most explicit statements on the complex question of slavery and its troubling implications for future generations of Americans. The former President acknowledges receipt of Sparks's letter and a copy of The North American Review, containing an article by Sparks on the subject of the American Colonization Society. That society, founded in 1816 with a mission to emancipate slaves and fund their return to a safe haven on the continent of Africa. "Unlike later northern abolitionists, the Colonization Society did not denounce slavery as a moral wrong, and it did not hold slaveowners up to execreation"; while providing "an incentive to slaveowners to free their slaves" (C.A. Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, p.264 and ff., quoting extensively from the present letter). While he was in accord with the general goals of the Colonization Society, Jefferson accurately foresaw the enormous costs that would be entailed by any long-term implementation of compensated emancipation, for the slave population was increasing at a rapid rate even with the elimination of the slave trade. By 1821, immediately after the rancorous debate over the Missouri Compromise, to which he here alludes, Jefferson conceded that the Federal government's financial assistance might be required to make any such plan feasible. "But it was not until 1824 that he conceived a plan for acheiving the twin goals of freeing and expatriating the slaves--a design so ambitious that it could not possibly be implemented without massive financial support....In that year he endorsed in his private correspondence [the present letter] the idea put forward by some members of the Colonization Society that the revenue realized by the sale of public lands be diverted by the federal government for this purpose" (Ibid., p.269).
"...The article on the African colonisation of the people of color, to which you invite my attention, I have read with great consideration. It is indeed a fine one, and will do much good. I learn from it more too than I had before known of the degree of success and promise of that colony [Sierra Leone]. In the disposition of these unfortunate people, there are two rational objects to be distinctly kept in view. 1. the establishment of a colony on the coast of Africa, which may introduce among the Aborigines the arts of cultivated life, and the blessings of civilisation and science. By doing this, we may make them some retribution for the long course of injuries we have been committing on their population. And considering that these blessings will descend to the "nati natorum, et que nascentur ab illis," we shall, in the long run, have rendered them perhaps more good than evil."
He expresses qualified approval of the colonization scheme, and enthusiastically endorses the idea of returning American slaves to Africa: "to fulfil this object the colony of Sierraleone promises well...The 2nd object, and the most interesting to us, as coming home to our physical and moral characters, to our happiness and society is to provide an Asylum to which we can, by degrees, send the whole of that population from among us, and establish them under our patronage and protection, as a separate, free and independant people, in some country friendly to human life and happiness. That any place on the coast of Africa should answer the latter purpose, I have ever deemed entirely impossible.
But, Jefferson warns, the projected demographics are far from encouraging: "...I will appeal to figures only, which admit no controversy...There are in U.S. 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: 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 6000 millions of dollars, which must be paid or lost by somebody. To this add the cost of their transportation by land and sea to Mesurado, a year's provision of food and clothing, implements of husbandry and of their trades which will amount to 300 millions more, making 36 millions of Dollars a year for 25 years...and it is impossible to look at the question a second time....I do not say this to induce an inference that the getting rid of them is for ever impossible, for that is neither my opinion or my hope. But only that it cannot be done in this way."
On the other hand, he goes on, "There is, I think, a way in which it can be done, that is, by emancipating the after-born, leaving them, on due compensation, with their mothers, until their services are worth their maintenance, and then putting them to industrious occupations until a proper age for deportation. 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 14th query. The estimated value of the newborn infant is so low (say 12½ dollars) that it would probably be yielded by the owner gratis, and would thus reduce the 600 millions of dollars...to 37 million and a half, leaving only the expenses of nourishment while with the mother, and of transportation. And from what fund are these expenses to be furnished? Why not from that of the lands which have been ceded by the very states now needing this relief? And ceded on no consideration, for the most part, but that of the general good of the whole. These cessions already constitute one-fourth of the states of the Union. It may be said that these lands have been sold, are now the property of the citizens composing those states, and the money long ago received and expended. But an equivalent of lands in the territories since acquired may be appropriated to that object, or so much, at least, as may be sufficient; and the object, altho' more important to the slave-states, is highly so to the others also, if they were serious in their arguments on the Missouri question. The slave-states too, if more interested, would also contribute more by their gratuitous liberation, thus taking on themselves alone the first and heaviest item of expense. In the plan sketched in Notes on Virginia, no particular place of asylum was specified, because it was thought possible that, in the revolutionary state of America, then commenced, events might open to us some one within practicable distance. This has now happened. St. Domingo is become independent, and with a population of that colour only; and, if the public papers are to be credited, their Chief offers to pay their passage, to receive them as free citizens, and to provide them employment. This leaves then for the general confederacy no expense but of nurture with the mother a few years, and would call of course for a very moderate appropriation of vacant lands. 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 every year, and the old stock would die off in the ordinary course of nature, lessening from the commencement until its final disappearance. In this way no violation of private right is proposed. Voluntary surrenders would probably come in as fast as the means to be provided for their care would be competent to, looking at my state only, and I presume not to speak for the others. I verily believe that this surrender of property would not amount to more annually than half our present direct taxes, to be continued fully about 20 or 25 years, and then gradually diminished for as many more until their final extinction..."
"I do not go into all the details of the burthens and benefits of this operation, And who could estimate its blessed effects? I leave this to those who will live to see their accomplishment, and to enjoy a beatitude forbidden to my age. But I leave it with this admonition to rise and be doing. A million and a half [slaves] are within their controul' but 6 million (which a majority of those now living will see them attain) and one million of these fighting men, will say 'we will not go.' I am aware that this subject involves some constitutional scruples, but a liberal construction, justified by the object, may go far, and an amendment to the constitution the whole length necessary. The separation of infants from their mothers too would produce some scruples of humanity, but this would be straining at a gnat, and swallowing a camel...."
The demographics Jefferson cites would in fact make colonization an unworkable solution, even though the Colonization Society continued its well-meaning efforts for many years. And, as Miller notes, the plan advocated here by Jefferson would have "required the expansion of the powers of the federal government amd its intervention into the private affairs of American citizens far beyond anything dreamed of in the philosophy of Alexander Hamilton." Moreover, as this letter reveals, the fact that "Thomas Jefferson, by nature a kindhearted, benevolent well-intentioned man, should have recommended such a draconian method for attaining the 'beatitude' of an all-white society reveals how urgent he deemed it to be to separate physically the two races" (Ibid., pp.269-270). As another biographer observes, the author of the Declaration of Independence "could preach emancipation, plan it, encourage it, all from high principles and humanitarian feelings, but he could not lead so unpopular or desparate a cause"; to have done so, particularly at the advanced age he had attained in 1824, would have "required moral enthusiasm and political audacity he neither possessed nor trusted" (M. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation, pp.999-1000).
Jefferson's retained copy, in the hand of an amanuensis, is in the Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress. The existence of this, the recipient's copy, has been, until now, unknown to all Jefferson's editors since 1829.
Provenance: The Rendells Inc., 1979.