Nearly two centuries after his death, Thomas Jefferson continues to be the subject of competing claims about his public policy and his private beliefs. Over time, public discussion of Jefferson waxes and wanes, but, of late, has heightened due to the publication of evangelical writer David Barton's new book, "The Jefferson Lies," a New York Times best seller.
Serious historians have dismissed Barton's book in various reviews, but Barton remains a favorite of evangelicals and social conservatives, recently appearing on numerous radio and television broadcasts. Perhaps his most noteworthy appearance was on very non-evangelical Jon Stewart's show, where Stewart failed to question any of Barton's claims about Jefferson.
Perhaps Stewart's challenge was absent because he didn't know where to start. There are many suspicious claims in Barton's book. Today, I will take just one. In "The Jefferson Lies," David Barton aims to defend Jefferson from charges of racial prejudice. To do so, he must address and explain the fact that Jefferson owned many slaves and did not emancipate them. In "The Jefferson Lies," Barton asks:
If Jefferson was indeed so antislavery, then why didn't he release his own slaves? After all, George Washington allowed for the freeing of his slaves on his death in 1799, so why didn't Jefferson at least do the same at his death in 1826? The answer is Virginia law. In 1799, Virginia allowed owners to emancipate their slaves on their death; in 1826, state laws had been changed to prohibit that practice.
Here is the section of Virginia law quoted by Barton: "[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and ... it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament ... to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves."
Now, here is the entire first section of the 1782 law on manumission:
[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and the same hath been judged expedient under certain restrictions: Be it therefore enacted, That it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the county court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the court of the county where he or she resides to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely and fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act.
In "The Jefferson Lies," Barton then cites an 1806 Virginia law, and says,
...the law required that a freed slave promptly depart the state or else reenter slavery, thus making it almost impossible for an emancipated slave to remain near his or her spouse, children, or family members who had not been freed. Many, therefore preferred to remain in slavery with their families rather than become free and be separated from them.
There is an additional change in the legal environment of slavery in Virginia that Barton does not cite in his discussion of Jefferson. In 1816 Virginia legislators "had bowed to economic, social and political realities and had allowed one 'escape hatch' from the trap of emancipation," writes Philip Schwarz. "That 'escape hatch' was that 'freed people could petition local courts to exempt them from exile on the grounds of 'their extraordinary merit' and 'good character.'" It seems entirely likely that a freed slave coming with a letter of recommendation from a former president and a favorite son of Virginia would have obtained an exemption from the re-capture provision. Jefferson did free five slaves on his death in 1826, but he transferred the ownership of about 260 to his heirs at that time. According to Schwarz, Jefferson "included in his will a request that the legislature of Virginia grant permission for his former slaves to remain in Virginia." If Jefferson could make that request for five slaves, it seems reasonable that he could have made that request for others.
Regarding Jefferson and the legal environment of slaves and their possible emancipation, Barton misrepresents both the 1782 and the 1806 laws regarding slavery. More significantly, what a tremendous act in support of human equality it would have been had Jefferson freed those of his slaves of the right age while he was President of the United States. He could have done so, but chose not to. One could argue that Jefferson was constrained by cultural conditions or by his own economic needs to have slaves, but he cannot be called a champion for the unfettered emancipation of slaves.
The above article is adapted from 'Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President' by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter. Click the link for more information about the book, or go to www.gettingjeffersonright.com.
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