Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

Jefferson inherited many slaves. His wife brought a dowry of more than 100 slaves, and he purchased many more throughout his life. At some points he was one of the largest slaveowners in Virginia. 


1821, writing about events of approx 1770: “ I made one effort in (the Virginia legislature) for the permission of the emancipation of slaves,   which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success.”  (Jefferson, 1984, p5.)


1774:  “The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies [America], where it was   unhappily introduced in their infant state.  But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa…”  (Jefferson, 1984, p115.)


1776:  “[King George III] has waged cruel war  against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life  and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative  attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that  this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of  which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he  also obtruded them thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”  -from Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence.  This paragraph was voted down by the Congressional Congress.  (Jefferson, 1984, p22.) 


1778:  “I brought a bill to prevent [the slave’s] further importation [to Virginia].  This passed without  opposition, and stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication.”  (published in 1821.)  (Jefferson, 1984, p 34.) 


1787:  “Under the mild treatment our slaves experience, and their wholesome, though coarse food, this blot in our   country increases as fast, or faster, than the whites.” (Jefferson,  1984. p 214.)


1787:  Jefferson discussed his 1777 bill which, if passed,  would have eventually freed the slaves of Virginia and deported them: “It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state…?  Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousands recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”  (Jefferson,  1984. p 264.) 


1787:  “I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”  (Jefferson,  1984. p 270.) 


1787: "There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of  slavery among us.  The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other... Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that considering numbers, nature and natural means  only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference  The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."  (Jefferson,  1984. p 288-9) 


 1787:  “This unwillingness ([to sell slaves] is for their sake, not my own; because my debts once cleared off, I  shall try some plan of making their situation happier, determined to content myself with a small portion of their   labor.”  (Miller,  p57.) 


In 1790 Jefferson gave his newly married daughter and her husband 1000 acres of land and 25 slaves.  (Miller)


In 1798 Jefferson owned 141 slaves, many of them elderly.  Two years later he owned 93. (Bigelow,p537.)


1800: “We are truly to be pitied!”  -Jefferson’s reaction to Gabriel’s Conspiracy, an attempted slave’s uprising  in Virginia.  (Miller, p127.) 


One of Jefferson’s slaves was Sally Hemings, allegedly the half-sister of his deceased wife.  During Jefferson’s presidency a rumor appeared in print that she was his mistress.  Jefferson denied this story, which was also passed on as Hemings family tradition.The youngest of Heming’s six children [and the only one whose paternity can be traced through  DNA] definitely descended from the Jefferson line, most likely  through Jefferson, his brother Randolph, or one of Randolph’s sons.  Jefferson was in the vicinity of Sally Hemings during each period of conception.  ( Miller, p148-176:.)  For a discussion of the DNA issue see: http://tinyurl.com/ckfkk2 and: http://jeffersondna.com


Jefferson freed one of Heming’s children and allowed another to run away unpursued.  Both of them were light enough to successfully pass for White.(See Miller, p165.) 


1807: Jefferson told an English diplomat that the Blacks were “as far inferior to the rest of mankind as the mule is to  the horse, and as made to carry burdens.”  (Miller, p57.)


1807:  The Constitution said Congress could not ban the slave trade (that is, importing slaves into the country) until 1808.  In March of 1807 President Jefferson recommended, and Congress enacted,  such a law to take  effect January 1, 1808.  (Miller, p145)


(approximately) 1814:  “The amalgamation of whites with blacks produces a degradation to which no lover of his  country, no lover of excellence in the human character, can innocently consent.” (Miller, p207)


1815: “The slave is to be prepared by instruction and habit for self-government, and for the honest pursuits of  industry and social duty.  The former must precede the latter.” (Miller, p253.) 


1820: (Discussing slavery) “We have the wolf by the ears and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go.   Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other.”  (Miller, p241) 


1821:  “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [slaves] are to be free.  Nor  is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.  Nature, habit, opinion has  drawn indelible lines of distinction between them.” To the modern mind the first sentence reads like a battle-cry for emancipation.  In Jefferson’s context it meant almost the opposite: since emancipation  was inevitable, attempting to speed it along it was unnecessary and probably counterproductive.  The  first sentence is inscribed on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial; the other sentences are not.  (Jefferson,  1984. p 44) 


1824:  Jefferson discussed his continuing hope that the slaves can be sent to Africa: “To send off the whole of  these at once,  nobody conceives to be practicable for us, or expedient for them.  Let us take twenty-five years for  its accomplishment, within which time they will be doubled.  Their estimated value as property…must be paid or  lost by somebody.”  (Jefferson,  1984.  p1485)

(See Miller, p168)

The only slaves Jefferson freed in his will were children of Sally Hemings.  His daughter Martha later freed Sally.

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