The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson
AFRICAN AMERICANS / MULATTOS DEFINED BY LAW
You asked me in conversation, what constituted a mulatto by our law?
And I believe I told you four crossings with the whites. I looked
afterwards into our law, and found it to be in these words: "Every
person, other than a Negro, of whose grandfathers or grandmothers
anyone shall have been a Negro, shall be deemed a mulatto, and so
every such person who shall have one-fourth part or more of Negro
blood, shall in like manner be deemed a mulatto;" L. Virga' 1792,
December 17; the case put in the first member of this paragraph of the
exempli gratid. The latter contains the true canon, which is
that one-fourth of Negro blood, mixed with any portion of white,
constitutes the mulatto. As the issue has one-half of the blood of
each parent, and the blood of each of these may be made up of a
variety of fractional mixtures, the estimate of their compound in some
cases may be intricate, it becomes a mathematical problem of the same
class with those on the mixtures of different liquors or different
metals; as in these, therefore, the algebraical notation is the most
convenient and intelligible.
Our canon considers two crosses with the pure white, and a
third with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue
of the Negro blood. But observe, that this does not re-establish
freedom, which depends on the condition of the mother, the principle
of the civil law, partus sequitur ventrem, being adopted here.
But if emancipated, he becomes a free white man, and a citizen
of the United States to all intents and purposes. So much for this
trifle by way of correction.
to Francis C. Gray, 4 March 1815