The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson

By Subject


I have deferred answering your letter on the subject of slaves because you permitted me to do it till a moment of leisure, and that moment rarely comes, and because, too, I could not answer you with such a degree of certainty as to merit any notice. I do not recollect the conversation at Vincennes to which you allude, but can repeat still on the same ground on which I must have done then that as far as I can judge from the experiments which have been made to give liberty to, or rather abandon, persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children. Many Quakers in Virginia seated their slaves on their lands as tenants; they were distant from me, and therefore I cannot be particular in the details because I never had very particular information. I cannot say whether they were to pay a rent in money or a share of the produce, but I remember that the landlord was obliged to plan their crops for them, to direct all their operations during every season and according to the weather; but what is more afflicting, he was obliged to watch them daily and almost constantly to make them work and even to whip them. A man's moral sense must be unusually strong if slavery does not make him a thief. He who is permitted by law to have no property of his own can with difficulty conceive that property is founded in anything but force. These slaves chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work; they became public nuisances and in most instances were reduced to slavery again. But I will beg of you to make no use of this imperfect information (unless in common conversation). I shall go to America in the spring and return in the fall. During my stay in Virginia I shall be in the neighborhood where many of these trials were made. I will inform myself very particularly of them and communicate the information to you.

Besides these, there is an instance since I came away of a young man (Mr. Mays) who died and gave freedom to all his slaves, about 200; this is about a year ago. I shall know how they have turned out.

to Edward Bancroft, 26 January 1788