Slavery, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass the Libertarian

By. Joshua D. Glawson | United States

It has been accurately stated by an anonymous source, “The institution of chattel slavery is truly the worst chapter in American political history.  Not only did the institution stand in stark contradiction to the professed ideals of freedom and equality, but its legacy extended well beyond the formal abolition of slavery with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.  The enduring repercussions of the institution of slavery and the white supremacist ideologies that supported it constituted a relentless assault on black people’s dignity.” This rang true for all, from Frederick Douglass to James Baldwin.

The onset of African chattel slavery in America began in the early Seventeenth Century as the Dutch began their slave trade in the colonies. The numbers of enslaved African people brought to America exponentially grew through the mid Nineteenth Century. It was not until after the U.S. Civil War that slavery was legally condemned throughout the nation via the U.S. Constitution’s Thirteenth Amendment which was ratified in 1865. Prior to this ratification, slavery was only considered illegal in various regions of the Northern states, and even there slaves were continually counted on national censuses as “slaves” until slavery was declared nationally illegal.

This would suggest that although slavery was one of the key issues fought over in the U.S. Civil War, it was not so urgent for the country, or even the North, to treat the enslaved as being equal to ordinary citizens until after the victory of the Union over the Confederacy. Even after defeating the slave-entrenched Confederacy, it was not until 1965 that Blacks would get full equal rights to Whites under the law.

From the origin of the United States of America, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third President of the U.S., Thomas Jefferson, openly publicized in written word and voice that slavery was wrong and that he was against its very existence. In 1769, as a member of the Virginian Congress, he had a bill to end slavery in Virginia, but it was denied (Jefferson, 9). The unbeknownst issue for Jefferson was that he did not believe in ‘manumission,’ the immediate freeing of slaves by their owners. Few abolitionists in America believed in this immediacy, other than Benjamin Lay and few others. Jefferson believed in gradually transitioning slaves from enslavement to free-society through education and a sort of genetic weeding-out over time separating the naturally bright from the doltish (Jefferson, 243-244).

In part, the reason that Jefferson was hesitant to free slaves through immediate judicial means was that, culturally, chattel slavery was the norm for over one hundred years in America prior to Jefferson. His view of government and regulating society was to incorporate as peaceful of means necessary by gaining the democratic vote of the Colonies and then the American people as a whole.

Additionally, Thomas Jefferson held an Aristotelian philosophical concept of a natural hierarchy and specifically the idea of ‘Natural Slavery,’ being that some people are born to be slaves by their very nature. In the meantime, before any division could have been made, Jefferson felt that having slaves was a benefit to both the slave and the slave owner because enslavement benefited the slaves as being housed, clothed, and fed, etc.; while the slave benefited the slave owner by performing all work necessary for the slave owner’s survival and thriving. Unfortunately, this was a view that many Americans held in Jefferson’s day (Jefferson, 243-244).

Beyond simply thinking that people are naturally born leaders or slaves, Jefferson thought certain races of people, e.g. Blacks and Native Americans, were mentally inferior to that of Whites. He also thought the only way Blacks would become equal to Whites was if they mixed with Whites having mulatto children. This was not because of some hatred for others.

Rather, he believed there was empirical evidence for this idea. His racism towards Blacks was established through empirical evidence only by strict guidelines of social norms which had well-established slavery that also precluded education for these slaves. This means that Jefferson’s so-called evidence for the inferiority of black people was not determined by practical scientific methods, rather it was misguided understanding of the exasperating multi-generational enslavement of Blacks. Any mental inferiority held by black slaves of Jefferson’s period was due to their situation and not their skin color or any correlation of such (Jefferson, 238-241).

Although Jefferson advocated for the abolition of slaves through democratic processes while maintaining the conflicting view of ‘Natural Slavery,’ he also possessed slaves of his own from the age of 21 until his passing in 1826, at age 83. Since his slaves were considered his property, he had the option of what should happen to them once he died via his will, e.g. free them or give them to someone else. Jefferson chose to give them away to others as a means to pay off some of his growing debt, rather than giving these enslaved people their freedom. Just as America’s history of slave ownership, Jefferson’s slave owning is often a point of conflict for those that love Jefferson and those that oppose him.

I disagree with Jefferson’s gradual transition for the enslaved people on the grounds that he considered it an endangerment to Blacks as being mentally inferior to that of Whites and that it would be more harm for them than good. I do not think that someone is inferior or superior because of their skin color. I also do not think it is the place of a government to concern itself with what it determines as being best for individuals, such as when or how to free slaves.

Slavery should, of course, exist under no circumstances as it is the natural inclination of being a person that provides the need to be free. An enslaved person is under the arbitrary will of another and this prevents their truly living and flourishing. Not only does slavery hurt the enslaved, but it equally hurts those that enslave because it makes the master think of themselves as superior to another while cutting off sympathy to others. Simply put, it makes the slave owner less human as it makes the enslaved less human. It is my position that people are to live freely in society among others, and we have ‘negative duties’ towards others such as not hurting, not killing, not stealing, not enslaving, etc. Frederick Douglass thought the same.

Frederick Douglass was a slave for most of his life being traded from one slave master to another. He constantly felt that no matter how well his slave masters treated him, he was still not treated as being a human. His Liberty and freedom grew to be of most importance to him. In one relationship of slave and slave master, Frederick Douglass said that the woman of the house he worked for first treated him as one human should treat another human. As time went on, it became clear that the absolute power she was given over Douglass had corrupted her own integrity of treating others as fellow human beings, especially when it came to Douglass. In this example, it is empirically clear that slavery harms both the enslaved and the enslavers, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Further examples provided by Frederick Douglass were that some masters treated him less poorly than others. I will not say “They treated him better than others,” because after all, he was still not free and was treated as being a lesser creature than his white slave masters and White society as a whole.

For instance, when he was growing up on a plantation, the slave master would give him cakes and speak kindly to him (Douglass, 16). Yet another slave master would allow Douglass to go work elsewhere for money, but he had to give the entire earnings to the slave master at the end of every week. Sometimes this master would give Douglass some of the earnings back. Frederick Douglass thought that all of the money should be his own since it was earned through his own labor. These examples demonstrate that even when given some taste of kindness or freedom, he was still not treated as being owner over himself or his labor (Douglass, 59).

It is not clear in Frederick Douglass’ words as to whether he felt the same towards government and taxation. It is my speculation that he would think that a government should tax as little as possible in order to operate, but in the end every person’s income is justifiably their own. In order for ‘justice’ to exist, there requires a unilateral system of equal treatment under the law, so anarchy would not be applicable for ‘justice’ to exist. Either small amounts of taxation would be required, or a voluntary system would be necessary. It is more likely that small amounts of taxation would be successful, and it is my understanding from Douglass’ situation with the master that took his money that he would be inclined to agree with this sentiment for a Minarchist, or “Night-Watchman,” state.

Douglass saw the world in a different way than many other slaves did at the time, which provided him the ability to grow as a person. He learned to read and hungered for knowledge by playing games with white children nearby (Douglass, 22-23). He rightfully understood that a person has property within themselves and is responsible for their actions and labor (Douglass, 59). Furthermore, he saw that people are to be treated equally under the law as the concept of ‘justice’ would have it, no matter one’s skin color or mental capacity.

Frederick Douglass, in contrast with Thomas Jefferson, saw that immediately releasing slaves was imperative. Where Jefferson saw Black people as being naturally inferior, Douglass was able to refute such a hasty generalization and distasteful claim by proving over and over again of his humanity and intellect, while establishing his equality to Whites.

Douglass, like Jefferson, for the most part, believed in peace; and his solution to being enslaved was to run away from the slave owners rather than leading acts of violence towards those that enslaved him and others. Until his death in 1895, at age 77, Frederick Douglas continued to advocate for the equality of Blacks to Whites, and condemned the practice of slavery. He lived to see the victory of the Union over the Confederacy, the Emancipation, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. If only he could have seen the progress made around 70 years later through the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin.

To support 71 Republic, please donate to our Patreon, which you can find here.

Featured Image Source.

2 thoughts on “Slavery, Thomas Jefferson, and Frederick Douglass the Libertarian”

Comments are closed.