Theories of Race

Thomas Jefferson

  • Thomas Jefferson's portrait

    Thomas Jefferson



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The most infamous statement on race in the 18th century was composed by the same man who wrote the Declaration of Independence. As this fact alone would suggest, Thomas Jefferson is one of the most complex and paradoxical figures in American history. A man of enormous breadth of learning and interest who possessed one of the most spacious and cosmopolitan minds in the world at the time, Jefferson grasped the radical nature of egalitarian democracy before many others, and, in the Declaration, gave democracy its most majestic articulation, stating as “self-evident” the facts that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The sentiments expressed in the Declaration have inspired and supported progressive causes since the beginning of the nation and stand as the most aggressive statement of the optimistic claims of the Enlightenment concerning universal progress. Jefferson detested slavery as a violation of those self-evident truths and included in his draft of the Declaration a denunciation of the slave trade that was stricken, Jefferson later wrote, because of objections by delegates from both the southern states whose economy depended on slavery, and the northern states who profited from the trade. Also stricken was another passage about inalienable rights that, Jefferson felt, was stronger than the famous phrase that replaced it.

Jefferson was also farsighted in his sense of what he saw as the inevitable consequence of a failure to abolish slavery in the new country: a slave rebellion that would, as he says in Query XIV in Notes on the State of Virginia, end “in the extermination of the one or the other race.” “Nothing,” he wrote to John Adams in 1822, “is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” And yet Jefferson, in many respects so remarkable, was in others entirely conventional, a fact nowhere more in evidence than in the Notes, his only book. Written in 1781-82 at the conclusion of Jefferson’s two-year term as governor and published first in French in 1785 and then in English in 1787, Notes is an amazingly detailed inventory of the resources and attributes of the state of Virginia, as well as a deeply personal statement of philosophical and moral convictions concerning education, crime and punishment, agriculture, government, the separation of church and state, and, most famously, race and slavery. On this last subject, Jefferson gives memorable voice both to his personal reflections and to common presuppositions and sensitivities that, while not uncontroversial, were well within the American mainstream.

The “Queries” that provide the organizational structure of the Notes were made by the secretary of the French legation in Philadelphia, who had addressed similar questions to officials in the original thirteen states. In Query XIV, concerning “the administration of justice,” Jefferson begins with a general description of the legal establishment in Virginia—the county magistrates, superior courts, appeals process, and so forth, including the recent transformation of the state’s legal code to bring it into conformity with post-revolutionary republican principles. Among the proposals for this alteration was a commitment “to emancipate all slaves after passing this act.” The proposal, which included the creation of a separate and independent colony reserved for black people, did not survive the legislative process, but the recollection of it inspired Jefferson to produce, almost out of the clear blue, an extended discourse on black people, a passage the historian Winthrop D. Jordan has called “intellectual wreckage,” and “the most intense, extensive, and extreme formulation of anti-Negro ‘thought’ offered by any American in the thirty years after the Revolution.”*

Given his egalitarian commitments and his conviction that the institution of slavery was deeply degrading to both slave and slaveholder (see the less well known “Query XVIII” below), Jefferson was deeply troubled by the possibility that in a Linnean system of fixed categories, the “real distinctions which nature has made” including an “unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty,” represented a permanent obstacle to equality and assimilation. This question might, Jefferson felt, hinge on a more fundamental but unanswerable question, whether the differences he observed were original and unalterable, or circumstantial and modifiable. What seemed to be inherent in black people was the aesthetic disability under which they labored because of their skin, which prevented them from blushing or expressing subtle emotions. Even black people, Jefferson noted, think whites more attractive, just as orangutangs (which Jefferson calls Oranootans and others call oran-outangs) prefer black women over females of their own species. [For further ruminations on human-primate attraction, see Long.]

Jefferson’s interest in physiology, which suggests an acquaintance with such writers as Buffon, Goldsmith, Mitchell, and Camper, dominates the first part of his reflections. But accounts of physical attributes in “Query XIV” give way to descriptions of behavior, temperament and mental capacity. Advancing his views “as a suspicion only”—a phrasing of which Daniel J. Boorstin says “It would be hard to imagine a statement more tentative or ambiguous”—Jefferson finds severe limitations among the Negroes that he attributes in part to the effects of servitude but also to “a difference of race,” a term that suggested a deep and durable condition.** Noting that some slaves in the ancient world, while treated even worse than those in America, had become proficient at various skills, Jefferson suggests that their achievements were attributable to the fact that “they were of the race of whites.” Apparently subscribing to the view of Bernier that American Indians might have been descendants of the same race as Europeans, Jefferson contrasts the undeveloped capacities of Indians to the apparently fixed incapacities of black people. Jefferson hazarded his views “with great diffidence,” and allowed for a few striking exceptions to this inferiority, including courage, memory, and the “moral sense,” which is, he says, every bit as developed in black people as in whites.

Jefferson was never able fully to resolve his suspicions that black people might represent a separate and inferior species, but repeatedly professed his eagerness to see his hypothesis disproven by the discovery of a common human origin. Even without such proof, he was, however, insistent on another question. “Whatever be their degree of talent,” he wrote in 1809, “it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others.”***

Jefferson’s suggestion that black people represented a “distinct species” not only contradicted Enlightenment universalism but ran the risk of blasphemy of the sort Voltaire had enthusiastically embraced by implying that blacks did not descend from Adam and Eve or from the sons of Noah. Jefferson was, however, less concerned about that risk than he was about the consequences of the emancipation of the slaves, which he describes in Query XVIII as being almost inevitable, morally necessary—and potentially disastrous for the white slaveowners.

Jefferson’s text represents the first extended meditation on racial difference other than Long’s History of Jamaica to be composed by someone who had personal experience with members of another race. Given that he was a slaveholder (who, at his death, still owned one hundred and thirty slaves, who were sold to pay Jefferson’s debts) and a public official in a country in which slavery was permitted, Jefferson’s interests are, however, confined to the relations between white and black people and the grounds for white dominance; race in general does not concern him.

Jefferson lived to regret, but not publicly to recant, his views on this subject. Twenty years after he composed Notes, Jefferson wrote to a French correspondent that his comments were based on “personal observation on the limited sphere of my own state, when the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so,” adding that “the Negroes are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”****

The passage quoted below is followed by Jefferson’s proposals for the punishments for various forms of crime, which include death by hanging, dissection, death by poison, gibbeting, and dismemberment.

*Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc., 1968), 453, 481.

**Daniel J. Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1948), 94. 

***Jefferson, letter to M. Henri Grégoire, 1809; quoted in Boorstin, Lost World, 97.

****Thomas Jefferson, letter of February 25, 1809 to M. Henri Gregoire, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, DC: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903), vol. XII, 255. 

Stricken passages from the Declaration of Independence

He 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 & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or 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 among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

“. . . that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable.”*

[Replaced by “. . . all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights . . . .”]

Source: Thomas Jefferson, “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, as reconstructed by Julian P. Boyd, in Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, January 1760 to December 1776, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 243.

Notes on the State of Virginia


Query XIV. The administration of justice and the description of the laws?

Many of the laws which were in force during the monarchy being relative merely to that form of government, or inculcating principles inconsistent with republicanism, the first assembly which met after the establishment of the commonwealth appointed a committee to revise the whole code, to reduce it into proper form and volume, and report it to the assembly. This work has been executed by three gentlemen, and reported; but probably will not be taken up till a restoration of peace shall leave to the legislature leisure to go through such a work. The plan of the revisal was this. The common law of England, by which is meant, that part of the English law which was anterior to the date of the oldest statutes extant, is made the basis of the work. It was thought dangerous to attempt to reduce it to a text: it was therefore left to be collected from the usual monuments of it. Necessary alterations in that, and so much of the whole body of the British statutes, and of acts of assembly, as were thought proper to be retained, were digested into new acts, in which simplicity of style was aimed at, as far as was safe. The following are the most remarkable alterations proposed:

To change the rules of descent, so as that the lands of any person dying intestate shall be divisible equally among all his children, or other representatives, in equal degree.

To make slaves distributable among the next of kin, as other moveables.

To have all public expenses, whether of the general treasury, or of a parish or county, (as for the maintenance of the poor, building bridges, court-houses, &c.) supplied by assessments on the citizens, in proportion to their property.

To hire undertakers for keeping the public roads in repair, and indemnify individuals through whose lands new roads shall be opened.

To define with precision the rules whereby aliens should become citizens, and citizens make themselves aliens.

To establish religious freedom on the broadest bottom.

To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act. The bill reported by the revisors does not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it was prepared, to be offered to the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up, and further directing, that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then he brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should he colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household and of the handicraft arts, seeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c. to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they have acquired strength; and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants; to induce whom to migrate hither, proper encouragements were to be proposed. It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expense of supplying by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand 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.—To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour.— Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides these of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.—When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar œstrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem. Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honour to the heart than the head. They breathe the purest effusions of friendship and general philanthropy, and show how great a degree of the latter may be compounded with strong religious zeal. He is often happy in the turn of his compliments, and his style is easy and familiar, except when he affects a Shandean fabrication of words. But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky. His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration. Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enrol him at the bottom of the column. This criticism supposes the letters published under his name to be genuine, and to have received amendment from no other hand; points which would not be of easy investigation. The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life. . . . But in this country the slaves multiply as fast as the free inhabitants. Their situation and manners place the commerce between the two sexes almost without restraint. The same Cato, on a principle of œconomy, always sold his sick and superannuated slaves. He gives it as a standing precept to a master visiting his farm, to sell his old oxen, old wagons, old tools, old and diseased servants, and every thing else become useless. . . . With the Romans, the regular method of taking the evidence of their slaves was under torture. Here it has been thought better never to resort to their evidence. When a master was murdered, all his slaves, in the same house, or within hearing, were condemned to death. Here punishment falls on the guilty only, and as precise proof is required against him as against a freeman. Yet notwithstanding these and other discouraging circumstances among the Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their masters' children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phædrus were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction. Whether further observation will or will not verify the conjecture, that nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head, I believe that in those of the heart she will be found to have done them justice. That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others. When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right; that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience: and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave? And whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little from one, who has taken all from him, as he may stay one who would slay him? That a change in the relations in which a man is placed should change his ideas of moral right or wrong, is neither new, nor peculiar to the colour of the blacks. Homer tells us it was so 2600 years ago.

Jove fix'd it certain, that whatever day Makes man a slave, takes half his worth away.

But the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites. Notwithstanding these considerations which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude and unshaken fidelity. The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the anatomical knife, to optical classes, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. 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. It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question ‘What further is to be done with them?’ join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture. (142-51)

Query XVIII. The particular customs and manners that may happen to be received in that state?

It is difficult to determine on the standard by which the manners of a nation may be tried, whether catholic, or particular. It is more difficult for a native to bring to that standard the manners of his own nation, familiarized to him by habit. 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. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to the worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriæ of the other. For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another; in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him. With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him. This is so true, that of the proprietors of slaves a very small proportion indeed are ever seen to labour. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever: 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.—But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.

Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemmingses of Monticello (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009)

Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Baltimore: Penguin Books Inc., 1968).

Douglas L. Wilson, “The Evolution of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 112 (2004): 98-133.