Was Thomas Jefferson America’s First Abolitionist?

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article stated, “It was Thomas Jefferson who in 1769 drafted the law that, when enacted three years later, permitted the freeing of Virginia slaves.” The “three” here is incorrect and has been corrected to “thirteen.”

Most Americans appear to believe that Thomas Jefferson raped the slave child Sally Hemings and was quite content owning other human beings as chattel property. That also seems to be the academic consensus, and no less an authority than the prestigious British science journal Nature reported in 1998 that DNA tests had confirmed President Jefferson’s paternity of Sally’s youngest child Eston.

It is thus not surprising that people of good faith and strong moral character are demanding that Jefferson statues be removed from public places and that his name be deleted from public school buildings. As I write these words, the University of Virginia—established by Jefferson in 1819—is seeking a compromise with angry faculty and students demanding the removal of Jefferson statues on campus.

But what if I told you that the Hemings story is likely false and, in reality, Jefferson has a strong claim among major public figures of his era to the title “America’s First Abolitionist?” Indeed, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery was drafted near the end of the Civil War, its authors intentionally chose language drafted by Jefferson seven decades earlier to honor his courageous struggle for the rights of slaves who had been brought to America in chains from Africa. Before more damage is done, we need to understand some facts.

A little more than two decades ago, I had the honor of chairing the most comprehensive academic examination of the Hemings issue and of editing our heavily documented, more than 400-page report, The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission (Carolina Academic Press). The Scholars Commission was a diverse group of more than a dozen senior professors from around the nation—including two former presidents of the New England Political Science Association and several authors of acclaimed books about Jefferson.

After a year-long inquiry, we concluded with but a single mild dissent that the story of a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship is likely false. We showed that some key historical documents used to make the case against Jefferson had been materially altered. Sadly, the release of the book version of our report was largely ignored both by popular media and academic journals—and thus eluded the attention of most Americans. Since our report was issued, not a single senior scholar in the pro-paternity camp has been willing to defend her or his position in debate—an offer that remains open—despite repeated invitations to do so.

The much-publicized 1998 DNA tests misreported in Nature did not even have access to a sample of Thomas Jefferson’s DNA and merely established that one of the more than two-dozen Jefferson men in Virginia at the time likely fathered Sally’s son Eston. Based on the DNA tests alone, the odds that Eston Hemings was President Jefferson’s son ranged from about four to fifteen percent—depending upon whether we exclude candidates for whom there is no reason to believe they were at Monticello at the time.

Until persuaded otherwise in the 1970s by a Caucasian writer whose work on Jefferson was largely dismissed by serious Jefferson scholars, Eston’s descendants passed down the story that he was not the president’s child but rather the son of an “uncle.” So, to accept Thomas Jefferson’s paternity of Eston Hemings requires us to disrespect the oral traditions passed down for generations by Eston’s descendants.

Furthermore, the “uncle” story is the only account that fits all the evidence. President Jefferson’s much younger brother Randolph was known at Monticello as “Uncle Randolph” because of his relationship to the president’s daughter Martha, who ran Monticello while her father was in the White House. An 1847 oral history of a freed blacksmith named Isaac Granger (finally published a century later under the title Memoires of a Monticello Slave) asserted that when the president’s brother visited Monticello, he would “come out among black people, play the fiddle & dance half the night.” Jefferson’s records establish that Randolph and his five sons—ages 14 to 27, and thus more likely to father a child than the 64-year-old president—were invited to visit Monticello days before Eston’s likely conception.

The original 1802 public assertion of a Jefferson-Hemings sexual liaison came from the pen of perhaps the most notorious scandalmonger in America as part of a blackmail scheme to pressure President Jefferson to appoint him postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. James Callender had never even visited Monticello; but he had heard (accurate) rumors that there were mixed-race children there, which was often a consequence of slave women being abused by their “masters.” Jefferson had in 1774 inherited Sally Hemings, her siblings, and their mother Betty upon the death of his father-in-law. These were the “mulatto” children of Callender’s rumors.

But Callender’s account was more specific. He wrote of the presence at Monticello of a ten- to twelve-year-old child named “Tom” who was said to bear a “striking resemblance” to President Jefferson and who had been conceived in Paris. After the president’s death, a freed slave named Thomas Woodson declared that he was Callender’s “Tom,” and his descendants in various parts of the country have passed down the story in very similar and highly credible language to present time. They clearly believed they were President Jefferson’s descendants. But the 1998 DNA study tested male-line descendants of three of Thomas Woodson’s sons and established beyond doubt that he was not the child of any Jefferson male. Interested readers can purchase The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave, and other books of relevance to this issue from any major bookseller and draw their own conclusions.

• • •

It is true Jefferson owned slaves—he inherited roughly 175 upon the deaths of his father and father-in-law. At the time, it was unlawful to free them. It was Thomas Jefferson who in 1769 drafted the law that, when enacted thirteen years later, permitted the freeing of Virginia slaves.

In his 1776 draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson denounced King George III for having “waged cruel war against human nature itself” by transporting “a distant people who never offended him” into slavery in America. The language was deleted to keep South Carolina and Georgia from walking out of the Convention. Jefferson also authored a bill that outlawed the importation of new slaves into Virginia. Enacted in 1778, it was sadly ignored by the majority of slave-traders.

Five years after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson authored his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. He denounced the evils of human bondage, asserting: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just” and that “his justice cannot sleep forever. . . . The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” In other settings he denounced slavery as a “moral depravity” and an “abominable crime.”

Jefferson’s critics will point out that Notes also contained speculation about the supposed intellectual inferiority of black slaves. But Jefferson observed that the differences he perceived were based upon a small sampling and might easily be explained by their circumstances—and emphasized that no one would be happier than himself to see his tentative conclusion disproven. In an 1809 letter to Henri Grégoire, Jefferson added: “[W]hatever be their degree of talent 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.”

In 1945, the editor of The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine noted that although Paine is often called “America’s first abolitionist,” the title more properly belonged to Jefferson because of his 1769 effort to permit the freeing of enslaved human beings in Virginia. A century earlier, writing in a British abolitionist newspaper, former President John Quincy Adams contended that “on the roll of American abolitionists,” Jefferson ranked second only to Washington. But Washington seldom, if ever, publicly denounced slavery during his political career.

Jefferson often wrote about wanting to find a way to free his slaves when his finances improved. But he had no illusions about the horrible quality of life faced by most freed former slaves—a point driven home when he freed James Hemings in 1796. James was among the most talented servants at Monticello, having accompanied Jefferson to Paris in 1774 to be trained as a French chef. Once freed, James soon turned to alcohol and in 1801 committed suicide—a source of shock and great sadness at Monticello.

In an August 25, 1814, letter to his neighbor and fellow abolitionist Edward Coles, Jefferson said that until slavery could be abolished, slaveowners had a duty “to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.” I believe Professor Joseph Ellis was correct when he wrote in American Sphinx that Jefferson could have passed a polygraph test on his belief that his own slaves “were more content and better off as members of his extended family than under any other imaginable circumstances.”

Jefferson’s finances did not improve. Unlike the Randolphs, Marshalls, Lees, and many other prominent Virginia families, Jefferson refused to take advantage of a law passed by the Virginia legislature during the Revolution empowering Virginians to settle debts to British creditors with paper currency that was far less valuable that pounds sterling. Most of Jefferson’s debts had been inherited from his father-in-law, and his principled stand of not depreciating those debts contributed to Jefferson owing more than $100,000—more than $2.5 million in today’s dollars—at the time of his death. Many of his slaves were collateral on outstanding loans, but even had that not been true, Section 54 of the Revised Code of Virginia of 1819 prohibited the freeing of slaves by will until all estate debts were satisfied. (Slaves were viewed as chattel property at the time.) Freeing his slaves in his will was thus not a legal option.

One of Jefferson’s most important efforts in opposition to slavery initially failed. Called upon by his colleagues in the Second Continental Congress in 1784 to prepare rules to govern the Northwest Territory, Jefferson wrote: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” It failed by a single vote. Jefferson later lamented: “God was silent in that awful moment.”

Seventy years later, near the end of the Civil War—to honor Jefferson’s long struggle against human bondage—Senate opponents of slavery incorporated Jefferson’s language as the text of the Thirteenth Amendment, which when ratified finally outlawed slavery throughout the Nation.

Thomas Jefferson was imperfect. No one admires him for owning other human beings. But one of the things that set him apart from most of his southern contemporaries was his politically courageous public opposition to slavery. Jefferson’s articulate condemnation of slavery ultimately contributed to the end of slavery throughout America. For that he deserves our respect and our gratitude.

Image: Gilbert Stuart, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, cropped.


  • Robert F. Turner

    Until his 2020 retirement, Professor Turner taught at the University of Virginia for more than three decades. He is currently writing a book about Jefferson and Slavery.

2 thoughts on “Was Thomas Jefferson America’s First Abolitionist?

  1. A year ago, when the BLM terrorists went wilding through Boston, they vandalized the memorial to the 54th Massachusetts — the all-Black Civil War unit.

    I don’t know which is worse — that they didn’t know, or that they didn’t care….

    This is about power, not social justice…

    1. You are exactly correct. And people now 2 years later are still spewing the same uninformed rhetoric.

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