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Letter to Lydia Sigourney on Slavery
Digital History ID 231

Author:   Thomas Jefferson


Thomas Jefferson was of two minds about slavery. He viewed the institution as a crime, an abomination, and a wasteful, dangerous, and immoral system of labor. Yet at the same time, he feared that emancipation, in the absence of colonization, would result in race war. In his 1783 draft of a new Virginia constitution, he called for freedom for all slave children born after 1800; and in 1784 and again 1800 he called for excluding slaves from the western territories. But he never defended the Northwest Ordinance prohibition on slavery; he failed to oppose those who wanted to take slaves into Louisiana or even into Indiana; and late in life, when younger Virginians sought his blessings for liberating their slaves, he refused to encourage them.

Jefferson's letter to the popular poet Lydia Sigourney (1791-1865), "the sweet singer of Hartford," encapsulates his ambivalent attitude toward slavery and suggests how his conviction that blacks and whites could not coexist equally paralyzed him from taking effective steps against slavery. In 1820 he had expresed this thought in more famous wording: "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

In the very year that Jefferson wrote this letter he also presented his only detailed plan for abolishing slavery. Jefferson proposed emancipating slave children, "leaving them, on due compensation, with their mothers, until their services are worth their maintenance, then putting them to industrious occupations, until a proper age for deportation" to the west coast of Africa, Haiti, or some other asylum. He suggested that the cost of this plan could be paid for by selling lands taken from the Indians. "The separation of infants from their mothers," Jefferson wrote, "would produce some scruples of humanity. But it would be straining at a gnat, and swallowing a camel." In 1824 Jefferson was eighty-one.


I am not apt to despairing, yet I see not how we are to disengage ourself from that deplorable entanglement, we have the wolf by the ear & feel the danger of holding or letting loose.... I shall not live to see it but those who come after us will be wiser than we are, for light is spreading and man improving. To that advancement I look, and to the dispensations of an all-wise and all-powerful providence to devise the means of effecting what is right.

Source: Morgan Archives

Additional information: Thomas Jefferson to Lydia Sigourney

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