Thursday, 26 February 2015

‘Jefferson’s Orphan: Colonization in Theory and Practice, 1779-1826’

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale (1800)

On Wednesday 25th February, the Andrew Hook Centre was delighted to welcome Dr Nick Guyatt for the penultimate lecture in the 2014-15 series. Dr Guyatt is the author of Providence and the Invention of the United States (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and the forthcoming Bind Us Apart: A Pre-History of 'Separate But Equal' (Basic Books, 2015). The topic of the discussion was Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on black colonization during the period 1779-1826. More broadly, Dr Guyatt wished to demonstrate that colonization featured heavily in abolitionist discussions, an argument previously neglected by historians in the mainstream narrative of anti-slavery in the United States. In doing so, Dr Guyatt brought to our attention a noticeable gap in the extant historiography on Jefferson, race and colonization efforts in the early republic, absent even from Annette Gordon-Reed’s brilliant studies of the Jefferson and Hemings families - Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (1997) and The Hemingses of Monticello (2008).

In discussing his reasons for choosing to examine Jefferson more closely, Dr Guyatt asserted that Jefferson held an extremely unique position – first as the Governor of Virginia and then as the President of the United States. Occupying as he did a prominent and influential place in American society, Jefferson corresponded with a multitude of high-profile individuals, many of whom were concerned with the topic of black colonization or the seeds of ‘developmental separatism’ in the aftermath of slave uprisings. As such, Dr Guyatt identified three distinct phases of Jefferson’s life, during which time discussions of colonization had figured prominently. Firstly, in the early 1780s when Jefferson wrote the (in)famous Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Secondly, in the negotiations between Jefferson, James Monroe and John Page (both Governors of Virginia) in the aftermath of Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 and lastly, on Jefferson’s engagement with colonization during retirement.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785)

Dr Guyatt began by pin-pointing the moment in which Jefferson first proposed the idea of the gradual emancipation of slavery in June 1779. In the years that followed, this idea fermented in Jefferson’s mind, until he put his views on slavery and colonization to paper in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). In this document, Jefferson was explicit about the physical difference between slaves and their masters – more so, in fact, than any of his contemporaries. Where in Europe, slavery opponents believed in the unity of mankind and attributed the current intellectual inferiority of slaves to the social and environmental factors of slavery, Jefferson took no such approach. The inferiority of the black population, he believed, was attributable to ‘the real distinctions which nature has made.’ Comparing the problem of slavery in the early republic to that of the Roman Empire, Jefferson wrote:

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.

Thus, Dr Guyatt highlighted the fundamental difference between Jefferson’s inherent belief in racial prejudice and accompanying fears of miscegenation, juxtaposed with those of his contemporaries and enlightened European counterparts whose argument rested on natural rights. Moreover, Jefferson’s curious emphasis of black biology over social environment helps to explain why the Notes were not referenced by anti-slavery advocates thereafter. Nonetheless, close examination of Jefferson’s slavery ‘query’ is integral to inform an understanding of Jefferson’s belief that colonization be part of any plan to emancipate the American slave populace.

Dr Guyatt then turned his attention to the correspondence between James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson. The former sought the advice of the elder statesman over the appropriate response to the slave conspirators, which, up until that point, had involved multiple executions. Jefferson’s reply asked if it might be possible to ‘pass a law for their exploitation’ thereby using Gabriel’s Rebellion as a pre-text for his colonization plan. During the Secret Session of 1800, the legislative went on to pass a bill, where Monroe proposed that ‘persons dangerous to the peace of society’ i.e. all slaves, could be sold into Spanish slavery. After some delay, Jefferson’s response to Monroe’s letter was accompanied by five possibilities as to the relocation of slaves: north of the Ohio river, Canada (if Britain could be persuaded), Louisiana (if Spain could be persuaded), a new U.S. colony in North Africa, or in Saint-Domingue. In May of 1802, Jefferson contacted the British ambassador, Rufus King, suggesting that unruly slaves could be sent to Sierre Leone. However, this plan had one glaring problem, namely, that by securing passage for rebellious slaves, did such a plan not seem likely to incite widespread slave rebellions? Around this time, Jefferson appeared to back-peddle on his colonization plans, listing in his correspondence to Virginian politicians the great obstacles to colonization and questioning the overall soundness of the proposals.

In the final strand of the lecture, Dr Guyatt emphasized that during Jefferson’s retirement years his position on colonization during his retirement was much changed. Jefferson repeatedly stressed that he had no power or influence to enact such laws, and that ‘the national mind is not yet prepared’ for such government action. Interestingly, Dr Guyatt referenced a letter sent by Edward Coles to Jefferson on 31 July 1814, wherein Cole wrote of the ‘hallowed principles in that renowned Declaration of which you were the immortal author,’ in what was the sole example of Jefferson being directly confronted with the idea that the continuation of slavery was an affront to the founding principles of the republic. In his response, Jefferson lamented that Coles was a lone, dissenting voice, and that the fight against slavery was ‘an enterprise for the young,’ thus distancing himself once again from the anti-slavery movement.

Dr Guyatt thus demonstrated throughout his lecture that Thomas Jefferson had been an early advocate of colonization whose belief in the plans gradually eroded. In this way, Dr Guyatt suggested that colonization was Jefferson’s ‘orphan’ or, in other words, his brainchild - which he failed to execute. By way of explaining this, Dr Guyatt offered three possible explanations: First, that Jefferson was at the very conservative end of the anti-slavery spectrum, with little inclination to engage with the concept of natural rights. Second, that his lack of enthusiasm for the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 during Jefferson’s retirement, was in part due to his constitutional issues with private societies and lastly, that, at the heart of almost all of Jefferson’s writings on slavery and colonization, lay a deep-rooted fear of miscegenation. In this line of enquiry, Jefferson’s determination that the United States avoid a mixed-race citizenry imbued all judgment, irrespective of the (now proven) racial-mixing of his own family.

Dr Guyatt’s discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s shifting position on the tangibility of colonization was both informative and enjoyable. Drawing attention to an oft-overlooked aspect of Jefferson’s illustrious life, Dr Guyatt exposed the colonization debate which came to the fore at various stages of Jefferson’s life and beyond. Jefferson’s unique engagement with the colonization debate exposes one complex sub-stratum of the anti-slavery movement. Namely, that in amongst the rhetoric of natural rights and the steadfast belief (held by some) that slavery was a plague of which the United States must rid itself, lay the deep-rooted fear, held by one of the nation’s most revered and respected men, that miscegenation was the curse most likely to befall the republic in the event of emancipation. Propelled by this fear, colonization was the ‘orphan’ of Thomas Jefferson’s career – a plan nurtured, measured and debated at length, though ultimately unattainable and unsuited to a country whose very fabric rested on the rapid economic expansion made possible through the institution of slavery.  

By Rebecca Dunbar

PGR at The University of Glasgow

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