Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia slave holder, penned the Revolutionary words proclaiming human equality in the Declaration of Independence.
He also wrote a lesser known influential document, NotesontheStateofVirginia. Written in response to questions from France about the American colonies, the book reads as a kind of sales pitch for America. Notes on the State of Virginia was not about race, but among Jefferson’s descriptions of rivers and sea ports, mountains and climate, he expressed his views on the inhabitants of the new land. People from America, Europe, and Africa:
“I advance it, 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 possible to make the argument that Thomas Jefferson is the first person to truly articulate a theory of race in the United States. And in effect, he has to do so. He has said in the Declaration of Independence that we are all created equal. Well, if in fact we’re all created equal, and if in fact we’re entitled to our liberty, then how can he possibly own 175 slaves and going up to about 225 slaves at the peak of his slaveholding?
In Notes, Jefferson’s words appeared to justify slavery at a time when many were admonishing the founding fathers for espousing freedom while continuing to support a system of human bondage.
The problem that they to figure out was, how can we promote liberty, freedom democracy on one hand and a system of slavery and exploitation of peoples who are nonwhite on the other.
And the way you do that is to say, yeah, but you know, there’s something different about these people. This whole business of inalienable rights, that’s fine, but it only applies to certain people.
The moment when we become a nation is critical for our understanding of both American nationality and race. We accept the notion that all men are created equal, but then perhaps, some of those people who are enslaved are not quite men. That is, we’ll keep our ideas of American nationality, but we’ll write certain people out of the human family.