As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson often has been accused of hypocrisy because he owned slaves.
But historian David Barton is defending Jefferson’s reputation, arguing the nation’s third president actually was one of the founders of the abolitionist movement.
In a recent appearance on Glenn Beck’s The Blaze TV program to discuss the new edition of the Barton’s book “The Jefferson Lies,” the author discussed the hidden history of Jefferson’s anti-slavery efforts.
Barton told Beck that Jefferson’s attempts to gradually eliminate slavery were a consistent part of his career.
“When he came in as a young legislator in Virginia, first thing he did was introduce laws to start ending slavery,” Barton said.
Barton also explained that Jefferson was unable to free his slaves because of Virginia law at that time.
“He owned slaves, he inherited nearly 200 slaves,” Barton told Beck. “When he was 14 years old, he inherited his first group of slaves that were given to him. And so under Virginia law you’re not allowed to free what you inherit. Any slaves, the dowry slaves is what they call them, you can’t free inherited slaves.”
Barton argued Jefferson’s first foray into abolitionism was a disaster.
“He’s got all this stuff with Virginia law, and so he introduces a law in the legislature to get it banned, and they just tear him up,” Barton observed. “He and Richard Bland, Richard Bland was the senior legislator.”
But rather than backing down, Barton said Jefferson continued his abolitionist efforts all through his career.
“When he enters the Continental Congress, he introduces a law to ban slavery in all the colonies,” Barton said. “Every one of them. It failed by one vote.”
He said Jefferson regretted that failure until the end of his life.
Beck noted George Washington freed his slaves upon his death and asked Barton why Jefferson did not follow Washington’s example. Barton explained the American Revolution and the egalitarian ideals led to changes in the law, which made it easier to emancipate slaves. However, Thomas Jefferson had another problem – debt.
“They also had a law that said if you’re in debt you can’t free any slaves,” Barton said. “Jefferson, by today’s standards about two and a half million dollars in debt, is not able to free his slaves, and they changed the laws. He said this: ‘The laws will not allow me to turn them loose.'”
Still, Beck observed that while Jefferson cannot be excused for owning slaves, he not only tried to end slavery in the U.S. but worked to end the institution in other nations, including France. Barton also noted Jefferson paid his slaves, which he didn’t have to do.
Despite Jefferson owning slaves, he was remembered until recently as one of the great anti-slavery crusaders by men such as Frederick Douglass. Barton also recounted the tributes paid to Jefferson by John Quincy Adams, who was called the “hellhound of abolition.” A speech by Adams “praised Jefferson for the lead role he took in trying to end slavery,” Barton said.
Jefferson’s own writings also contain powerful condemnations of slavery. Reading from Jefferson’s first and only full length book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Barton read Jefferson’s description of slavery.
Jefferson said: “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.”
Barton also cited Jefferson’s quote condemning statesmen who tolerate slavery.
“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 one part, and the amor patriae of the other.”
Finally Barton recalled Jefferson’s famous warning about the consequences of tolerating slavery.
“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
Barton observed that while many people know the quote, far fewer realize Jefferson was referring to what he thought would be divine judgment on America for tolerating slavery.
However, in contemporary America, Jefferson is not known as an anti-slavery crusader. Some major media figures have even broached removing the Jefferson Memorial from Washington, D.C.
Barton blames the ignorance surrounding Jefferson on the refusal of professional historians to review original documents instead of second-hand sources.
Barton said: “Nobody knows anything unless they quote from another PhD. No, go back to the original documents. When you go back to the original documents you get things right. And so what they do, when you go back to the books, they all quote each other in a circular fashion. And because I went back to the originals instead of quoting PhDs, the PhDs said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.'”
Barton suggested his use of original sources is one of the reasons many historians are so hostile to “The Jefferson Lies.”
“That’s what gives them heartburn, because now they have to admit that what they’ve been taught may be wrong, their philosophy may be wrong, they’ve taken a position that no longer comports with history, and they’ve been saying that this is what history teaches,” Barton said. “So it really puts them in a hard spot.”
However, as Barton noted, ultimately Jefferson failed in his crusade to eliminate slavery from the young republic. And the nation has lived with the horrific consequences ever since.
See the interview: