A Conversation Between Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Coker Concerning a Vast Array of Issues Surrounding Slavery
It is easy for those of us living in the modern world to look back to the time of slavery and say it was wrong. It is also easy for us to see nothing wrong with intermarriage between races, though there are still pockets of people who feel it to be very wrong and will even disown family members for marrying outside their race. However, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were not enough voices speaking up just yet to change the institution of slavery in America. Then, if slaves were to be freed, the question to immediately follow was what should be done with them. Should they be allowed to stay in the United States where they might mix with whites? Or should they be sent back from whence they came, to Africa? Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Coker grew up on absolutely opposite ends of the social spectrum, yet they shared some of the same basic ideas concerning slavery, intermarriage, and what should be done with freed blacks. However, both of them spent much of their lives living in a liminal space between their personal views and actions and those pushed onto them by society as a whole.
For centuries Americans have painted Thomas Jefferson as a patriot who truly believed the words he penned in our Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How could a man who owned hundreds of slaves in all honesty believe such a statement? Jefferson was an idealist from the Enlightenment who saw himself and the country stuck in the “peculiar institution” of slavery, though every fiber is his body knew it to be wrong.
As a young man, Jefferson did indeed fight for the ideals in which he believed. As a young lawyer in 1770, he represented a slave who was seeking his freedom through the courts. Jefferson proclaimed on behalf of his client that “under the law of nature, all men are born free, and everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving it and using it as his own will” (Douglas 61). Jefferson lost that court case, but continued to write about the harm done to slave, master, and nation by allowing slavery to continue in the United States of America. Jefferson did, however, grow up in and around slavery. His father was a wealthy plantation owner from Virginia, and Jefferson received his first “black body servant at the age of 14 and was not without one until his death nearly 70 years later” (Douglas 61).
The young Jefferson was an idealist who wanted to change the world. After all, he had already helped to evince so much change, why would abolishing slavery be that much more to ask? However, upon the death of his father, Jefferson inherited hundreds of slaves. Jefferson had luxuriant tastes that far outweighed the annual income he earned from his plantation. It is at this point that the young idealist turns to a savvy businessman. He was a “compulsive record keeper who monitored everything from the number and types of seeds planted in his gardens to the weight of materials used to make nails and textile products at Monticello” (Wiencek 29). Being so meticulous in his records, an investigator can easily discover that he viewed his slaves as chattel, like most plantation owners of the time. He discovered that he could report a credit on his balance sheets every year due to the breeding of his slaves. To put it in financial terms, “his slaves were yielding him a perpetual human dividend at compound interest” (Wiencek 29). He considered a slave “woman who [brought] a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital” (Wiencek 29).
In Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he shows typical colonial...
Cited: 1. Jefferson, Thomas. “Notes on the State of Virginia.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. A, 6th Edition. Ed. Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co., 2009.
2. Douglas, Carlyle C. “The Dilemma of Thomas Jefferson.” Ebony August 1975: 60-66. Print.
3. Wiencek, Henry. “Thomas Jefferson Slave Master.” American History October 2012: 26-33. Print.
4. Holmes, Jerry. “Thomas Jefferson A Chronology of His Thoughts.” Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002. Print.
5. Daniel Coker. “A Dialogue Between a Virginian and an African Minister.” Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African American Protest Literature, 1790-1860. Eds. Richard Newman, Patrick Rael, Phillip Lapansky (New York: Routledge, 2001)
6. Coker, Daniel. “Journal of Daniel Coker, a Descendant of Africa, from the Time of Leaving New York, in the Ship Elizabeth, Capt. Sebor, on a Voyage for Sherbro, in Africa, in Company with Three Agents, and About Ninety Persons of Colour.” Baltimore, Edward J. Coale. 1820. Print.
7. Thomas, Rhondda R. “Exodus and Colonization: Charting the Journey in the Journals of Daniel Coker, a descendant of Africa.” African American Review 2007 Volume 41, Number 3: 507-519. Print
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