Thomas Jefferson: Father of White Supremacy
When you hear the name Thomas Jefferson, it is likely followed by “founding father”, “hero”, “patriot”, and other such reverent terms. Amongst the mildly critical—or anyone not in complete denial—you’ll hear it acknowledged that he was also a slaver, and that there were some inherent contradictions between this and the idea that “All men are created equal”. The more critical still may point out that he was also a rapist, in that his relationship with Sally Hemmings was a matter of obligation for her, as she was his “property”. Those truly willing to look at the man, that is the reality versus the myth, will point out that Jefferson was not even exceptional amongst his peers, for his time, or for what he purportedly accomplished. The Zinn Education Project, for example, points out how the Declaration of Independence was not some landmark achievement by Jefferson, but a sort of amalgam of pre-existing statements being made throughout the colonies. And not just a few. Historian Ray Raphael notes:
In 1997, Pauline Maier published American Scripture, where she uncovered 90 state and local “declarations of independence” that preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The consequence of this historical tidbit is profound: Jefferson was not a lonely genius conjuring his notions from the ether; he was part of a nationwide political upheaval. Again, textbook writers have watered down the legend while missing the main point. Many now state that Jefferson was part of a five-man congressional committee, but they include no word of those 90 documents produced in less-famous chambers.
However, something few critics seem to note is how Thomas Jefferson should also be considered one of the Founding Fathers of white supremacy. Obviously he was a white supremacist in that he claimed enslaved Africans as property, but it goes beyond that. White supremacy is a multifaceted ideology that pervades every sector of Western culture and society – in the US, Europe, and the present and former colonies of both. It encompasses many ideas, all to do with the explicit or implicit claim that white people are superior to others in all domains, from beauty to intelligence to reasoning to creativity, and that this superiority is inherent, biological, immutable. And, all of these ideas, insofar as they have been put into print, may find their origins in a book published by Thomas Jefferson in 1785, called Notes on the State of Virginia.
While we’re discussing Jefferson’s singular achievements, we should take note that Notes was the only full-length book that Jefferson ever published in his lifetime. The book discusses a number of topics, but of interest here is Query XIV: Laws, wherein Jefferson discusses slavery, and in particular, the inferior nature of black people. I will excerpt the chapter in chunks and comment on each one, in part just to translate his antiquated English into a more modern vernacular.
I also aim to demonstrate that nearly every white supremacist idea, claim, or rationale, can be found in this one chapter, in this one book, again the only book that Jefferson ever published. While the things that Jefferson wrote are extremely—I mean truly, mind-blowingly—offensive, I find Notes almost humorous in how explicit, thorough, and in his mind “scientific”, he is in his reasoning. For what it illuminates about US history, and what it suggests about the ideological foundations of the country, I think Notes might be one of the most important books ever written.
It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. (p. 264)
Here Jefferson is considering the consequences of emancipation, and the argument to make black people citizens of the US afterwards, to continue the work they were already doing while enslaved. As the argument goes, the country would otherwise need to bring in more white settlers to fulfill the duties vacated by freed slaves. Jefferson argues that this is not a viable solution, because upon the emancipation of black people, the country would erupt into race war, one that would not end until either black people or white people were completely wiped out.
This fear, that black liberation somehow spells doom for white people, is one of the most powerful tenets of white supremacy, and perhaps its most justifying pretext, the one that convinces people who are otherwise sensible and moral to advocate for injustice. This fear did not go away in 1865 with the Emancipation Proclamation, at which time black people did not suddenly start vengefully murdering white people. It did not end in 1964 or 1968 with the passing of the Civil Rights Acts. It did not fade, and may have even undergone a resurgence, with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, which corresponded to a dramatic uptick in white supremacist activity.
To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral. The first difference which strikes us is that of colour. Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. (pp. 264-265)
Beyond the tender concern for his country that white and black people would tear each other apart, Jefferson is suggesting that there are physical and moral reasons why black people should not be emancipated and cannot become citizens in any case. You see, because black people are so fundamentally different from white people, on a biological level. He ponders the source of these fundamental differences, waxing pseudo-scientific, about how the difference in color might be caused by differences in blood and other bodily fluids. And I mean, seriously, what in the hell is “scarf-skin”? Jefferson admits he has no idea about the reason for the color differences, but goes on to make arguments for white superiority because of it.
And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race?
Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the [orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man? Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. (pp. 264-265)
One facet of white supremacy is that white people are inherently more beautiful than people of color, especially black people. This manifests in the systemic and institutionalized white beauty standards that we see in Hollywood, advertising, the hair and cosmetics industries, modeling, music, and popular culture. That is, that white/European features are the norm, the standard by which all other features are judged, and ultimately found lacking.
In this part of Notes Jefferson is actually saying that white skin is superior because it is better able to express emotion. Beyond the bit about beauty standards, this also evokes the idea that black people are difficult to understand or relate to, that their thoughts and emotions are inaccessible. This is not a small thing, because the ability to relate to other people is central to having compassion for them. Oh, and yes, Jefferson did indeed compare black people to orangutans. This comparison, between black people and apes, is one that echoes loudly into the present, from King Kong to Planet of the Apes.
Another important idea Jefferson advances is that of black people “preferring” white people, that is, finding them more beautiful. This evokes the widespread and deeply entrenched white fear of black men, specifically, having a particular desire for white women. It actually goes well beyond fear into a sort of mass hysteria, manifest countless times in US history, and often resulting in the killing of black men or the destruction of whole neighborhoods. The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, The East St. Louis Massacre in 1917, the D.C. Race Riots of 1919, the burning of Greenwood in 1921, The Rosewood Massacre of 1923, the unjust imprisonment of the Scottsboro Boys in 1931, and the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 were all predicated upon some alleged trespass by black men against white women, most often false accusations of rape. Though in the case of East St. Louis, the anger stemmed from rumors of black men and white women merely socializing at labor meetings. Far from ending in the 1950s, there have been countless other cases well into the present day.
The April 2008 cover of Vogue magazine (shown above), featuring Lebron James and Giselle Bundchen, plays with this historical context for the sake of sensationalism. Although the main fuss was about the not-so-implicit and dehumanizing comparison between Lebron and King Kong, there is the additional subtext evoking black men in some way violating white women. These two things are hardly unrelated, as 1933 King Kong film has been widely analyzed as a metaphor for a black man stealing away a white woman. It is illuminating to trace this irrational fear at least as far back as the 1700s, and to see how it has persisted for hundreds of years.
They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. (p. 265)
So…Jefferson thought that black people—inherently, universally, as a people—smelled bad. Just sit with that for a minute. He goes on to give a “scientific” explanation for why this is the case, even though he has absolutely no background or knowledge of human biology. Related is the “fact” that black people also, apparently, sweat a lot more than white people, because of some physical difference in their lungs. Even the KKK couldn’t make this stuff up.
They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. (p. 265)
According to Jefferson, black people require less sleep. Good thing, I suppose, since it predisposes them to working long hours in the fields. He goes on to talk about how black people stay up all night, amused by stupid, trivial things, even though they know they need to be up in the morning to work. These are other currents that run through white supremacy today, that on the one hand black people’s amusements (part of our culture) are trivial, and that we are irresponsible when it comes to professional responsibilities.
Jefferson then says that black people are as brave as white people, which might seem like a compliment at first, until he goes on to suggest that the reason for our bravery is a lack of forethought. So we’re not really brave, not the way conscious and reasoning white people are, but reckless and stupid. We don’t see danger until it’s immediate, and because of our lack of forethought, we don’t handle the danger rationally. You know, this must be why so many young black men are killed by police! We just can’t see danger until it’s too late!
They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. (p. 265)
Oh, I love this one. According to Jefferson, black men pursue black women with more passion than white men do white women. Because they’re just out of their mind with animal lust, unlike white people, who experience love as a combination of physical and emotional forces. Implicit here is the idea that black people are more like animals when it comes to relationships.
Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. (p. 265)
Apparently, when black people feel grief, it isn’t for very long. All the problems we face, we just don’t feel their effects as keenly as white people, and eventually forget about them. And isn’t that great? Because again, it predisposes black people to slavery, in that we don’t feel the indignity and dehumanization as deeply, or for very long. Far from being a character strength, though, the reason grief is so temporary is that black people do not take the time, and presumably lack the ability, to reflect on their situation.
To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. (pp. 265-266)
Another gem. When black people aren’t working, or participating in some foolishness, they’re sleeping. Why? Well, because they’re animals, of course. Because they lack that capacity for reflection that would otherwise keep the mind awake. Of course, says Jefferson. Of course. Meanwhile, white people are busy contemplating the wonders of the universe. Or secretions of the “scarf-skin”. Or something equally profound.
Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous. (p. 266)
Would you look at that? Jefferson says black people have just as much memory as white people. But didn’t he just say that our grief is transient, and that we have no capacity for reflection? Nevermind. We’ve already established that contradictions are sort of Jefferson’s “thing”, so let’s move on. He says that black people are not as capable of reasoning as white people, and certainly we can’t understand math. This is an idea that continues into the present, via the self-fulfilling prophecy that black kids will do poorly in math, affirmed by the “achievement gap” on standardized tests.
In Jefferson’s time, I am sure it had nothing to do with the fact that enslaved Africans were not taught, nor allowed to learn math (or reading or any subject for that matter). Just like today I’m sure that black kids lower performance (in aggregate) in math has nothing to do with a lower quality of education, stereotype threat, or any of the other factors that actual scientists point to as the reason for the disparity. The sort of ideas at work in the minds of many educators—most of whom are white—come instead from books like The Bell Curve, in which the authors, much like Jefferson, suggest a biological reason for these differences in “achievement”. Notes was written in 1785. The Bell Curve was written in 1994. A lot can change in 200 years, huh?
It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites, and where the facts are not apocryphal on which a judgment is to be formed. It will be right to make great allowances for the difference of condition, of education, of conversation, of the sphere in which they move. Many millions of them have been brought to, and born in America. Most of them indeed have been confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society: yet many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. (p. 266)
Here Jefferson is saying that his assessment of black and white intellectual differences has to be done in the US, not in Africa, and by US standards. He is oblivious to, or perhaps just disregards, how these apparent differences could be informed by oppression. On the contrary, he argues that black people in the US, for their proximity to white people and society—by way of enslavement—had opportunity to listen to the conversations of white people, to learn to do arts and crafts (no one in Africa produced art, of course)—and some were even formally educated!. For all these reasons, enslaved black people had a great advantage over their counterparts in Africa, and so if he’s going to assess intellectual ability, he has to consider these advantages, and how in spite of them, black people are still inferior.
The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. (p. 266)
Jefferson talks about how Native Americans are quite capable of producing works of art, and of “astonishing” him with their linguistic abilities, and their capacity for reason. How their minds are just so ripe and eager for “cultivation”, presumably by white people. I dare say that Jefferson thought rather highly of Native Americans, in spite of contributing to their genocide. But perhaps what’s most important here is not his opinion of Native American ability, but him measuring it against that of black people, and again determining that black people are inferior.
This sort of juxtaposition is common. We see it in The Bell Curve, in which the authors sing the praises of Asian people and their abilities, to further emphasize black inferiority. This ties into the “model minority” stereotype, which is not only harmful to Asian people, especially marginalized groups (mostly from Southeast Asia), but builds on a widespread anti-black consensus. Since there were very few Asian folks in the US when Jefferson wrote Notes in 1785, his “model minority” was the Native Americans.
In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. (p. 266)
Black people are musically talented? Now where have I heard that before? Oh, right, it is easily one of the most widespread and well-known stereotypes of black people anywhere. While it would seem to be a positive characterization, Jefferson reveals the white supremacist undertone. While black people can “imagine a small catch”—today we might phrase that as “having rhythm”—he doubts we are capable of producing anything sophisticated. This racist idea manifests in the white establishment’s persistent criticism of black music in every era (Jazz, Blues, Hip-Hop), up to the point where they co-opt black music for profit. Even then it does not necessarily become sophisticated or equivalent to white music.
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. (pp. 266-267)
According to Jefferson, misery has inspired some of the greatest poetry. But even though black people have experienced a great deal of misery—how magnanimous he is to acknowledge it—they are not capable of producing poetry of any merit. Love is another source of inspiration for poets, but if you recall, black people only know animal lust, not love, and so they also lack the imagination to produce poetry. It is a running theme in white supremacy, to question and challenge and ultimately disregard the value of black art, in literature as in music.
Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis [Wheatley]; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism. The heroes of the Dunciad are to her, as Hercules to the author of that poem. (p. 267)
As his example of black people’s inability to produce real literature, Jefferson uses Phyllis Wheatley, most famous today for being the first black woman in the US to be published, when she wrote Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. Jefferson gives her no credit for this, saying that her work is not even worth his time to critique, and indeed dismisses the idea that she is even a poet at all. He takes it a step further to say that in comparison, Alexander Pope’s Dunciad is as far superior to Wheatley’s work as Hercules is superior, presumably in strength, to Pope.
Also implicit in the statement “the compositions published under her name” is Jefferson’s question of whether or not Wheatley wrote her own poems at all. This was a common doubt at the time Wheatley wrote her book, and in fact, she had to be interviewed by eighteen prominent white men—including the Governor of Massachusetts, and the famous John Hancock—in order to verify that she was indeed smart enough to have written the poems herself. Even then, on the cover of Poems, the work was attributed to Wheatley as “Negro Servant of John Wheatley”. Her proximity to her white “master”, of course, explains how she might have been able to put two words together at all.
Jefferson goes on to apply the same sort of racist critique to another black artist, Ignatius Sancho, a composer, writer, and actor from England.
Ignatius Sancho has approached nearer to merit in composition; yet his letters do more honour to the heart than the head. They breathe the purest effusions of friendship and general philanthropy, and shew how great a degree of the latter may be compounded with strong religious zeal. He is often happy in the turn of his compliments, and his stile is easy and familiar, except when he affects a Shandean fabrication of words. But his imagination is wild and extravagant, escapes incessantly from every restraint of reason and taste, and, in the course of its vagaries, leaves a tract of thought as incoherent and eccentric, as is the course of a meteor through the sky. (p. 267)
In short, Sancho’s work comes from his emotions not any ability to think deeply on the subjects he writes about. He has some ability, unlike Wheatley, but at times he is laughable, like Tristram Shandy, a character in a humor novel. Incidentally, the author of that novel, Laurence Sterne, corresponded with Sancho by letter, and those letters became a prominent part of British abolitionist literature.
His subjects should often have led him to a process of sober reasoning: yet we find him always substituting sentiment for demonstration. Upon the whole, though we admit him to the first place among those of his own colour who have presented themselves to the public judgment, yet when we compare him with the writers of the race among whom he lived, and particularly with the epistolary class, in which he has taken his own stand, we are compelled to enroll him at the bottom of the column. This criticism supposes the letters published under his name to be genuine, and to have received amendment from no other hand; points which would not be of easy investigation. (p. 267)
And, of course, while Sancho stands tall amongst other black writers, when compared to white writers, he is at the very bottom. This evokes the white supremacist tradition of separating black art, or anything black people produce, from the broader category in which it belongs. Whether music, literature, or even science what we produce might be good, by inferior black standards, but not when compared to that of our white counterparts. It is the reason why black works are persistently outside the “mainstream”, which is of course, white.
What little praise Jefferson affords Sancho’s work comes with doubt as to whether or not he even wrote it at all. This sort of thing is not limited to the arts, either, as it was also the motive behind a 1991 “investigation” into Martin Luther King’s doctoral dissertation, claiming that he had plagiarized other people’s work. What other purpose could there be to attempt to discredit his scholarship over twenty years after his death? There is a cruel irony in the fact that Jefferson continuously questioned whether or not Wheatley and Sancho even wrote the works credited to them, while his authorship of the Declaration of Independence is taken as a given, even though historians have shown that none of the ideas expressed in that document were uniquely his own.
The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by every one, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life. (p. 267)
To reinforce the idea that black inferiority is a matter of biology, of inheritance, Jefferson says here that “everyone” has seen how those of mixed race—black and white—are physically (presumably he is referring to beauty here) and mentally superior to people who are only black. This, to Jefferson proves black inferiority has nothing to do with things like slavery, oppression, inequality, educational disparities, all together “their condition of life”, but rather it is a matter of biology. This is also the ideological undercurrent of colorism, even within communities of color, placing black people in an unofficial hierarchy wherein superiority scales with lightness of skin. While colorism is prominent amongst black people, it is actually a global phenomenon.
We know that among the Romans, about the Augustan age especially, the condition of their slaves was much more deplorable than that of the blacks on the continent of America. (p. 267)
Perhaps no other sentence in all of Notes on the State of Virginia better demonstrates Jefferson’s state of denial and his delusions about the conditions of slavery in the US, today pretty much unanimously recognized as the worst instance of slavery in human history. This denial is analogous to that of white people today, who much as Jefferson compares US slavery to Roman slavery, compare modern systemic racism to that of the Jim Crow era, or even to slavery. Yet another current that persists throughout the centuries long reign of white supremacy.
In this country the slaves multiply as fast as the free inhabitants. Their situation and manners place the commerce between the two sexes almost without restraint. (p. 268)
Jefferson reminds us here, again, that black people are consumed by animal lust. They have no restraint, and for that, they have a lot of children. The modern analogue is the false idea that emerges now and again that black women are having a bunch of kids to take advantage of the welfare system. Except that the black population in the US has hovered between 7% and 13% since the founding of the country, so clearly we aren’t having more children—or even as many children—as any other group. Regarding how the percentage of black people in the US never exceeds 13%, much of that also to do with higher infant mortality rates due to a plethora of socioeconomic factors, the disproportionate number of black people who are murdered, or die because of the institutional failure of the US healthcare system. But I digress…
[Roman] slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master’s children. Epictetus, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction. (p. 268)
Here Jefferson reminds us that slavery itself need not be an obstacle to people achieving greatness. No, the real obstacle for black people, is our blackness. Probably something to do with those secretions in the scarf-skin again. Or because we’re too busy lusting and reproducing. Or because we just don’t feel love, or understand reason. After all, these white slaves went on to do such great things in spite of their conditions. Which, according to Jefferson, were far worse than slavery here in the US.
Whether further observation will or will not verify the conjecture, that nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head, I believe that in those of the heart she will be found to have done them justice. That disposition to theft with which they have been branded, must be ascribed to their situation, and not to any depravity of the moral sense. The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others. (p. 269)
In his characteristically verbose way, Jefferson is saying that Mother Nature was not generous to black people when it came to providing intelligence or capacity for reason, but that she gave them their fair share of emotion. Then he writes, matter-of-factly, about how black people are predisposed to stealing! Another racist idea that has managed to carry into the present, with shop owners following black people around stores, or presuming that we stole something even after we’ve bought it, or doubting that we even have the money to buy anything at all. Here, at least, Jefferson suggests that it is not inherent, or a moral flaw, but a result of social conditions. He says that because black people didn’t own property, they didn’t respect the laws of private ownership. This is a reasonable conclusion, except that it depends upon his racist presumption that black people have some inherent intellectual or rational deficiency, for which they can’t grasp the concept of private property in the abstract.
When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience: and it is a problem which give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave? (p. 269)
Jefferson writes that white people understand private property as a natural (inalienable, no doubt) right, affirmed by law. Without understanding it as a right, the laws become arbitrary and are upheld by force, rather than by the moral conscience of people and society. He goes on to suggest that this problem—of black people being thieves—falls to the slave master, who failed to teach them not to violate other people’s property. After all, black people cannot be expected to understand this principle on their own.
But the slaves of which Homer speaks were whites. Notwithstanding these considerations which must weaken their respect for the laws of property, we find among them numerous instances of the most rigid integrity, and as many as among their better instructed masters, of benevolence, gratitude, and unshaken fidelity. (p. 269)
Just when we think that Jefferson is considering a social/environmental explanation for his racist assessment of black people being inclined to theft, he returns to the biological argument, saying here that white slaves showed great moral character in spite of their circumstances, which black people do not.
The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. (pp. 269-270)
More verbosity from the Father of Verbiage. Jefferson acknowledges that his ideas about black inferiority are his opinion (even though he throws around the word “proof” elsewhere), and that the only way to justify such an opinion would be to cut the subject (black people) open, closely examine them, burn them, or to use some sort of chemicals on them. Difficult as that might be in determining a physical inferiority, it would be even harder to prove a mental deficiency. Jefferson then says, with “great tenderness”, that the conclusion of such an examination might place black people at an even lower rank than God may have intended. So, no proof then? Right. But nothing so trivial as a lack of proof will stop Jefferson from believing that black people are inferior.
To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. Advance it therefore 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. (p. 270)
Jefferson’s “suspicions” here are echoed by James Watson, nobel laureate in biology, who is perhaps most famous for his deduction of the structure of DNA with Francis Crick, though they came to this conclusion based on the data collected by another scientist: Rosalind Franklin. Watson has also become a rather outspoken proponent of scientific racism, saying during an interview in 2007 that he was “gloomy about the prospect of Africa”, because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”
Watson also said:
“There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
He would go on to be embroiled in other controversies around race and intelligence, also misogyny, which puts him in good company with good ol’ Thomas Jefferson. To cut Watson some slack, at least he, as far as we know, is neither a rapist, nor has he ever owned slaves. And most exonerating of all, he said “I have never thought of myself as a racist. I don’t see myself as a racist.” We should totally take him at his word, rather than ascribing his two completely incongruous streams of thought to white denial.
But getting back to Jefferson:
It is not against experience to suppose, that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications. Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them? This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. (p. 270)
Running with the idea that black and white people are different species, he asks that we allow him to recognize the distinctions that nature has imposed. It is unfortunate, he says, that black people are black, and stupid, because those things prevent any serious consideration of emancipating them.
Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question `What further is to be done with them?’ join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. 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. (p. 270)
According to Jefferson, the same people who support emancipation in theory, don’t support it in practice, because of anxiety that black liberation would taint the dignity and beauty of the human race—and here he means white people. Why exactly does Jefferson think that the emancipation of black people would degrade humanity? Well, miscegenation of course!
The Romans could free their slaves and have no concerns about mixing between the slave class and the ruling class, because everyone concerned was white. But in the US, says Jefferson, emancipating black people would require the additional step of relocating them somewhere that they could not mix with white people, if “dignity and beauty” are to be preserved. Jefferson is suggesting that the advocates of emancipation are hypocrites because unlike him, they claim to support emancipation, but will not commit to it, for the very same reasons he opposes it.
This reminds me—and probably suggests one origin—of the divide in racial opinions between white liberals and white conservatives. One group is all about black equality and liberation…in theory, and so long as they need not bear any consequences for it, while the other has been overtly against it, out of fear of those same consequences. How these “consequences” are defined have changed throughout the years, from concerns in the past about “racial purity” to concerns today perhaps about “social purity”. But the underlying ideology — white supremacy — has remained in tact.
Interestingly enough, it was only a few years later that TJ raped and impregnated Sally Hemmings, who bore several of his “illegitimate” children. If anyone takes issue with me calling Jefferson a rapist, consider that Jefferson was in his mid-forties at the time, and Hemmings was a teenager. That makes it at least statutory rape, but regarding consent there’s also the matter of Sally being his “property”, which means that she definitely had no choice in the matter. And hey, according to Jefferson, black people lack the capacity for reason or reflection, so…yeah. Rape.
To recap, in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson claims, and purports to back his claims with “scientific” evidence that black people:
- Upon liberation, would spark a race war, only ending with the annihilation of one side
- Are uglier than white people
- Cannot be understood or related to, because their dark skin hides their emotions
- Desire white people more than other black people
- Are comparable to apes
- Smell bad
- Are reckless and stupid, to the point of not recognizing danger
- Are more lustful than white people, and do not understand real love
- Don’t feel grief for long, because they lack the ability to reflect
- Sleep when they’re not working or fooling around
- Are inferior in reasoning and imagination
- Are incapable of understanding math
- Are intellectually inferior, inherently, regardless of social context
- Are musically inclined, but lack the ability to produce anything sophisticated
- Are incapable of producing poetry or prose with any literary merit
- Might not even have written the few things credited to them
- Are smarter and more beautiful whenever they’re mixed race (black and white)
- Didn’t really have it that bad, all things considered
- Reproduce quickly, because they lack restraint
- Can’t blame slavery for their failings, because some white slaves did awesome things
- Are naturally deficient in intellect, but have plenty of emotion
- Are predisposed to being thieves, because they don’t get the concept of private property
- Might just be a different species than white people
- Shouldn’t be emancipated because they’re black, and stupid
- If liberated, must also be moved far from white people, in order to preserve white racial purity
Wow. This—all of this—from one of the so-called Founding Fathers of the United States. Do you suppose it is even remotely possible that a man who played such a pivotal role in shaping law and public policy, didn’t transfer any of these ideas into the effort? Do you think it is possible that Jefferson conceived all these ideas in a vacuum, that he neither influenced his contemporaries, nor was influenced by them? The latter would somewhat vindicate Jefferson, in that much like the Declaration of Independence, his white supremacist ideas were not unique to him. Alas, he was the one who put these ideas to paper, in the only book he ever published in his life. Which probably means they were integral to his thinking at the time.
If Jefferson was black, maybe we could excuse his reprehensible ideas as those of an inferior mind, one incapable of reflection or reason, driven only by sensation. But this was a white man! Predisposed to great literary achievement, to hear him tell it. And no doubt he “reflected” and “reasoned” quite a bit, because it took him at least five years before he published Notes in 1785.
Anonymously. In Paris.
My purpose in writing this is two-fold. First is to completely disregard the idea that Thomas Jefferson was any sort of noble person, rare intellectual, or least of all, a hero. Unless we’re in the habit of lionizing white supremacist rapists. Actually, looking at the full spectrum of US history, we probably do that a lot, and need to stop immediately. And go back and revoke a number of hero badges while we’re at it.
The second is to make clear connections between Jefferson as one of the foundational ideologues of the United States, and the pervasive and enduring ideology of white supremacy. Whether we’re looking at the crackpot racist ideas of the Ku Klux Klan, the “scientific” racism of biologists and social scientists, or the more covert, unexamined, hidden prejudices towards black people interwoven into the cultural and historical fabric of the country, manifest in everything from media representations and the black hair industry, to white flight and police brutality, we can find an ideological seed in Notes on the State of Virginia. And that makes the book, perhaps more than anything else Jefferson wrote or contributed to —including the Declaration of Independence — one of the real founding documents of the United States.
If the most well-known of the “Founding Fathers” was a white supremacist—documented by his own hand—and that the ideas advanced in Notes have become thematic in how black people have been perceived throughout history and continue to be perceived in the present, is it really so difficult to understand claims that the United States is a white supremacist nation?