Thomas Jefferson's Secret Plan to Whiten VirginiaRoundup
tags: slavery, racism, Thomas Jefferson, Virginia, Whiteness
Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor of Ethnic Studies at Bowling Green State University and author of The Patriots’ Dilemma: White Abolitionism and Black Banishment in the Founding of the United States of America, forthcoming from Pluto Press.
Early in 1776, Thomas Paine fired the imaginations of patriot leaders when he wrote that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” One young patriot who would soon emerge as the revolution’s foremost philosopher, the thirty-three-year-old Thomas Jefferson, seized the moment to remake the world. But his most sweeping attempt to do so has gone unrecognized, overshadowed by his more famous role in penning the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and serving as the new nation’s third president. Jefferson’s audacious plan to redesign America from its foundation has been overlooked because it evenly rested upon the seemingly opposite pillars of antislavery and white supremacy.
It took Jefferson some time when the revolution began to find the clay he wished to mold. According to John Adams, he had to be persuaded to author the Declaration of Independence. Adams, the only Yankee on the committee, cajoled him into doing so by telling him “You are a Virginian, and Virginia ought to appear at the head of this business.” While Jefferson dutifully took notes and followed closely the contentious debates that hammered out the outline of the Articles of Confederation, the nation’s first constitution, later that summer, he chose to leave Congress at the first opportunity, taking up a seat in the Virginia legislature that he had last warmed seven years before.
It is rare for a young, ambitious politician to step back from a national office to take a seat representing a county in a state legislature. In his Autobiography, Jefferson plainly stated that though his place in Congress had been renewed for the coming year, he thought he could do more important work back home: “I knew that our legislation under the regal government had many very vicious points which urgently required reformation, and I thought I could be of more use in forwarding that work.” What legislative issues were so urgent that they drew Jefferson away from the largest city in America, back to sleepy Williamsburg, and kept him there even when offered the ambassadorship to France?
Less than a month into Virginia’s legislative session of 1776, Jefferson revealed the true scope of his ambition, the project that he perceived as giving him the largest scope of action, the greatest possibility of doing what every philosopher dreamed, reforming not just one law or policy, but them all: “When I left Congress, in 76. it was in the persuasion that our whole code must be reviewed, adapted to our republican form of government, and, now that we had no negatives of Councils, Governors & Kings to restrain us from doing right, that it should be corrected, in all it’s parts, with a single eye to reason, & the good of those for whose government it was framed.”
Historians have tended to overlook how eager Jefferson was to be the architect of a new comprehensive legal code. Jefferson is described as simply “being appointed” to the Committee of Revisors charged with this task. In fact, Jefferson introduced the legislation to create the committee, ensuring that when it passed he would sit upon it. Knowing that his fellow lawmakers would balk at empowering him to redesign 169 years of the basic laws of Virginia from scratch, Jefferson obscured what he planned and claimed that the committee’s charge was just to reorganize the existing laws from their present haphazard chronological arrangement into an organized “digest” of the law.
As chief “revisor,” Jefferson was able to draft more legislative bills in his three-year term than any other member of the General Assembly, but he often hid his authorship by having colleagues introduce bills, or inserting them within other pieces of pending legislation when they were in committee. In this way, Jefferson concealed the way in which he was designing a complete structure of some 128 new laws and not just smoothing out the rougher corners of the legal code. Because Jefferson and his collaborators never submitted the full revision as a single piece of legislation, his accomplishment was not appreciated until a few scholars in the mid-twentieth century dedicated most of their careers to collecting everything Jefferson ever wrote or read. The editor of Jefferson’s voluminous papers at one point realized the true scale of Jefferson’s work on Virginia’s laws: “In the variety of subjects touched upon, in the quantity of bills drafted, and in the unity of purpose behind all this legislative activity, his accomplishment in this period was astounding. He was in himself a veritable legislative drafting bureau.”
A decade after Jefferson had begun remaking the world of Virginia, many laws he had authored years before still knocked around the Virginia Assembly. Jefferson still camouflaged his work as mere legal housekeeping, writing to a curious Dutchman who asked about his legal project, “It contains not more than three or four laws which could strike the attention of a foreigner . . . . The only merit of this work is that it may remove from our book shelves about twenty folio volumes of statutes, retaining all the parts of them which either their own merit or the established system of laws required.”
Jefferson contributed to ongoing misunderstanding of his project by highlighting a few notable pieces of the whole in his Notes on the State of Virginia rather than revealing the way in which many of the laws worked together to refashion society. Historians rightly point to his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, or his bills reforming the system of education or eliminating aristocratic systems of inheritance and land rents as landmarks in the establishment of republican institutions. Some fragments of the language Jefferson used in his early legal revisions circuitously made their way into other charters, such as the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, an unsurprising traverse given that George Mason was probably Jefferson’s closest co-worker on the revisor’s committee.
Besides purging Virginia’s laws of monarchical remnants, the way the revised legal code constituted a set of gears working together to engineer a new social order is most clearly seen in Jefferson’s attempt to phase out what he saw as the towering evils of his nation: slavery and the black presence in America.
Looking backward from the present day, through the prisms of modern sensibilities, most people assume that those who fought against slavery did so as they would, out of moral revulsion at the institution and empathy for people denied the most basic human rights. Similarly, our present values lead us to understand slavery and racism as being closely connected, thus prejudging that those who opposed slavery did so out of concern for those shackled, whipped, and trafficked. But the reality of the eighteenth century was that the outlooks of those opposed to slavery and those defending it overlapped where they both agreed that the numbers of Africans and the descendants of Africans had grown too large and needed to be dramatically reduced. Eighteenth-century abolitionists hoped that ending slavery itself would accomplish this. Eighteenth-century enslavers looked in the short term to ending the international slave trade and in the long run to encouraging the mass immigration of whites which they expected would drive slavery gradually into its natural grave. In the meantime, both poles of this political spectrum agreed that black people, enslaved or free, needed to be more completely policed and disciplined.
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