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Jefferson & Betrayal

Probably most Virginians who endorsed a general abolition shared his objective of a white Virginia, but not all. William Short, whom Jefferson cherished as his “adoptive son,” had a vision of America as a melting pot. Writing to Jefferson in 1798, Short dwelt at length upon a gradual disappearance of “the aversion…to the mixture of the two colors” so that “all of our Southern inhabitants should advance to the middle ground between their present color and black.” Short urged upon Jefferson the promotion of such a future by “the statesman, the philosopher, the philanthrope.” Jefferson received Short’s appeal and answered it less than a week before he helped Kosciuszko write his will. Responding to some of Short’s incidental requests, he remained silent on his main point.

Of the Virginians who abhorred slavery and linked emancipation with exile, St. George Tucker offered the most ingenious scheme to encompass both. In a tract indicting slavery as a threat to republican government, Tucker proposed a plan for gradual emancipation on terms barring freed slaves from the rights enjoyed by other Virginians, “including suffrage and the right to hold office, own land, keep arms, marry a white person, or serve as witness or juror in cases involving whites.” Denial of these rights, Tucker hoped, would be enough to make free black Virginians go somewhere else. In praising Tucker for his efforts, Jefferson predicted disaster for Virginia if some mode of emancipation was not worked out. But he did not actively support this scheme, and he probably was dissatisfied with Tucker’s circuitous route to exile.

In advance of his countrymen in so many ways, Jefferson was also ahead in embodying the virulent racism that preceded and followed the Civil War. Emancipation, he believed, with or without education, would inevitably produce a bloodbath if blacks remained nearby, a slaughter ending in “the extermination of the one or the other race.” His Notes on the State of Virginia concluded a discussion of the physical and mental capacities of blacks by comparing them to the white slaves of ancient Rome. “Among the Romans,” he asserted, “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 [step] is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”

While uttering these sentiments Jefferson well knew that Virginia masters had long been staining their blood. One of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who arrived at his household in France in 1787, was the half-sister of his deceased wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Jefferson would soon mix his blood with Hemings’s by fathering her children. He carried her back to Virginia but never freed her. Their long, complicated, and close relationship, soon to be examined in a study by Annette Gordon-Reed,* need not detain us here. But the fact that she remained his lover and his chattel is one more bizarre contradiction in a life that thrived on contradictions.

Hemings was still at Monticello with over 130 other slaves when the Marquis de Lafayette came for a two-week visit in 1825. He subjected Jefferson to a torrent of friendly rebukes for not freeing them. Lafayette’s secretary, in a gesture whose irony was lost on both Jefferson and the marquis, suggested a compromise: transforming them into serfs, attached to the land, so that they could not be sold away from their homes. But sold away they were. When Jefferson died a year later, his slaves, with the exception of Hemings’s children, went to the highest bidder. Hemings herself was withheld from auction and freed at last by Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who was, of course, her niece.

Jefferson remains an enigma. While he steals the show in Nash and Hodges’s book, he is treated with the respect that his achievements will always command. But his betrayal of Kosciuszko adds one more, previously unnoticed, to the list of his many betrayals, of himself and of the liberty he enshrined.

In his premonition of a sanguinary outcome to emancipation, Jefferson observed that “the Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.” He derived his conceptions of God’s attributes and of human equality from moral philosophy rather than personal religious experience. But even as he wrote the words, other Americans were feeling the almighty presence in religious revivals. Many thousands were “born again” to a new life with new imperatives concerning what God required of men and what human equality meant. Especially among the Methodists, who reached America in the 1770s, the new birth generated an urge, amounting to a duty, to bring the experience of God’s grace to others. The Methodists sought souls wherever they could find listeners and did not hesitate to reach out to slaves. By 1786, when they counted 20,000 adherents, nearly 2,000 were black.

Among them was Richard Allen, converted in 1777, when he was seventeen and a slave to a Delaware planter. Allen talked his master into selling him his freedom for the large sum of $2,000, money he earned by cutting firewood from sundown to sunup, the slave’s traditional allotment of personal time. While carting salt during the Revolution, Allen held fast to his Christian calling: “I never forgot to serve my Lord…. I used oft-times to pray, sitting, standing or lying.” He was freed in 1783 and immediately began a career as an itinerant Methodist preacher, for the Methodists did not require formal training or ordination.

The rest of Allen’s life, recorded in detail in Richard Newman’s biography, is an emblematic story of hard-earned economic and evangelical success. In Philadelphia, where he finally settled, he continued to preach on street corners, sometimes five times a day. He learned the skills of chimney sweeping, one of the trades open to free blacks. As a master sweep he took apprentices and built a thriving business in addition to opening a nail factory. Acquiring land in larger and larger amounts, he eventually earned in annual property rentals as much as many Philadelphians made in a year. Conscious of his good fortune and eager to share his prosperity, he led in founding the Free African Society (1787) to encourage mutual aid among blacks. Nor did he stop preaching. He did not forget the obligations conferred by his new birth that, in his belief, eradicated all differences between man and man.

When Methodists organized as a church in 1784, they harbored antislavery principles. The following year the church adopted a discipline excluding slaveholders from membership, but said nothing about racial equality. At St. George’s, where Allen occasionally preached, black members originally sat wherever they chose. After they became numerous, the trustees required them to sit along the walls. When it was next decreed that blacks be segregated in a newly built balcony, Allen led them all in a walkout. Records differ about the exact date of this event, but what followed was the creation of a separate black congregation, which first met in a blacksmith shop on a plot of Allen’s land. In 1794 this congregation dedicated themselves as a church, which became famous as “the Mother Bethel,” and two years later incorporated as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Organization of the AME Church followed the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that devastated Philadelphia. Allen and other blacks, erroneously believed to be immune to the disease by virtue of their race, did the city heroic service in caring for the sick and burying the dead. As no good deed goes unpunished, theirs was followed by complaints of overcharging for services (often performed gratis) and, predictably, of insolence, theft, and looting. Allen responded with a reasoned defense of black contributions to the city’s survival in a publication that contained a carefully worded appeal for the abolition of slavery. “Will you,” he asked, “plead our incapacity for freedom, and our contented condition under oppression, as a sufficient cause for keeping us under the grievous yoke?”

No one answered, but Allen emerged not only as a leader of black Methodists but as a spokesman for all blacks within a white-dominated society. From that position he eventually espoused in desperation what Jefferson had presented as a positive goal, that free blacks should leave the United States. Jefferson described them as incapable of living peaceably with whites; Allen despaired of whites ever letting them try. Allen was sure that Jefferson was wrong about the inevitability of bloody conflict between freedmen and their former masters. As a Christian he urged recognition of the universal human equality that Jefferson proclaimed but did not entirely believe.

The trouble was that so many other Americans refused to believe it. Even the Pennsylvania Abolition Society excluded members of the race it was dedicated to liberating. In published pleas for fair treatment of blacks Allen had always to express a studied deference that he did not feel. As his church grew and generated others, he had continually to divide his energies between building a black identity and promoting the integration of blacks as equals in American society.

As other historians have pointed out, black identity—the consciousness among blacks of a common cultural bond—had to be achieved in America, not Africa. It had to be built and fostered among peoples who in Africa had belonged to a variety of disparate, often hostile, cultures. Newman sees Richard Allen as a black founding father, engaged in developing “a nation within a nation,” joining blacks to one another in separate institutions within the new republic. It has been a continuing challenge in which charismatic preachers have had a central role.

Allen foreshadowed Martin Luther King Jr. in repudiating violence as a means to this end. At every step Allen had to contend with white Americans for whom the blackness of blacks precluded their ever enjoying the same rights or even the same nationality. These prejudices were much stronger in Allen’s time than in King’s. Doubting that they could ever be overcome, Allen flirted with the solution dictated by the racism that drove the American Colonization Society. By 1817 young free blacks were not finding the same economic opportunities that Allen had enjoyed or made for himself in Philadelphia. But when a mass meeting of three thousand at his church listened to an appeal for the Colonization Society, they answered it with a resounding no. Most of them had been born in the United States. It was home to them, however degraded the condition in which their country kept them.

Allen did not give up. As bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, an honor conferred on him in 1816, he mixed the old evangelical fervor of mainstream Methodism with a determination to open a better future for blacks, if not in America then abroad. Haiti had emerged from revolution in 1825 as the first black republic in the Western Hemisphere. In correspondence with its president, Allen received promises of land and rights for black Americans who would move there, and several thousand took the offer. Their emigration alarmed Southern planters, who thought Haiti too close to home and ripe to become a haven for slaves who dared to run away and take ship for the island republic.

Before many years had elapsed, however, most of those who had tried the Haitian experiment chose to return to what Allen himself called “our mother country.” Here they joined the growing number of free blacks, who held their first national convention, Allen presiding, in 1830. He pressed the convention members to consider Canada, where many slaves had already escaped to freedom and a measure of social and political equality. He was urging that solution when he died the next year, still imbued with his faith in the gospel of liberty yet conscious of the limits of American equality.

Jefferson hovers over this book too. He was wrong, and Allen knew he was wrong, about the racial bloodbath. When the nation sundered, there was war between North and South, not between white and black. But Allen was also right about the prospects of free blacks in the United States. As Jefferson had predicted, racial hostility grew among whites as blacks gained their freedom. Even the radical abolitionists, who opened their campaign as Allen was dying, did not generally identify liberty with equality. If the people who shouted no to colonization in 1817 believed that they would ever enjoy in their mother country the equality that Allen wanted for them, they were wrong. It did not happen in their time. Has it in ours?

  1. *

    The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (Norton, to be published in September 2008).

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