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Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite for owning slaves.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 8/6/2014 Category: Politics
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 4,906 times Debate No: 60088
Debate Rounds (4)
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Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves. That is an unfortunate, historical fact. And this fact has led many, throughout history, to label Jefferson as a "hypocrite." I disagree. Jefferson was as much trapped by the culture he lived in, as were the slaves he "owned." Indeed, Jefferson's words paved the way for individual freedom and the eventual freedom of the slaves. Calling him a hypocrite is not only unfair, it is factually wrong.


Jefferson was definitely a hypocrite for owning slaves because he dedicated his life in the pursuit of freedom for himself and his peers. He fought for liberty but denied so many that basic human right. He says all men are created equal but felt entitled to dominate and subordinate others. Hypocrisy. His very words" all men are created equal and endowed with the right to liberty pursue their happiness. " By owning slaves he propagated a system that directly contradicted his beliefs and took great measures in proving black men inferior scientifically by measuring their skulls. Jefferson like other slave owners considered slaves " investments " not as people. Just because Jefferson blamed the system of slavery on his government doesn't mean his part in slavery in America is diminished . Jefferson prioritized his own freedom not freedom for all. He treated slaves like slaves property and investment , basically like a currency . Jefferson was a hypocrite because he only spouted political propaganda and never was not living true to his word.
Debate Round No. 1


According to Merriam-Webster's dictionary, a "hypocrite" can be defined as, "a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion." When Jefferson penned and signed the Declaration of Independence, establishing a basic tenant of human freedom, he put himself in immediate danger. The British penalty for such actions was death. It is therefore unlikely that Jefferson would risk his very life for a "false appearance of virtue." The question, thus, is whether Jefferson's phrase "that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator of certain inalienable rights..." was meant to apply only to Whites, thus making Jefferson's term "all" an example of his hypocrisy. Again, I disagree.

In is critical to relate a few facts about Jefferson's slave "ownership." First, Jefferson never bought, sold, or traded slave in any way. His slaves came only from inheritance-- some from his own family; most from his wife's. It is also important to remember that Virginia State laws limited, and many times, forbid the freeing of slaves. Finally, Jefferson's personal debt (much of it acquired from deceased relatives, as well as his lost income in service of his newly formed country) kept Jefferson from freeing his slaves. As slaves were considered property, the banks to which Jefferson owed money also held title to his assets--- including his slaves. Unless Jefferson had the money to buy his own slaves from his creditors, he could not legally free them. Although, this stipulation did not prevent Jefferson from freeing a few of his slaves, as well as placing a condition of freedom in his will for others.

Although it may be easy to point to Jefferson's slaves as proof of his compliance with the injustice of Slavery, his words and deeds prove otherwise. The first unedited version of the Declaration included a passage chastising the British government's "cruel war against nature itself" and its determination "to keep open a market where Men should be bought and sold,... suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce." ( )
Those were not just words. One of the first orders of the newly formed government was to end the slave trade and to prohibit the expansion of Slavery in the Northwest Territories. Both measures were fully supported by Jefferson. Throughout his life, Jefferson worked for a "gradual emancipation" and to lessen the more insidious treatment of slaves. ( It is easy to criticize Jefferson's ownership of slaves, but given the societal, and yes, political limitations of the time, it is clear that Jefferson continually forwarded his cause for human freedom to all. Nowhere will you see where Jefferson supported the continuation of slavery. In his own words, "we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go." (

From Pro: " He says all men are created equal but felt entitled to dominate and subordinate others"

It is impossible to know what Jefferson "felt." We can only infer his feelings based on his words and/or actions. Although the singular action of owning slaves may, in your opinion, expose Jefferson as a hypocritical fraud, I, however, would balance that singular action with the many actions I have presented that forwarded emancipation. But to really understand Jefferson's true feelings, it is important to understand the Jeffersonian concept of "freedom" and "inalienable rights."

Jefferson believed that our freedoms are inherent. They are given to us as a condition of human nature, and cannot be taken away by others; they are "inalienable." This causes a confusion for many people. Certainly, the "right to life," as it is commonly perceived today, can be taken away. One needs only to open a newspaper to read stories of murder and wars of all nature. Did Jefferson lie? If these "rights" were truly inalienable, it would be IMPOSSIBLE to take away someone's "right to life," and obviously, that is not the case. Clearly, what Jefferson termed as an "inalienable right" is not what people think it means today.

To Jefferson, the "right to life" is better described today as the "right to try to live." No matter how hard a person tries to defend themselves, they still may succumb to a stronger aggressor. Yet that person will indeed try to defend him/herself the very best they can, and there is nothing the aggressor can do about that. THAT inherent ability to defend his/her life is to what Jefferson refers to as "inalienable." Now, take this same concept and apply it to Slavery.

It is a sad truth that Jefferson was limited in his assessment of Blacks by the time-honored scourge of Slavery. In his "Notes on Virginia," Jefferson made a scathing analysis of the Black race by observing that they were intellectually inferior, lazy, and lacking the moral character of Whites. But even Jefferson wasn't sure whether this observable fact was an inherent weakness in the Black race, or whether it was caused by centuries of slavery. He clearly verbalized this indecision in the work. Regardless of the cause, Jefferson believed that under the current condition, slaves were incapable of handling freedom and equality with Whites. And perhaps like many of his contemporaries, Jefferson consoled himself that perhaps Black's most beneficial condition would be as slaves. This, however, did not mean that Blacks were justifiably enslaved, in Jefferson's view, nor were Blacks exempt from the inalienable rights of Man.

In a letter to Henri Gregoire, a French abolitionist, Jefferson responded to Gregoire's recent letter which included several poetic works by African poets. Gregoire sent them to Jefferson to prove that Blacks, indeed, were quite capable of intelligence and freedom. Jefferson responded with great pleasure:

" Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have
myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to them by nature, and to find that in this
respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of
my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable."

Indeed, Jefferson's own scientific, reasoned, intellect enabled him to form new opinions in spite of common, and politically popular, conceptions. But what I find even more interesting is Jefferson's continued response to Gregoire:

"....but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are
gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re"establishment on an
equal footing with the other colors of the human family." (

Hardly the words of someone who wished for the continuation of Slavery.


abdully forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 2


I see that abdully runs late... I hope you don't mind if I continue...

I can understand the apparent contradiction many see, when they read about Thomas Jefferson. And this is not to dismiss the horror and injustice of slavery, to which Jefferson was a part. However, it is unfair to judge whether he was hypocritical based on today's view of slavery. Slavery in America pre-dates Jefferson by a century and was well established long before he owned a slave. If we are to judge him, it should be within that historical context. Without a doubt, had Jefferson insisted on emancipation prior to writing the Declaration of Independence, or if he insisted that it contained language that would free the slaves, the Declaration would have never been signed by the other Southern colonies. Furthermore, had he insisted on it during his Presidency, the newly formed government would have quickly fallen apart, and those words "...that All Men are created equal...." would have been nothing more than a trivia question in British history class.

But still, the question remains, and it is one that I often ponder--- "Why didn't Jefferson free his own slaves?"
To us, the decision should be a simple one. However, when we apply modern views of morality on previous times we tend to see things in terms of "right" and "wrong." And as today's society is profoundly different from Jefferson's, what is "wrong" today, may not have been the rule of the society then. The "contradiction" of Jefferson's words versus his actions is a topic many historians have tried to explain. The following reasons to consider are available at, the historical organization that manages Jefferson's former home:

-- the economic value of his human property (at certain times, his slaves were mortgaged and thus could not be freed or sold)
-- his lifelong view that emancipation had to go hand-in-hand with expatriation of the freed slaves
-- his paternalistic belief that slaves were incapable of supporting themselves in freedom and his fear they would become burden to society
-- his belief in gradual measures operating through the legal processes of government
-- and, after 1806, a state law that required freed slaves to leave Virginia within a year. Jefferson wrote that this law did not "permit" Virginians to free their slaves; he apparently thought that, for an enslaved African American, slavery was preferable to freedom far from one's home and family.

None of this would serve as an excuse today.... but that is based on today's morality; not 18th Century America.
Jefferson did what he could within the context of his time. Reportedly, he treated his slaves relatively well: like the kinder Plantation owners of the day, Jefferson allowed slaves to rest on Sundays; he allowed time off for a couple of holidays during the year; he even paid some slaves for "extra" work; and he did whatever he could to keep slave families intact-- not splitting them up, and allowing them to marry. Although we may scoff at these "kindnesses" today, at the time, they were considered fair and generous.


abdully forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 3


I'm sorry my opponent hasn't found time to continue our debate; I understand the pressing issues of life and hope to see you in future debates. :-)

But as this topic is as important today as it was over 200 years ago, I hope all will continue reading. Although my country's founding was a collective effort of many great, and uniquely talented men, few stand out as much as Jefferson. If there were a single character that described the "American philosophy," it would be Thomas Jefferson-- flawed, but committed to the goal of human freedom. If he were a "hypocrite," then indeed, America is the greatest hypocrisy of all times. Rest assured, that is not the case.

"... a conflict wherein the sacred side is gaining daily recruits from the influx into office of young men grown and growing up. These have sucked in the principles of liberty as it were with their mother"s milk, and it is to them I look with anxiety to turn the fate of this question. --- Thomas Jefferson Aug. 7, 1785 (1)

We can argue the reasons why Jefferson continued to own slaves. But there can be no argument that he never supported the "peculiar institution." He understood the contradiction between the values that founded the country and slavery, and he knew it could not continue. His decision to free or not free his own slaves would have been based on the current realities of 18th Century America: would emancipation had helped his slaves, or perhaps Jefferson included himself into "the greater number, who have not the courage to divest their families of a property which however keeps their consciences inquiet"? The reasoning for such a decision, and whether it was driven by hypocrisy, is beyond my telepathic abilities.

The fact is that those words penned by Jefferson, those beloved "inalienable rights" of Man, have been the inspiration for millions of humans, Black, White, Hispanic, and Asians, who have confronted tyranny. They have been the "mother's milk" for great men as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King; and the poison for despotic murderous regimes. They were the words by which Jefferson devoted much of his life.

A flawed human existence? Perhaps. But having unquestionable intellect, surely Jefferson understood the ramifications of his words. And at every opportunity, he embraced them. We should all be as hypocritical.


abdully forfeited this round.
Debate Round No. 4
1 comment has been posted on this debate.
Posted by Mr.Grace 3 years ago
Debater has the right to post links as supporting evidence. Definitions for the terms used in the debate are also debatable, and can be equally sourced.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by Defro 3 years ago
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Reasons for voting decision: FF.