Excerpt from his Letter to Jean Nicolas
Demeunier, June 26, 1786
Demeunier had queried Jefferson in reference to his article on the United States for the French Encyclopedia
("Etats Unis de l'Amerique," Dictionnaire d'Economie politique et diplomatique, l'Encyclopedie methodique.)
This letter formed part of Jefferson's "Answers and Observations" in reply. The rest of the letter concerns alleged cases
of cruelty against American prisoners of war on the part of the British during the Revolution.
|M. de Meusnier, where he mentions that the slave-law has been passed in Virginia, without the clause of emancipation, is pleased to mention that neither Mr. Wythe nor Mr. Jefferson were present to make the proposition they had meditated; from which people, who do not give themselves the trouble to reflect or enquire, might conclude hastily that their absence was the cause why the proposition was not made; & of course that there were not in the assembly persons of virtue & firmness enough to propose the clause for emancipation. This supposition would not be true. There were persons there who wanted neither the virtue to propose, nor nor talents to enforce the proposition had they seen that the disposition of the legislature was ripe for it. These worthy characters would feel themselves wounded, degraded, & discouraged by this idea. Mr. Jefferson would therefore be obliged to M. de Meusnier to mention it in some such manner as this.|
"Of the two commissioners who had concerted the amendatory clause for the gradual emancipation of slaves Mr. Wythe could not be present as being a member of the judiciary department, and Mr. Jefferson was absent on the legation to France. But there wanted not in that assembly men of virtue enough to propose, & talents to vindicate this clause. But they saw that the moment of doing it with success was not yet arrived, and that an unsuccessful effort, as too often happens, would only rivet still closer the chains of bondage, and retard the moment of delivery to this oppressed description of men. What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, & death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him thro’ his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose. But we must await with patience the workings of an overruling providence, & hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these, our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a god of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light & liberality among their oppressors, or at length by his exterminating thunder, manifest his attention to the things of this world, and that they are not left to the guidance of a blind fatality."
Print Source: Thomas Jefferson. "Letter to Jean Nicolas Demeunier." Public and Private Papers.Library of America. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 265-266.