Thomas Jefferson and Slavery in Virginia

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Thomas Jefferson and Slavery in Virginia

At the bottom it was slavery that divided Virginia along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Most members of the convention have agreed with the opinion of the distinguishing delegate, James Monroe, that “if no such thing as slavery existed.. the people of our Atlantic border, would meet their brethren of the west, upon the basis of a majority, of the free white population.” But slavery existed, largely as an eastern institution; and it demanded protection from mere numbers both in the state and in the federal government. By-passed in the convention, the dreaded issue, swollen by the hopes and fears of a terrible torrent, soon locked Virginia in another great debate that ripped wide the seams Jeffersonian
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Defending racial inequality and slavery as laws of nature, attested by all history, the eastern delegates superimposed a still nebulous ideology of white supremacy upon the older conservative ideology of property. The slaves, they said, were happy with their lot, and the whites were more equal and more republican because of this labor system. Increasingly, throughout the South, racial inequalities would be substituted for economic ones, color would become the badge of aristocracy, and class issues would be smothered by the blanket appeal to racial solidarity. Pro-slavery ideology divided society not between the rich and the poor but between the whites and the black.
Having assailed the natural rights premises of the reformers, the conservatives went on to argue that emancipation was impractical. What better proof was wanted that Jefferson’s own conduct – he never liberated his slaves, but “perpetuated their condition by the last solemn act of his life; which is sufficient.. to put to flight all the conclusions that have been drawn from the expressions of his abstract opinions.” His scheme of emancipation was only a day dream. He never went before the public as its advocate. Posterity could not venture what he dared not attempt: “The fragments of a great man’s thoughts are not only valueless but dangerous. The same genius which conceived them is necessary to fill up their details.. When Hercules died, there was no
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