WWTJD_1307 Emancipation.jpg
I realized that this was so deeply rooted in the American social, economic, and political life, that it was going to take an extraordinary movement to rid ourselves of slavery.
— Clay S. Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson

Tune in to your local public radio or join the 1776 Club to hear this episode of What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Listen to this week's episode.

The following is a rush transcript.

DS: 00:00 Good day citizens, and welcome to What Would Jefferson Do?, our weekly opportunity to discuss current American events with President Thomas Jefferson, who is seated across from me now. Good day to you, sir.

CSJ as TJ: 00:12 Good day to you, my dear citizen.

DS: 00:14 Mr Jefferson, I have a question from one of your listeners, Randy Kirkpatrick, I believe he comes from the state of Kansas, sir, and he was interested to talk to you. Now you sir are responsible for the existence of Kansas. Is that overstating this?

CSJ as TJ: 00:30 Maybe a little. I bought Kansas from Napoleon Bonaparte. That was one of the 11 states later carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.

DS: 00:38 He wants to know, looking at our nation, from what you know about it during my time, did freeing the slaves realize your greatest hope or your greatest fear for our country?

CSJ as TJ: 00:50 Oh, it actually cuts both ways, I'm afraid to say. I knew that nothing was more certainly written in the book of fate than that this people must and would be free, that we could not in the long run, sustain the outrageous and abominable institution of slavery. I hoped that the emancipation would come sooner rather than later. I hoped that it would somehow happen in a benign way that wouldn't greatly disrupt, uh, the agricultural life of the south or create race riots or reprisals and so on. But I will tell you this, my biggest concern was not emancipation, but what comes after emancipation, and I will say, although I hesitate to say it, that I could not look with any equanimity on the idea of a biracial republic. In other words, once we freed the slaves, it seemed to me that we must, uh, expatriate them from this country, maybe repatriate them in Africa or find them a homeland in the Caribbean or possibly a homeland in the American west. But I did not believe that the two races after all that had come between them, could live in harmony.

DS: 02:02 Looking at your lifetime with the wisdom of historians during my time, sir. I can understand how there is a single thread of your feelings about this issue throughout your life. But in fact, if one looks at different periods of your life, you handled it differently. As a young man, you were quite outspoken. But as you got older, you seem to sort of, uh, put the issue aside.

CSJ as TJ: 02:27 Well, I hoped in the, in the great, idealistic flush of our revolution that we would simply figure this out and get it over with - free the slaves, the numbers, then were not as great as they would later become, there was a greater possibility of social harmony, if we decided that we needed to deport freed slaves, it was probably something that we could afford economically. But later in life, I, a couple of things. First of all, my fellow Virginians were 100 percent against me. Every time I raised my voice about this, I was made to pay for it. And secondly, as I grew older, I realized that this was so deeply rooted in the American social, economic, and political life, that it was going to take an extraordinary movement to rid ourselves of slavery. And I don't think I ever gave up, but I was waiting for the moment when I could really make a difference and I did not want to speak out about this in a counterproductive way, and I felt that many of the things that I did say didn't advance the cause of freedom for black slaves at all, but hardened the spirit of the, of the southerners who were never going to compromise on this issue.

DS: 03:46 A person who was, how do I say, making harsh judgments about you, Virginians that owned slaves would say, well, you know where there were those who raised their voices against slavery and the Virginia gentry did not.

CSJ as TJ: 04:00 I'll say this, that there were many voices. Many of my friends believed that slavery was appalling. My daughter and my granddaughters were saddened, deeply saddened by the institution of slavery, and wanted me to find some way to be a leader on this issue. All I can say is that there are many, many, many things I wanted to do as a statesman and a legislator and a politician, and I felt that this was one that I was unlikely to succeed at, and over time I became less idealistic about it and even to a certain degree, complacent about slavery.

DS: 04:38 It's unfortunate. Did lead to war in this nation.

CSJ as TJ: 04:41 I reckoned in 1819 and '20 that a civil conflagration was coming or a separation between northern confederacy's and southern ones.

DS: 04:51 A difficult subject to discuss, and I thank you for your candor, Mr Jefferson.

CSJ as TJ: 04:55 You're most welcome, sir.

More from the Thomas Jefferson Hour