Every so often, contemporary opponents of the Jeffersonian tradition make the argument that the legacy of the “Sage of Monticello” has been tainted by patent hypocrisy. The barrage of attacks Jefferson levied against slavery, they suggest, should be discounted on the grounds that he was a slave owner himself. Beyond this, some go as far as to claim that all redeemable facets of Jefferson’s political philosophy and accomplishments of his civil career should be consequently ignored forgotten. Because of his supposedly incongruous position on slavery, the Jeffersonian tradition is sometimes deemed as inconsequential, a mere footnote in history that should be swept under a rug and buried forever.
Despite these erroneous narratives, Thomas Jefferson was deeply opposed to slavery, and the question of freeing his slaves was much more complex and complicated than most assume. While he understood the practice to be indisputably immoral and malevolent, Jefferson was unable to eradicate it in Virginia despite his own earnest efforts.
From his earliest days as a burgess, Jefferson championed legislation that would make it easier for slave owners to independently manumit their own slaves. In 1770, he represented two mulatto boys pro bono, arguing that they had natural rights. Again in 1772, he gave legal representation to George Manly, a son of a free black woman, who had petitioned for freedom after working as an indentured servant beyond his contracted term. Once his freedom was secured, Manly worked at Monticello for Jefferson himself, who paid him wages.
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