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Jefferson on Race and Slavery: The Primary Works

"If Jefferson did not mean what he said [in the Declaration of Independence],
if those ringing phrases ring hollow, where does that leave us as people?"
Peter Onuf

Since the controversy over Thomas Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings is inevitably framed by Jefferson's views on race and slavery, here following is a first attempt of seventy-six entries at compiling a chronological list of all Jefferson's writings on the subject***, with selections for quick reference, links to the full documents where available, and a compilation of responses to the documents.

So here in one location is a way to get your own handle on Jefferson's all-important views on race and slavery from his own pen across his whole life-time. There are any number of scholars to whom you could refer for answers to the following questions, but the invitation here is to consult and make meaning directly from the primary sources.

These documents should be useful in answering such questions as the following:

1) How does Jefferson view the institution of slavery? What is its nature, its roots? What effect does slavery have on society at large, on the African Americans, on the white masters? What does he reveal about himself as slave master? Was he a typical or an atypical slave master? Did he envision or implement any experimental projects to alleviate or moderate the negative effect of the slave system in which he lived?

2) What is Jefferson's legislative record in regard to slavery? How does he try to shape the institution of slavery? What kind of future does he imagine for it? What political acts did he enact or propose? What does he say about emancipation? Is there any change in his views over time?

3) What can the exploration of these writings tell us about the possibility of Jefferson having a sexual or loving relationship with a slave? For instance, how does Jefferson view African Americans as people? What attitudes does he have toward them? What interactions does he have with them? How does he treat them?

4) What documents stand out as particularly pertinent to an analysis of the controversy regarding a relationship with Sally Hemings?

5) What are the top-five or top-ten documents that stand out as "must" readings when studying the controversy?

A range of responses to such study of these documents before beginning the miniseries follow the primary documents here. These primary sources as well as the related secondary sources we have collected can be additional useful "priming the mental pump" exercises such as those suggested in the miniseries prologue.

***Suggestions gratefully accepted for additional entries on the following list of documents, for links to documents without links, for links to better versions of documents that are linked, and for errors to correct. Email Edward J. Gallagher at