Dennis C. Rasmussen

 

On his book Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America's Founders

Cover Interview of June 16, 2021

A close-up

One of the highlights of the book, I think, comes in the chapter on Jefferson and slavery. The Missouri crisis of 1819-21, which revolved around whether Missouri would be admitted to the union as a free state or a slave state, provoked from Jefferson an unforgettable expression of regret: “I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves by the generation of ’76 to acquire self-government and happiness to their country is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it.” This line is all the more striking because it came from a figure who had long been one of the most optimistic of the founders.

Though he was a major slaveholder himself, Jefferson fought a reasonably forceful battle against the institution early in his career, at least in the political realm. He tried to include a harsh denunciation of slavery in the Declaration of Independence; he drew up statutes that would have gradually abolished slavery in his home state of Virginia; and he helped to draft a bill that would have banned slavery from any of the nation’s western territories. Alas, his efforts to combat slavery—however qualified and ultimately futile—all but ceased after the 1780s.

In fact, by the end of his life Jefferson actively supported the expansion of slavery into new territory. His belief, at that point, was that the expansion of slavery would not lead to an increase in the number of enslaved people, only to their being more spread out, and that if there were more slaveholders in more places, then the institution would be easier to eradicate because each individual slaveholder would keep fewer people in bondage and so have less to lose from emancipation. It was, of course, manifestly delusional to think that the demise of slavery could be brought about by giving it free rein—by making the problem more national rather than narrowly sectional in scope. This delusion led to one of the more biting lines of the book: “Jefferson had done almost nothing to combat slavery since the 1780s, but what he did during the Missouri crisis was much worse than nothing: he lent his powerful name to the forces seeking to expand slavery. He still considered himself to be an opponent of the institution, but by this point one might fairly say that with enemies like Jefferson, slavery hardly needed friends.”