Power  /  Retrieval

Jefferson’s Secret Plan to Whiten Virginia

Jefferson’s system depended on shoring up the bulwarks of race and basing the law on a theory of government that withdrew protection from unfavored groups.

Looking backward from the present day, through the prisms of modern sensibilities, most people assume that those who fought against slavery did so as they would, out of moral revulsion at the institution and empathy for people denied the most basic human rights. Similarly, our present values lead us to understand slavery and racism as being closely connected, thus prejudging that those who opposed slavery did so out of concern for those shackled, whipped, and trafficked. But the reality of the eighteenth century was that the outlooks of those opposed to slavery and those defending it overlapped where they both agreed that the numbers of Africans and the descendants of Africans had grown too large and needed to be dramatically reduced. Eighteenth-century abolitionists hoped that ending slavery itself would accomplish this. Eighteenth-century enslavers looked in the short term to ending the international slave trade and in the long run to encouraging the mass immigration of whites which they expected would drive slavery gradually into its natural grave. In the meantime, both poles of this political spectrum agreed that black people, enslaved or free, needed to be more completely policed and disciplined.

Connecting the dots in the bills Jefferson and the other revisors wrote, a master plan for both ending slavery and whitening Virginia emerges from the haze of legalisms. Decades later in his Autobiography, Jefferson insincerely claimed that the laws dealing with slavery that he authored in the course of Virginia’s revision did not constitute a system: “The bill on the subject of slaves was a mere digest of the existing laws respecting them, without any intimation of a plan for a future & general emancipation.” But when all the pieces of Jefferson’s legal revisions are gathered together, they can be seen to form an interlocking whole that followed a consistent and novel strategy. Laws dealing with the slave trade, migration of free people of color into the state, punishments for petty crimes, and procedures for manumission, all worked seamlessly together to achieve a common purpose—weakening slavery and diminishing the black population.

Jefferson’s system depended on shoring up the bulwarks of race and basing the law on a theory of government that withdrew the protection of government from unfavored groups. But its aim was not simply to construct a segregationist state, one in which the descendants of Africans and enslaved people would exist as a permanent subordinate caste, but rather to use these powers and distinctions to purge people of color entirely from society. Jefferson’s preferred tool for accomplishing this was the ancient legal device of banishment and he set about incorporating it throughout the legal code of Virginia, adding it to laws banning the importation of slaves, laws governing the migration of free people of color, laws of interracial bastardy, criminal statutes, manumission, and ultimately, slavery itself.