Political Change, Slavery, Thomas Jefferson & More: Thoughts by Frederick Law Olmsted

Political Change, Slavery, Thomas Jefferson & More: Thoughts by Frederick Law Olmsted

In the mid 1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted toured many Southern States and then wrote about his journey in a work entitled, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. In this selection, Olmsted was analyzing the “avowed principles of the Revolution” in relation to Virginia’s laws concerning inheritance. As you will see when reading this excerpt, Olmsted mad some interesting observations about slavery and emancipation.

The first few paragraphs are written with editorial summaries and remarks.

August Glen-James, editor

Jefferson well understood the danger of this course. He urged that justice should be done, and right should be maintained then and there, and at all hazards. And with the prophetic mind of true statesmanship, such as we have had no approach to since, he uttered in 1787 this remarkable warning and prediction: men who pretend to be his disciples, should not pass it lightly.

“Next to religious freedom,” Olmsted wrote, “the most important change demanded  by the avowed principles of the Revolution, was an alteration of the laws with regard to the descent of property. The laws of primogeniture and descent in tail (i.e., entail), were felt to be unnatural, discouraging to industry, and, by their effect in aggravating the evils to society of the excessive possession and control of land, opposed to the declared right of all to the ‘means of obtaining wealth.’”

A few paragraphs later, Olmsted addressed the “argument against” changing the laws. “The argument against all these changes was, not that they were not demanded by justice and sound principles of government, but that it was not safe to move so rapidly.” The institutions could be thought of as unjust whose consequences were “sometimes rather unhappy; but to destroy them, replace them with laws more abstractly just, and—who knew that there would not follow worse consequences? It was fanatical to push forward the experiment so rapidly.” Olmsted continued characterizing the argument against change:

Besides, people had been born into the world under these laws, and had taken duties and responsibilities upon themselves, in expectation that they would be sustained. They had a right to demand, it was urged, therefore, that they should be sustained: but now, when the right principles of law have been enunciated, leave it for posterity to enact them. It will then be every man’s own fault, if he is not prepared for them.

Based, therefore, on the premise that the correct enunciation of principles must be left to posterity to enact, Olmsted countered with Jefferson, who had been instrumental in repealing laws of entail and primogeniture in Virginia. “Jefferson well understood,” Olmsted wrote, “the danger of this course. He urged that justice should be done, and right should be maintained then and there, and at all hazards. And with the prophetic mind of true statesmanship, such as we have had no approach to since, he uttered in 1787 this remarkable warning and prediction: men who pretend to be his disciples, should not pass it lightly.” He then directly quoted Jefferson:

The spirit of the times may alter—will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves united. From the conclusion of this war, we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of omitting to effect a due respect for their rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long—will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive, or expire in a convulsion.

Olmsted then wrote a section entitled, “Education and Emancipation of the Slave People Refused.” This section will now be quoted verbatim without comment.

“The scheme of emancipation which Jefferson advocated would have provided that all negroes born after it had passed should be entitled to freedom; that they should remain with their parents until of a certain age, ‘then be brought up, at the public expense, to tillage, arts, or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with implements of household and the handicraft arts, etc., etc.; that they should then be declared to be a free and independent people; that protection and assistance should be afforded them until they had acquired strength; and that, at the same time, an equal number of white people, from other parts of the world, should be sent for, and induced, by proper encouragements, to migrate into Virginia.’** He apologizes at length for proposing to expatriate the negroes, on the ground of the impracticability of their amalgamation or comfortable association with the whites.

“To the great grief of its author, this project was not carried: he never afterwards ceased to bewail the neglect, or to deplore the consequences. But it is the grand characteristic of Jefferson, that he is not merely a philanthropist, a philosopher, and a patriot; he is also a strong practical statesman: he knows when to strike and when to hold. With the boldness, generosity, and clear moral vision, reached by the planters in the first struggle for their own liberty, the day for justice and liberality to those beneath them was past. Virginia, during his life-time, was in no condition to be asked to make sacrifices of property; and, after the seven years’ exhausting war, to secure temporary peace and harmony, much was properly postponed; but he never ceased to hope that the spirit of the age, ‘the advancement of the human mind,’ as the country grew stronger and richer, would yet be able to grapple with the difficulty, and to solve it in accordance with republican principles. Alas! The human mind advances slowly when it has to drag slavery.

“The following extracts are taken from the correspondence of Jefferson, published by Congress, 1854:


‘PARIS, February 12, 1788.

‘SIR: --I am very sensible of the honor you propose to me of becoming a member of the society for the abolition of the Slave Trade. You know that nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition, not only of the trade, but of the condition of slavery.’


‘PHILADELPHIA, August 30, 1791.

‘SIR: --I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that appearance of a want of them is owing mainly to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add, with truth, that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body and mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will permit.’


‘MONTICELLO, August 28, 1797.

‘As to the mode of Emancipation, I am satisfied that must be a matter of compromise between the passions and prejudices and the real difficulties, which will each have their weight in that operation. But if something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children. The sooner we put some plan under way the greater hope there is that it may be permitted to proceed peaceably to its ultimate effect.’


‘MONTICELLO, May 1, 1815.

‘Some progress is sensibly made in it, yet not so much as I hoped and expected. But it will yield in time to temperate and steady pursuit, to the enlargement of the human mind, and its advancement in science. We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a superior agent. Our efforts are in His hand, and directed by Him, and He will give them their effect in His own time. Where the disease is most deeply seated, there it will be slowest in eradication. In the Northern States, it was merely superficial and easily corrected; in the Southern, it is incorporated with the whole system, and requires time, patience, and perseverance in the curative process. That it may finally be effected and its progress hastened, will be the last and fondest prayer of


“I extract the following passages from a letter to Edward Coles, first published in the National Intelligencer, dated

‘MONTICELLO, August 25, 1814.

‘DEAR SIR: --Your favor of July 31 was duly received, and was read with peculiar pleasure. The sentiments, breathed through the whole, do honor to both the head and heart of the writer. Mine on the subject of the Slavery of negroes have long since been in the possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root.

‘The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a mortal reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort—nay, I fear, not much serious willingness—to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation. From those of the former generation who were in the fullness of age when I came into public life—which was while our controversy with England was on paper only—I soon saw that nothing was to be hoped. Nursed and educated in the daily habit of seeing the degraded condition, both bodily and mental, of those unfortunate beings, not reflecting that that degradation was very much the work of themselves and their fathers, few minds had yet doubted but that they were as legitimate subjects of property as their horses or cattle. The quiet and monotonous course of colonial life had been disturbed by no alarm and little reflection on the value of liberty; and when alarm was taken at an enterprise on their own, it was not easy to carry them the whole length of the principles which they invoked for themselves. In the first or second session of the Legislature after I became a member, I drew to this subject the attention of Col. Bland, one of the oldest, ablest, and most respected members, and he undertook to move for certain moderate extensions of the protection of the laws to these people. I seconded his motion, and, as a younger member, was more spared in the debate; but he was denounced as an enemy to his country, and was treated with the greatest indecorum.

‘From an early stage of our Revolution, other and more distant duties were assigned me, so that from that time till my return from Europe in 1789, and, I may say, till I returned to reside at home in 1809, I had little opportunity of knowing the progress of public sentiment here on this subject. I had always hoped that the younger generation, receiving their early impressions after the flame of liberty had been kindled in every breast, and had become, as it were, the vital spirit of every American, that the generous temperament of youth, analogous to the motion of their blood, and above the suggestions of avarice, would have sympathized with oppression wherever found, and proved their love of liberty beyond their own share of it. But my intercourse with them since my return has not been sufficient to ascertain that they had made toward this point the progress I had hoped. Your solitary but welcome voice is the first which has brought this sound to my ear, and I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to hour hopes. Yet the hour of emancipation is advancing in the march of time. It will come; and, whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds, or by the bloody process of St. Domingo, excited and conducted by the power of our present enemy, if once stationed permanently within our country, offering asylum and arms to the oppressed, is a leaf of our own history, and not yet turned over.’

“Although the planters were not then willing to surrender the property they had in slaves, and desired to postpone emancipation until they could better afford to do so, it was universally known, felt, and acknowledged, that Slavery has been and still continued to be, a great injury to the country, pernicious to morals, destructive to industry, and a dead weight upon enterprise. In the Convention of 1774, it was unanimously resolved that:

‘The abolition of domestic slavery is the greatest object of desire in those colonies where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But, previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa. Yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his Majesty’s negative; thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American States, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice. Nay, the single interposition of an interested individual against a law, was scarcely ever known to fail of success, though in the opposite scale were placed the interests of a whole country. That this is so shameful an abuse of a power trusted with his Majesty for other purposes, as, if not reformed, would call for some legal restrictions.’

“At a general meeting of the freeholders of Prince George’s county, in 1775, it was unanimously resolved: ‘That the African trade is injurious to this colony, obstructs the population of it by freemen, prevents manufacturers and other useful emigrants from settling among us, and occasions an increase of the balance of trade against this colony.’

“In Princess Ann, Fairfax, (Geo. Washington presiding), Culpepper, Nansemond, Caroline, Hanover, and Surrey counties, resolutions of similar import were also passed at formal meetings of the freeholders, and generally by unanimous vote. Subsequently, in the discussion of the power of the general government with regard to Slavery, Mr. Mason said, in the Virginia Legislature:

‘The present question concerns not the importing States alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves as it did by the Tories. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. He lamented that some of our eastern brethren, from a lust of gain, have embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the State being in the possession of the right to import, that was the case with many other rights now to be given up. He held it essential, in every point of view, that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.’

“The importation of slaves from the West Indies and Africa was forbidden: the emancipation of those already living in the land was merely postponed, as it was distinctly understood, until a more convenient season.”

**Here is the rest of the paragraph from Jefferson: "It will probably be asked, why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence [sic] of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made, and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race."

Olmsted, Frederick L. A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. Arcadia Press, 2017. PP. 119-123.