Jefferson’s reasoning centered on generational sovereignty and timeliness.
By Dr. M. Andrew Holowchak
Philosopher and Historian
It is often acknowledged that Jefferson did much in his years prior to his retirement from political activity to try to eradicate the institution of slavery. Writes Gilbert Chinard in Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism:
No New Englander had done more to promote the cause of abolition than Jefferson; on two occasions he had proposed legislative measures to put an end to the scourge of slavery and he had never ceased to look for a solution that would permit the emancipation of the slaves without endangering the racial integrity of the United States.
In retirement, however, there were opportunities to do more and Jefferson consistently refused them. In 1814, for instance, Edward Coles urged Jefferson to take the lead on the issue of emancipation. Jefferson declined. Such refusals have led a critical backlash by scholars who argue that the reason for inaction was racism. Yet Jefferson consistently maintained that his reasons for refusing further efforts on behalf of emancipation were otherwise: They centered on generational sovereignty and timeliness.
First, there is generational sovereignty. In a letter to Joseph Willard (24 Mar. 1789), Jefferson articulates the notion of generational sovereignty and how it calls each generation to do its part. “It is for such institutions [of Natural History and Natural Science] … to do justice to our country, its productions and its genius. It is the work to which the young men, whom you are forming, should lay their hands. We have spent the prime of our lives in procuring them the precious blessing of liberty. Let them spend theirs in shewing that it is the great parent of science and of virtue; and that a nation will be great in both, always in proportion as it is free.” In his 1814 letter to Edward Coles (Aug. 25), Jefferson excuses himself from further actions apropos of emancipation. “I am sensible of the partialities with which you have looked towards me as the person who should undertake this salutary but arduous work. But this, my dear sir, is like bidding old Priam to buckle the armour of Hector…. I have overlived the generation with which mutual labors & perils begat mutual confidence and influence. This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man.”
Second, there is the issue of timeliness. Jefferson always believed that one could push an issue too quickly and by doing that, do more harm than good.
“I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us,” writes Jefferson to William Burwell (28 Jan. 1805). “There are many virtuous men who would make any sacrifices to affect it,” he continues, “many equally virtuous who persuade themselves either that the thing is not wrong, or that it cannot be remedied, and very many with whom interest is morality. The older we grow, the larger we are disposed to believe the last party to be.” There are, Jefferson is saying, a large number of citizens pro-eradication, a large number con-eradication, and also a very large number who feel morally engaged because they have interest in the topic without an opinion. The time is just not right, as eradication does not have the consent of the general citizenry.
Some 20 years later, Jefferson gives a similar reply in a letter to James Heaton (20 May 1826), who too urged Jefferson to act:
The subject of your letter of April 20, is one on which I do not permit myself to express an opinion, but when time, place, and occasion may give it some favorable effect. A good cause is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies. Persuasion, perseverance, and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others. The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also.
The sentiment in the two letters, and in other letters, is that the time is not right to act on slavery. Public opinion is too divided among some and there is torpor among others. That sentiment is ingeminated time and again. Ill-timed action even on a moral cause might lead to results which do more to retard than to advance that moral cause, because it will have been undertake without the consent of the general citizenry. One can through intrigue aim to effect a revolution on behalf of a cause without general public support—viz., with the support of some part of the general public—but that effort, in opposition to the principle of government by the will of the majority, will be unjust and will likely fail, because it lacks general succor. Whether Jefferson was right in asserting that generational sovereignty and timeliness were adequate justifications for inaction during retirement I decline to address. What I do address is a heretofore undisclosed tension in the axial principles of Jefferson’s political philosophy. That tension, to be resolved, requires some sort of axiological ordering of those principles.
That tension centers on the notions of generational sovereignty, of timeliness, and of government based on will of the majority. The argument goes as follows. A Jeffersonian republic is a government based on the will of the majority of citizens, suitably informed. The suitably-informed qualification is not some addendum to justify discretionary government—that is, transgressions in governmental decisions at odds with majority opinion—but merely is a requirement that the citizenry have a certain basal level of education as well as access to new political happenings and new scientific disclosures. Government based on the will of the majoritydemands political timeliness—that nothing be pushed through Congress unless it has the sanction of the people. Yet—and herein lies the nodus—Jefferson also committed to the principle of generational sovereignty, which entails as its corollary that each generation is unencumbered by the generation prior—the “unencumbrance” principle. The institution of slavery is an encumbrance that has been passed through the generations among the colonists since 1619. Regard for generational sovereignty demands that there be immediate action on slavery so that it is not passed down through the generations, thereby encumbering the generation subsequent with the problems of the generation prior. Yet if the generation in political control is unconvinced that slavery is the political problem or moral evil that it is, then obedience to the will of the majority necessitates that the will of the majority be respected and nothing be done to eradicate slavery until such time as the majority of citizens will it to be eradicated. And so, it seems, we unhappily have a scenario in which we are theoretically committed to quick action and to not so quick action to end slavery—a most unpalatable scenario.
There are a couple of outs.
One is to reject the notion that Jefferson was inexorably tied to generational sovereignty or to timeliness. The difficulty here is that there is no evidence that Jefferson was ever anything but tightly committed to both principles.
The remaining and most reasonable option is some sort of axiological ordering (e.g., primary, secondary, tertiary, etc.) of those principles along with a justification of that ordering. The difficulty here is that Jefferson, because he was never philosophically pushed to do so, never subjected his political philosophy to any such axiological ordering. Hence, we can only speculate, in keeping with his moral commitments, on such an ordering. Such speculations will not aim to expose the whole system of political principles to critical analysis.
We cannot but suppose that obedience to government in keeping with the will of the majority was for Jefferson a true axial principle and timeliness was a corollary of it. Yet we have also assumed a tight commitment by Jefferson to generational sovereignty and its corollary of unencumbrance. Nonetheless, that need not tie us to a tight commitment to generational sovereignty as an axial principle, but to a tight commitment to it as a secondary principle—viz., a principle to be applied ceterus paribus or when it does not impede the will of the majority. In short, the will of the majority and generational sovereignty are both to be respected, but when the two principles clash, the will of the majoritytrumps generational sovereignty. Consequently, if the majority of citizens are not anti-slavery, then (and only then) is it legitimate to contravene the unencumbrance principle and pass on the institution, obliquitous as it is, to the next generation.
There is no direct evidence, however, that Jefferson considered generational sovereignty as a secondary principle. Yet several difficulties with the principle listed by James Madison in a letter to Jefferson (4 Feb. 1790), after the latter articulated his commitment to generational sovereignty in a prior letter to Madison (6 Sept. 1789), are evidence that Jefferson was aware of difficulties with the principle, and that is some reason to consider generational sovereignty as a secondary principle of Jefferson’s political philosophy.