While attending a talk at Poplar Forest on Thomas Jefferson and the Missouri Crisis in the summer of 2019, the speaker, a historian at one of the local universities in Lynchburg, broached Jefferson’s letter to Congressman John Holmes (22 Apr. 1820) about eradication of the institution of slavery by diffusion. This historian called the argument, without further commentary, pure poppycock.
Jefferson, though a staunch oppositionist to slavery throughout his life, sided with the South on the issue of slavery on the issue of the Missouri Crisis. Slavery is a social abomination, thinks Jefferson, but it would be a greater abomination for the federal government to assume powers that it is not constitutionally afforded. He puts forth in the letter to Holmes an argument from diffusion, which has been the subject of much condemnatory discussion in the secondary literature. I offer it, italicized, within the context of most of the letter.
I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. but this mementous [sic] question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once concieved and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for it is so misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other. of one thing I am certain, that as the passage of slaves from one state to another would not make a slave of a single human being who would not be so without it, so their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation; by dividing the burthen on a greater number of co-adjutors. an abstinence too from this act of power would remove the jealousy excited by the undertaking of Congress; to regulate the condition of the different descriptions of men composing a state. this certainly is the exclusive right of every state, which nothing in the constitution has taken from them and given to the general government. could congress, for example say that the Non-freemen of Connecticut, shall be freemen, or that they shall not emigrate into any other state?
I regret that 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. if they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they would throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.
The letter to Holmes is one of the most quoted letters in Jefferson’s correspondence. The large issue is that of the federal government overstepping its authority by presumption of powers not enumerated in the Constitution. The Constitution allows no such authority for the federal government to dictate to a state whether it will allow or disallow slavery.
Yet there is an issue even larger than whether the Constitution ought to be interpreted loosely or strictly. Jefferson frames that in terms of a dilemma with stark moral implications: Justice dictates that Missouri ought not to be a state with slaves; self-preservation dictates that justice ought to be disregarded.
The dilemma admits, in Jefferson’s mind, a definitive answer. Failure to make a concession to slavery in the case of Missouri might lead to a war between the Southern and Northern states and that war could speedily mark the end of the “great experiment” of government by the people. To Jefferson’s mind, if there should be no more republican government, then there would be no stage on which the debate concerning the legality and morality of slavery could be discussed. There is a parallel here in Progressive/Marxist attempts to undermine or even overthrow the U.S. government by rewriting U.S. history.
The generation of Americans, who pushed and fought for emancipation, chanced everything in their declaration of war with Britain so that they might establish a government, through elected representatives, that was responsive to the voice of the general citizenry. To risk the loss of republican government is a peccancy of the darkest sort, while to concede to Southern interests the legality of slavery in Missouri, where it has hitherto been practiced, is a not-so-dark peccancy—a short-term concession of some ill for the hope of a brighter future for America, without the institution of slavery.
Jefferson here echoes a sentiment articulated in an earlier letter (20 Sept. 1810) to John Colvin. In the letter to Colvin, Jefferson addresses the issue of whether “circumstances do not sometimes require a prudent officer of a nation to go beyond the written laws and act rather as circumstances dictate.” A lifelong strict constructionist, Jefferson wants to know when it is right for a governor of a state or president of a nation to ignore the constraints of constitutional authority. “A strict observance of the written laws is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to written law would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property, and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.” Thus, if scrupulous adherence to written laws which guarantee life, liberty, property, and their enjoyment will result, in certain ultraist circumstances, in their riddance, then the laws must at least temporarily be pretermitted to save the people. That is a lesson Jefferson learned the hard way through his strict adherence to the Virginian constitution while governor of Virginia when British forces were overrunning Virginia in 1781 and he refused to take unconstitutional measures in those dire circumstances.
Yet the concession to Missouri allowing for the institution of slavery might not be, in the long term, so peccant. Jefferson introduces a common argument of Southerners, called the Diffusion Argument. If we allow that all who are slaves to remain slaves in Missouri, that slaves from other states can move to Missouri, and that the children of extant slaves will be free at some point in time, and disallow introduction of any new slaves into the country, “their diffusion over a greater surface would make them individually happier and proportionally facilitate the accomplishment of their emancipation; by dividing the burthen on a greater number of co-adjutors.” In short, more people would own fewer slaves and the diminished presence of slaves would speed abolition of the institution, so goes the argument.
Since the number of scholars, like the historian from Lynchburg, who have commented on the uncogency of the argument is large, it is not necessary to offer illustrations. I do, however, aim to comment critically on the assessment of the uncogency of the argument from diffusion, though in doing that, I say nothing of the immorality of the institution of slavery. My effort here is to repair a mistake of reasoning in the literature on the diffusion argument.
The diffusion argument is essentially analogical, as it bids us to think of a suitable analogy. If one drops an ounce of black dye into an ounce of water, the water will be markedly blackened, though the water will dilute the dye. The effect is much lessened when the ounce of black dye is dropped into a gallon of water, and the effect is unnoticed when an equal amount of the dye is dropped into a large swimming pool. If we understand the argument thus—and there is no reason not to grasp it thus—then the argument makes sense. It amounts to this:
- With greater diffusion of slaves, the practice of slavery is less visible.
- With lesser visibility of the practice of slavery, the motivation to keep alive that practice is much diminished.
- So, by diminishing the motivation to keep alive the practice of slavery, we speed up its demise.
The argument, consequently, is not paralogistic; it is cogent.
Why do not scholars grasp that?
It is, I suspect, because they take Jefferson, and other proponents of the argument, to be championing an unsubtle form of the argument—a straw man.
- By spreading out the number of slaves over a larger territory, one does nothing to reduce the number of slaves.
- By not acting to reduce the number of slaves, we do nothing to work toward riddance of slavery.
- So, diffusion will do nothing to end slavery.
The argument as I present it and as it ought to be taken is normative and future-oriented. Diffusion reduces visibility and reduction of visibility over time diminishes the motivation to continue the barbarous practice.
There is a fiscal component of the argument as well. It is much easier for 10 persons who each own two slaves to give up their slaves without financial devastation that it is for one person who owns 20 slaves.
The lesson for the exuberant local historian is this. Before we harefootedly pass judgment on the poor reasoning of figures of large mind like Thomas Jefferson, it is best to study every possible construal of his argument. In doing so, we just might discover that he was not as cretinous as we have thought him to be. We just might discover that we are the cretins.