Jefferson's Attitude towards the Indigenous Peoples
The tragedy befalling these people was enormous in its scope, particularly because their fate was sealed at the hands of a people who believed themselves to be building an enlightened society guided by a moral sense philosophy and a pluralistic tolerance for others. Conquest and even annihilation of vanquished tribes by more numerous and technologically superior groups fit the continuum of history; what we are today troubled by is the legacy of moral responsibility that cries out for retribution. The more enlightened of eighteenth century Europeans and European-Americans were unable to fully reconcile their behavior toward the indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans with their growing appreciation for a human rights doctrine. Thomas Jefferson, in so many ways among the vanguard of enlightened republican leaders, wrestled unsuccessfully with this dichotomy of reason against belief, intent against behavior. In his Notes On Virginia (1784), he does distance himself from the prejudiced and unscientific reports of tribal culture in the southern hemisphere, writing:
Of the Indian of South America I know nothing; for I would not honor with the appellation of knowledge, what I derive from the fables published of them. These I believe to be just as true as the fables of Aesop.
His attitude toward the indigenous peoples of North America was similarly balanced and to the extent possible based on first-hand observation or reliable (i.e., objective) information obtained from others who visited and lived among the tribes. He considered the enslavement of these people an "inhuman practice" and conveyed in his writing a remarkable appreciation for the relation between the socio-political differences of American and Eurasian societies:
Before we condemn the Indians of this continent as wanting genius, we must consider that letters have not yet been introduced among them. Were we to compare them in their present state with the Europeans, north of the Alps, when the Roman arms and arts first crossed those mountains, the comparison would be unequal, because, at that time, those parts of Europe were swarming with numbers; because numbers produce emulation, and multiply the chances of improvement, and one improvement begets another. Yet I may safely ask, how many good poets, how many able mathematicians, how many great inventors in arts or sciences, had Europe, north of the Alps, then produced? And it was sixteen centuries after this before a Newton could be formed.
Jefferson goes on to speculate the Eurasian origins of the American tribes and their migrations across the northwestern and northeastern land/sea bridges. He is clearly sympathetic to the view of a common, although very distant, ancestry. His vision of the future even saw as inevitable the inter-marriage between European-Americans and the indigenous tribes. Jefferson's attitude toward Africans was, however, far more complex and contradictory, denouncing slavery yet purchasing additional slaves beyond those coming to him as part of his father's estate. Moreover, he was apparently unable to believe that Africans came from the same common ancestry he accepted for indigenous Americans and Eurasians. His sentiments are perhaps best revealed in the brief passage from his Autobiography (1820):
Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate, than that these people are to be free, nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion, have drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation, peaceably, and in such slow degree, as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be, pari passu [i.e., on an equal basis], filled up by free white laborers. If, on the contrary, it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.