Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciusko, and Slavery: Annette Gordon-Reed Responds

Last week I took a look at some of Annette Gordon-Reed's writings on Thomas Jefferson and his old friend Tadeusz Kosciuszko. When Kosciuszko left the country, he asked Jefferson to use his American estate, upon his death, to free as many slaves as the money would allow. On Kosciuszko's death, Jefferson declined to do so citing his age. I was (and am) critical of that decision.  Professor Gordon-Reed was kind enough (and concerned enough) to write me and further detail her thoughts. They are offered below, with her permission, in their entirety. 


One final note before I cede the floor: This whole conversation has the potential to get ugly. I am not one who believes in decorum for decorum's sake. But my hope is that we can talk about this with great passion, but without undue rancor. 

First, Ta-Nehisi, thanks so much for giving me space to present my views on Jefferson and the Kosciusko will. Your posts on this matter suggest that you think it obvious that TJ made an immoral choice when he refused to remain as the will's executor. As you indicated, I have a different take. In addressing this issue, I write not as a defender of Jefferson. I would never, as a scholar, take the roles of either "defender" or "prosecutor" as they are both antithetical to my conception of the scholarly enterprise. Others may take a different view. 

I have known about the Kosciusko will for many years.  I've yet to discuss it in my works on TJ, because I think it more appropriately handled in the two-volume biography of TJ that I am going to write and in the intellectual biography that I am currently working on with historian, Peter S. Onuf.  I, too, was inclined to be very critical of TJ about Kosciusko until I began to read the documents related to the matter --the multiple wills, letters, Supreme Court opinions, and the briefs in the cases-- and relate them to what I knew of TJ's circumstances and the actions he took when he was deciding what to do about the will.  
 
To briefly recount the relevant facts, in 1798 TJ helped Kosciusko draft a will that provided funds to educate and emancipate enslaved people. TJ agreed to be the will's executor.  Kosciusko returned to Europe and, over the years, wrote three more wills (1806, 1816, and 1817) that put his 1798 bequest in jeopardy. In fact, the will he wrote in his own hand in 1816 contained a clause that explicitly revoked all previous wills, and was the basis of the 1852 Supreme Court case that finally killed the 1798 bequest.  In an 1817 letter to TJ, Kosciusko referenced the 1798 bequest as if it were still operational.  His 1817 will covered his European property, but contained a provision that the will's beneficiaries apparently believed gave them the right to the funds in the 1798 will. 
 
When TJ learned of Kosciusko's death, he voiced reservations about remaining as executor, citing his age--he was approaching 75--saying that seeing to the provisions of the will, "would take a longer course of time than I have left of life." He then learned of Kosciusko's 1806 and 1817 wills when the beneficiaries and representatives wrote to him claiming all or part of the funds covered by the 1798 will. At this point, TJ was sure he did not want to be the executor, adding the prospect of litigation to his list of reasons for bowing out. Although he would not be the executor, TJ then took steps to insure that Kosciusko's intent would be honored, and TJ repeatedly indicated in his correspondence that this is what he wanted.  He asked John Hartwell Cocke (39), a well-respected Virginian who also had anti-slavery sentiments, to take his place. Cocke, amenable at first, declined formal appointment when it became clear the will's education requirement would be difficult, if not impossible, to implement.  No white schools wanted to admit blacks, and white communities were hostile to the idea of setting up a school for them.  Acting on the advice of U.S. Attorney General, William Wirt, TJ formally placed the will with the Orphan's Court, which appointed Benjamin Lear as the administrator. 

 
 
 

Some observations. First, being the executor of a will is a serious role that mixes power with responsibility and risk. Critics of TJ focus only on the power that he gave up, and do not consider the responsibilities and risks.  Upon becoming the administrator, Lear, as did the man who succeeded him, posted a bond, and provided multiple sureties to his worth.  Executors/administrators who make the wrong kind of mistakes can put themselves personally on the hook.  TJ was broke in 1818. Could he really have afforded to be involved in this?  This may not explain why he bowed out, but his precarious financial position should be considered. 

Second, the heart tugging language often employed about TJ's duty to his "friend" stacks the deck. Your friend asks you to perform a task that seems simple enough at first. Then he/she proceeds to do things, without telling you, that substantially increase the difficulty of carrying out the task, indeed the friend's actions may involve you in long-running litigation.  Friends don't implicate friends in litigation.  Kosciusko put TJ-- and the enslaved people who could have benefited from the bequest--in a terrible position.  Simply repeating, in his final will, the terms of the 1798 bequest would have avoided a lot of problems. 

Third, the stages of life matter. Why does it shock that the 75-year old TJ might not want prime responsibility for such a huge endeavor and would not want to be involved in litigation? This is particularly so when he was already deep into another serious project: founding UVA. We might choose to fight over Kosciusko's will rather than setting up UVA. But doing both of these things might have been too much for someone who had only seven more years to live.  He sought a younger person to replace him, and talked with him about ways to accomplish the task. We are fixated on TJ, but there were other well-regarded people in Virginia who got things done, and Cocke was one of them. The freed slaves would have benefited just as much if Cocke had accomplished this as if TJ had. 

This matter is far more complicated-- and vastly more interesting--than has been portrayed. And yes, it is fun. Finding fun in our work is what provides scholars with the necessary fuel to do what it takes to get things as close to right as possible.  
 
One more point:  Edward Coles always gets mentioned in discussions of TJ and slavery. Coles deserves lavish praise for his anti-slavery work, but consider his toast of July 4th 1827: to "Liberia--Destined to rid America of Negroes and to give Africa civilization and Christianity, it claims the support of every patriot, philanthropist and Christian." In 1831 Coles wrote to TJ's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, calling blacks an "ignorant, immoral & degraded race." Many today do not want to face the fact that white supremacy was as much a part of the founding ideology as republicanism. Beating up on TJ, as if he were some singular case, is part of the denial
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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