The Myth of Jefferson as 'a Man of His Times'

A predictable defense of Thomas Jefferson comes up in comments:

It's worth noting that TJ was warped up in a economic system of which no alternative was readily available. Only a single slave owning founding father freed his slaves, Washington in his will.

As is pointed out in subsequent comments this claim, while convenient, is false. Moreover Jefferson lived at a time when it was relatively common to manumit slaves. One need only look at Jefferson's cousin John Randolph:

Together with Henry Clay, Randolph was one of three founders of the American Colonization Society (ACS) in 1816, a collaboration of slaveholders and abolitionists that planned to transport and resettle free blacks in a colony in Africa (this territory became Liberia). Like some other slaveholders, Randolph had long been opposed to slavery in theory. In the two decades after the Revolutionary War, so many planters freed slaves that the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased from less than one percent in 1782 to 13.5 percent in 1810.

In 1819, Randolph provided in his will for the manumission of his slaves after his death. He wrote, "I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one." Three years later, in 1822, in a codicil to that will, he stipulated that money be provided to transport and settle the freed slaves on land to be purchased in the free state of Ohio. Each slave above the age of 40 was to receive 10 acres of land. He provided for the manumission of hundreds of slaves in his will. Although the will was challenged in the courts, his slaves were finally ruled to be free. After a lengthy court case, his will was upheld. In 1846 three hundred eighty-three former "Randolph Slaves" arrived in Cincinnati, before settling in Rumley, Shelby County, Ohio.

In 1814, Jefferson's protege Edward Coles -- knowing of Jefferson's brilliant anti-slavery writings -- wrote to enlist him in the cause of ridding Virginia of slavery. Coles thought to begin this effort by manumitting his own slaves. Jefferson not only declined to help Coles, but told him he was wrong to try to free his own, telling him

[I]n the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them. 

The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass. That, on the contrary you will come forward in the public councils, become the missionary of this doctrine truly christian; insinuate & inculcate it softly but steadily, through the medium of writing and conversation; associate others in your labors, and when the phalanx is formed, bring on and press the proposition perseveringly until its accomplishment.

Edward Coles ignored Thomas Jefferson's advice, instead becoming the anti-Thomas Jefferson and living up to his word:

In June 1815, Coles traveled in search of western lands where he could free his slaves and settle. Accompanied by his slave Ralph Crawford, he toured the Northwest Territories (later Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois), purchased lands, and somewhat reconciled himself to a rugged life on the frontier. Soon after his return from Russia, in the autumn of 1817, Coles finally sold Rockfish; the buyer was his eldest brother, Walter Coles. The funds from the sale allowed Coles to take a second trip west. 

He left for Illinois in March 1818, and during the summer attended the state's first constitutional convention in Kaskaskia. Many historians believe that Coles wrote an important antislavery letter to the editor of an Illinois newspaper in June under the pseudonym "Agis," but a better case of authorship can be made on behalf of delegate George Churchill. A constitution was adopted on August 26, and Coles returned to Rockfish in the winter. A decade earlier, Coles had made a commitment to his family not to inform his slaves of his intention to free them. The Coles family worried that their other slaves also would demand freedom. 

By 1819, the number of Edward Coles's slaves had grown from twelve to nineteen, and in the spring, without explaining why, he invited them to move with him to Illinois. All agreed except two elderly women whose husbands were owned by other members of the Coles family. In order to keep another slave family together, Coles also purchased the balance of one man's indenture. 

The slaves--six adults and eleven children--departed first, leaving Rockfish on April 1, 1819, outfitted with papers, a wagon, horses, various provisions, and money. Coles left separately. He caught up with the group at Brownsville, Pennsylvania, where he purchased two flatboats intended for the portion of the journey down the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. 

A few miles west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Coles gathered his slaves on the flatboats and, in a simple statement, granted their immediate freedom. The effect, he later wrote, was "electrical. They stared at me and at each other, as if doubting the accuracy or reality of what they heard." They burst into "hysterical, giggling laughter" and then tears of gratitude. They pledged Coles loyalty and support, and Coles promised each of the three main families a gift of land. A mural hanging in the Illinois State Capitol commemorates the moment. 

 The party landed near Louisville, Kentucky, and traveled overland to Edwardsville, Illinois, arriving early in May 1819. During the next two years, Coles worked from Edwardsville as register of lands, a position granted to him by President James Monroe. He supported the newly freed families, purchased and conveyed the land parcels as promised, and developed his own farm, just east of Edwardsville, called Prairieland.

The notion that Jefferson was merely following the crowd, and that everyone else did the same thing is convenient for us. But it has the unfortunate effect of erasing the courage of those who were willing to live their words, and pay the price.

Edward Coles doesn't deserve to be forgotten merely to redeem Jefferson.