In Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson subordinated blacks scientifically while calling for their emancipation as slaves. With a systematic approach, he compared his study of blacks to the scientific classification of animals. As a proponent of natural rights and human equality, his categorization was shocking. Jefferson, though, was a product of his time. He was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment and its philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith. Within Notes, Jefferson touted his intellectual prowess as a “lover of natural history” and clearly presented his knowledge to a decidedly European audience. Although he offered his scientifically racist notions to a broader audience, Jefferson struggled with the implications of his argument.
The European Enlightenment created an intellectual elite, whose members used reason-based philosophical discourse to improve their own state and, in a larger sense, the world (ImHof 162). Enlightenment philosophers, inspired by political and social issues within their own states, endeavored a practical application of knowledge. Montesquieu outlined the historical evolution of the European legal system (163). Voltaire, through literature and satire, traced the history of the world, and Rousseau contemplated the inequality of the human race (164). Pierre Bayle, as he responded to the political hierarchy in France, underscored a predominant 18th century enlightenment ideal: “I am a citizen of the world, I am not in the service of the emperor of the king of France, I am in the service of the truth” (98). Enlightenment proponents translated the complex language of the “great thinkers” of Greece and Rome so that philosophy itself was no longer purely elitist or scholastic but, instead, a “fashionable ideology” (164). Jefferson used this ideology to contemplate the scientific gradations of the human race “with the eye of philosophy” (Gallay 161). This ideology became the foundation for law, medicine, and science (165).
Enlightened Europeans agreed upon the inferiority of black Africans, but they could not agree on the origins of their subordinates. Jefferson found that blacks “are inferior to whites in the endowments of both body and mind,” but could not decide whether they constituted a distinct race (Gallay 161). Most 18th century philosophers—including Montesquieu, Kant and Rousseau—proposed monogenesis, or the belief that all humankind descended from a common ancestor. (In the religious sense, the common ancestors were Adam and Eve). If white men and “inferior” black Africans had a common origin, then one must champion Hugo Grotius’ assumption that the development of human culture could stagnate and even regress (Tiainen-Anttila 43). Montesquieu thought Africans were undeveloped because of their environment and its isolated nature (79) but believed they existed in Hobbes’ natural state (81). He argued, “nature and climate had an obstructing effect on cultural development in African heat…because blacks avoided efforts and sank into apathy” (81). Kant supported the monogenesis view and thought whit Europeans and black Africans were members of the same species since they could procreate (116).
In Inhumane Bondage, David Brion Davis suggests that slaves, from the time of antiquity, were subjected to common stereotypes that persisted regardless of race. Drawing upon Aristotle’s use of the term “barbarian” one can infer that his Hellenistic culture was inherently xenophobic. Thus slaves were foreign, not necessarily black (Davis 50). In 18th century Russia, slaves and serfs were considered “childlike…and incapable of life without authoritative direction” (50). In fact, Davis suggests some Russian noblemen tried to fabricate a separate historical origin for serfs (50), just as some European Enlightenment thinkers had attempted to classify Africans. According to Orlando Patterson, the “sambo” stereotype of the slave as a “degraded man-child” pioneered by Stanley Elkins in 1959, universally defined slavery through out time (51). One might conclude, though, that the “sambo” stereotype oversimplified the adaptability of the slave in Jefferson’s American South.
Though enlightenment thinkers tried to classify black Africans in a rational sense, it seems as though these Europeans, as well as Jefferson, were creating their own superior identity in relation to “the other.”