On October 24, Robert Paquette, Executive Director of the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization (AHI), traveled to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, as the invited guest of the Center for Political and Economic Thought, St. Vincent’s College. Dr. Jerome Foss, Associate Professor of Political Science, introduced Paquette to the audience. More than 200 persons, primarily students and faculty, attended the event. Paquette spoke on “Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery in the Age of Possibilism.”
Paquette’s lecture derives from research on a forthcoming book whose initial chapters focus on Jefferson’s views of race and slavery. Paquette argued that although “[n]o shortage of scholarship on Jefferson’s thinking on these subjects exists, Jefferson’s attempts to grapple with the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), a singular event in history, during the most active years of his public life—as secretary of state, vice-president, and president—open, arguably, the most revealing window into his soul on both subjects.” Paquette discussed both consistencies and inconsistencies in Jefferson’s thinking. During his public life, Jefferson never veered away from the belief that the Atlantic slave trade was an “abomination.” He regarded slavery as an evil, but one that had to be removed from the United States carefully and gradually. Jefferson also never strayed from the view that colonization of emancipated slaves as well as of free persons of color, whether to West Africa or the Caribbean, was a desirable goal.
Paquette did highlight one important shift in Jefferson’s thinking on slavery in the United States, from the “containment” position he embraced at the time he was putting in place the architecture of the Northwest Ordinance (1787) to the “diffusionist” position he would later adopt during the Haitian Revolution, an argument that, as Paquette noted, was first seeded into the Congressional debate about the status of slavery in the Mississippi Territory. Although many scholars have dismissed Jefferson’s counter-intuitive diffusionist argument—that the expansion of slavery could actually act to weaken the institution in the South—Paquette explained the intersection of economic, demographic, and political forces that Jefferson had in mind. Census data from the Border States, from 1810 to 1860, Paquette noted, evidence the operation of diffusionism, though at a pace far more slowly than Jefferson would have preferred. To show how diffusionism acted with greater rapidity to undermine slavery, Paquette pointed to the nineteenth-century experience of Cuba and Brazil, the last two countries to end slavery in the hemisphere. Indispensable for the success of diffusionism, as Jefferson understood it, Paquette argued, was the ending of the Atlantic slave trade. Article one, section nine, clause one of the Constitution prohibited federal action on the slave trade until 1807, and, indeed, it was during Jefferson’s administration with Jefferson’s active encouragement, that federal legislation was passed at the earliest possible moment to end legally the Atlantic slave trade.
Jefferson confessed near the end of his life that the whole question of slavery had been a source of his “greatest anxieties.” Without question, said Paquette, “racialist prejudice tinctured Jefferson’s thinking . . . but in matters of geopolitics and strategic thinking ‘the power of blackness’ hardly proved dispositive in his handling of most issues.” For Jefferson, “race and slavery in the United States came freighted with other weighty matters such as resurgent Federalism, imperial rivalries and warfare, free trade, centralizing federal power, and the very survival of the Union itself.”
Dr. Foss thanked Paquette for his presentation. “I can assure you that you gave the students and all of us plenty to chew on and discuss.” Paquette, on his part, thanked St. Vincent’s for its exemplary hospitality. “I cannot remember a place,” he said, “where I have been treated more warmly. Both the students and faculty proved thoughtful and lively. Their commitment to a liberal arts education, traditionally understood, provides quite a contrast to the fashionable swindle at allegedly elite colleges known as the open curriculum. The Benedictine monks with whom I conversed, their educational values, impressed me immensely. The sense I had was that St. Vincent’s College has a true intellectual community in which its faculty and students can take great pride. The on-campus Center for Political and Economic Thought stands as an impressive testament to the College’s commitment to the promotion of intellectual excellence and diversity. How refreshing!”
Paquette’s lecture will soon be posted on the Center’s YouTube channel.