To the surprise of many, one of the great quotes from the enlightenment era comes from Thomas Jefferson. While he was a good speaker, his genius often came out in writings by the third president of the United States. The quote, often partially cited is “I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just.” The full quote, below, sheds more light on what he was talking about (the institution of slavery) and why he, perhaps more than any other should lose sleep over his country’s role in slavery.
The following quote was indeed written by Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes On The State of Virginia. The quote appears on page 404, line 14.
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation is among possible events; that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest.Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia Query xviii: Manners (1784)
The Backstory of the Quote: Thomas Jefferson
While history remains divided on his political choices, there is no such debate on his intellectual aptitude: Thomas Jefferson was a natural scientist. He single-handedly re-invented the plow using principles of calculus (at a time when the plow was an extremely important tool). Upon his election to the Vice Presidency, his first speech was to the American Philosophical Society on current issues in Paleontology. However the work of scientific investigation and discovery, Jefferson ultimately concluded, was a luxury that would have to be reserved for future generations. For him, the creation of a just society should take precedence.
However, it may be for exactly that reason that Thomas Jefferson failed to deliver on his promise when it comes to the topic of slavery. Perhaps his most famous maneuver, among many, while he was in office was the Lousiana Purchase. In 1803, Jefferson was able to negotiate a deal for the Lousiana territory which now encompasses the states of Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado (including parts of Canada). The deal was an unbelievable coup for the then young United States of America as it nearly doubled the size of the country for a shockingly small sum.
Jefferson then needed to maximize the return on his investment in the country. Remembering that the country was a very small and developing one, this posed quite a challenge. When many countries, such as Great Britain, were beginning to phase out the slave trade Jefferson went the other way. Utilizing slaves in the new territory to help encourage slaves to settle the territory. Jefferson saw slavery as the primary economic driver for the south. That might not seem like such a big deal today, given the economic situation of the southern states in the 21st Century, but when the country was founded, up until the Civil War, the south was ludicrously wealthy. For Jefferson, it was this wealth that he wanted to expand to his newly acquired territories.
This would serve as perhaps the lone black mark on an otherwise positive presidential tenure.
Did Thomas Jefferson Own Slaves?
Yes. Jefferson did more than own his slaves. After inheriting many children from his father-in-law, Thomas Jefferson became entranced with a bi-racial slave named Sally Hemmings. Now most scholars of the American Revolution and thereafter believe that he fathered children with Hemmings. The author of the constitution, Thomas Jefferson wrote the famous line “all men are created equal”, yet certainly appears hypocritical when compared to his personal and political statements concerning the holding of slaves.
Updates to this Page
A historic moment for QuotesExplained, a studious user has informed us of a potential error to this page that we need to clear up. It is important to note that it would be wrong to frame the quote as though Jefferson believed in a personal god. He was in fact merely using, as the commenter wrote, the “language he knew others would understand about the injustices he perceived.”
Though the commenter did not mention it, and few do, Jefferson is the author of the Jefferson bible. A book where the former president took the bible and removed all references to the supernatural and miracles performed by Jesus.
Thank you again to the anonymous commenter for this valuable feedback. If you spot an error on this page or any other, please let us know in the form to the right.