My analysis of David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies will have to stop, at least for the moment, with my short series on the methodological background of the book. I may return to the series in the near future, but right now there are more pressing things at hand.
Once again, I want to call your attention to Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter’s book Getting Jefferson Right. It is a one stop shop for exposing some of the flaws in Barton’s book.
I also want to call your attention to Throckmorton’s most recent post at his blog. Here he debunks Barton’s claim that Jefferson could not free his slaves because Virginia law prohibited him from doing so.
Here is a taste:
Here is what Barton claims about Jefferson:
If Jefferson was indeed so antislavery, then why didn’t he release his own slaves? After all, George Washington allowed for the freeing of his slaves on his death in 1799, so why didn’t Jefferson at least do the same at his death in 1826? The answer is Virginia law. In 1799, Virginia allowed owners to emancipate their slaves on their death; in 1826, state laws had been changed to prohibit that practice.
So according to Barton, Jefferson was unable to free his slaves while alive and couldn’t at death because of Virginia law. Is this true?
Not at all. In fact, Barton must know this because he cited Virginia’s 1782 law on manumission which made such emancipation possible. Well, he cited part of the law. Here is what Barton cites of the law in his book:
[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and…it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament…to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves.
Now, here is the entire relevant section of the 1782 law on manumission:
[T]hose persons who are disposed to emancipate their slaves may be empowered so to do, and the same hath been judged expedient under certain restrictions: Be it therefore enacted, That it shall hereafter be lawful for any person, by his or her last will and testament, or by any other instrument in writing, under his or her hand and seal, attested and proved in the county court by two witnesses, or acknowledged by the party in the court of the county where he or she resides to emancipate and set free, his or her slaves, or any of them, who shall thereupon be entirely and fully discharged from the performance of any contract entered into during servitude, and enjoy as full freedom as if they had been particularly named and freed by this act.
Note the second selection above in bold print. This is the relevant portion of the 1782 law Barton omits. This section allowed slave owners to release their slaves by filing a deed. Emancipated slaves needed a document which was recorded according to the law as proof of their status. This law allowed slave owners when they were alive to free their slaves, provided slaves were of sound body and older than eighteen if a female and older than 21 if a male, but not above the age of 45. Thus, Jefferson could have freed many of his slaves within the law while he was alive. In addition to The Jefferson Lies, Barton, in a recent radio program, emphatically stated that after 1782 slaves could only be freed at the time of a slaveholder’s death. Not only was Jefferson legally permitted to free his slaves, he actually freed two slaves in the 1790s, Robert (1794) and James (1796) Hemings.