Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Robert Pleasants, 1 June 1796

From Robert Pleasants

Richmond 6 mo. 1. 1796

Respected Friend

Concieving the Instruction of black Children to be a duty we owe to that much degraded part of our fellow Creatures, and probably would tend to the spiritual and temporal advantage of that unhappy race, as well as to the Community at large, in fitting them for freedom, which at this enlightened day is generally acknowledged to be their right, I have much desired to see some sutable steps taken to promote such work; And believing thee to be a real friend to the cause of liberty, and endowed with ability and influence in regulating and promoting sutable plans for such a purpose, I take the liberty by my Friend Richard Dobs of sending thee a rough Essay for thy consideration, with a request, that should thou approve the subject, thou wilt please to make such alterations or amendments as may appear to thee more likely to answer the desired purpose, and to give it such other incouragement as thou may think right—I hope thou will excuse the freedom I have now taken, and believe me to be with sincere respect & Esteem Thy Friend

Robert Pleasants

RC (MiU-C); partially clipped at foot of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr”; endorsed by TJ as received “June 13” and so recorded in SJL. FC (Lb in PHC: Quaker Collection); in Pleasants’s hand; with minor variations.

Robert Pleasants (1722–1801), a prominent Virginia Quaker merchant engaged in overseas and domestic trade, was the proprietor of a plantation at Curles Neck in Henrico County. A longtime advocate for abolition of the slave trade and for emancipation, he had been clerk of the Virginia Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends, which successfully petitioned the legislature for an act to allow slaveowners to manumit their slaves. After passage of the law in 1782, Pleasants freed his own slaves at a reputed cost of £3,000 sterling. As executor of the estate of his father—whose will had provided for the emancipation of his slaves, but who died before enactment of the 1782 law—Pleasants filed a lawsuit, subsequently cited in other cases, that resulted in orders by the state’s High Court of Chancery and Court of Appeals, 1799–1800, sanctioning the emancipation of the estate’s approximately 430 slaves on the terms of the will. A founder of the Virginia Abolition Society organized in 1790, Pleasants opposed the deportation of freed bondsmen and women, and he took special interest in the establishment of free schools for black children, providing in his will for the creation of one such institution on his property (Betsy August, ed., “Robert Pleasants Letterbook, 1771–1773” [M.A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1976], 3–5, 7–10, 22–3, 26–33; Virginia: In the High Court of Chancery, March 16, 1798. Between Robert Pleasants … and Mary Logan … [Richmond, 1800], Evans, description begins Charles Evans, Clifford K. Shipton, and Roger P. Bristol, comps., American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America from … 1639 … to … 1820, Chicago and Worcester, Mass., 1903–59, 14 vols. description ends No. 38963; Helen T. Catterall, ed., Judicial Cases concerning American Slavery and the Negro, 5 vols. [Washington, D.C., 1926–37], i, 105–6, 138, 165, 170, 237; Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782, trans. Howard C. Rice, Jr., 2 vols. [Chapel Hill, 1963], ii, 596–7).

The enclosed rough essay may have been Pleasants’s “Proposals for Establishing a free school for the Instruction of the Children of Blacks and people of Color,” which he had evidently circulated around 1782 or earlier (Stephen B. Weeks, Southern Quakers and Slavery: A Study in Institutional History [Baltimore, 1896], 215).

A letter from Pleasants to TJ of 17 Mch. 1796, recorded in SJL as received from Curles on 10 Apr. 1796, has not been found.

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