Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Robert Pleasants, [27 August 1796]

To Robert Pleasants

[27 Aug. 1796]

[…]1 the establishment of the plan of emancipation if it should precede I am not prepared to decide. If it should precede, I would refer to your consideration whether the plan you propose is adequate to the object. I apprehend that private liberalities will never be equal but to local and partial effects. I venture therefore to suggest what alone can, in my opinion, accomplish the general object. Among the laws proposed in what was called the Revised code printed in 1784. was a bill entitled ‘for the more general diffusion of knowledge.’ This bill was much approved, [and] was taken from [the] bundle and printed for public consideration when it was first reported. I believe that it would now be [as] generally approved, and needs only to be brought into view again to be adopted. This might be effected by petitions from the several counties to the assembly to take that bill into consideration. Very small alterations2 would make it embrace the object of your paper, it’s effect would be general, and the means for carrying it on would be certain and permanent. Permit me therefore to suggest to you the substitution of that as a more general and certain means of providing for the instruction of the slaves, and more desireable as they would in the course of it be mixed with those of free condition. Whether, for their happiness, it should extend beyond those destined to be free, is questionable. Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other. I am, with perfect esteem Dear Sir Your friend & servt

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC: TJ Papers, 100: 17181); consists of last page only; undated, but assigned on the basis of SJL and Pleasants to TJ, 8 Feb. 1797; faded; with emendations, the most important of which is noted below.

This fragment is the conclusion of TJ’s reply to Pleasants’s letter of 1 June 1796. plan you propose: the “rough Essay” enclosed in Pleasants to TJ, 1 June 1796. As a member of a committee of revisors appointed in 1776 to overhaul Virginia’s legal code, TJ had written an education bill that proposed a three-tiered system of state-supported primary, grammar, and university education, the last two stages being progressively more selective. The bill was first presented to the House of Delegates in December 1778 and was one of several proposed revisions of statutes printed in 1784 for consideration by the Assembly (Report of the Committee of Revisors Appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in MDCCLXXVI [Richmond, 1784]). See Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, Washington, D.C., 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends No. 1864. TJ soon came to regard the bill as the most important in the revisal of the laws, but the measure languished over the issue of funding the schools (Autobiography, in Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Letterpress Edition, New York, 1892–99, 10 vols. description ends i, 66–7; and above in this series, Vol. 2:526–35, for the legislative history of the bill). For the passage of a school bill in December 1796, see Pleasants to TJ, 8 Feb. 1797.

A letter from Pleasants to TJ of 13 June 1796, recorded in SJL as received the same day, has not been found.

1Estimated one or two pages missing.

2TJ originally wrote “very little alteration of it,” then amended the passage to read as above.

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