Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from William Canby, 27 May 1802

From William Canby

Brandywine Mills 27th 5 mo 1802

Esteemed friend Thomas Jefferson, thy Assertion, (when I attended with Dorothy Ripley, on her application for thy concurrence with her desire, to attempt the education of abt. 64 female black or colored Children of those called free)—“that thou apprehended they were not of equal capacity with the Whites,” gave me concern, having long since been informed, that our friend Anthony Benezet, (some Years occupied in their Tuition), declared his sentiment, that they were of equal Capacity; & having myself been witness to instances of their good improvement, in the Scool since continued for their benefit in Philadelphia. Yet I think with concern, there is also truth in thy experience of their incapacity—for it appears to me, it is permitted by the allwise disposer of events, that Mankind departing from his righteous Law written in the inward part, which is blotted thro’ want of inward attention unto obedience; being thereby only kept alive, & predominant to the subjection of Nature.—for want of this they may be so blinded, & so confederate in wrong courses, as to oppress Mankind, not only as to bodily power, but also to degrade the Natural Capacity for a long time; but this being contrary to Justice, & the Rights of Mankind; tho’ it cannot I think prevent the salvation of the Soul of the oppressed, or the divine intercourse, with his own life, raised as beforesaid.—yet I think this oppression by one part of his Creation over the other will not always continue unreproved; & as it is a departure from his righteous government only, which (generally) deprives of his blessing act, or inward; & makes punishment Necessary, so the longer it is continued, & the greater the extent, the greater is the punishment, or Overturning, necessary to dispel the cloud of separation, or that which prevents the effusion of all good.

with my best wishes for thy further attainment of this most Necessary, inward, & divine Life, & Communion; without which we cannot I think, know the existance of the divine Being, & Principle, nor enjoy fully the benefit of it, but by a principle of the like kind being raised in us, seeing like must communicate with its like; I bid thee heartily farewell.

Wm. Canby

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 30 May and so recorded in SJL.

William Canby (1748–1830) was from Brandywine Village, a part of Wilmington, Delaware, noted for its many flour mills. Although his family was prominent in that business, Canby devoted his energies to the Society of Friends and became a beloved figure among Quakers in the region. In 1813, TJ responded to a letter from Canby with one of his more explicit commentaries on Christian faith, in which he praised the teachings of Jesus as perhaps the world’s purest moral system, while denouncing sectarianism and advocating universalist principles. The exchange was widely reprinted in nineteenth-century newspapers (William Canby Biddle, William Canby, of Brandywine, Delaware: His Descendants Fourth to Seventh Generation in America [Philadelphia, 1883]; Carol Hoffecker, Brandywine Village: The Story of a Milling Community [Wilmington, Del., 1974]; TJ to Canby, 18 Sep. 1813, in DLC).

Earlier that month, Canby had accompanied DOROTHY RIPLEY, an English missionary, on a trip to Washington and the President’s House, where they met with TJ on 5 May, with the goal of gaining TJ’s approval of a plan to start a school for African American girls in the capital. In her memoir Ripley reported that TJ wished her success but also declared that “I am afraid you will find it an arduous task to undertake” and later added, “I do not think they are the same race; for their mental powers are not equal to the Indians.” Ripley argued that training people under such a view would “prove only a curse to the land,” a sentiment that gained the approval of Henry Dearborn and District of Columbia Commissioner William Thornton, who were also in attendance. Following a brief exchange about the President’s own slaveholding, the meeting ended cordially. There is no evidence that the proposed school was ever founded (DNB description begins H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds., Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, In Association with The British Academy, From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000, Oxford, 2004, 60 vols. description ends ; Dorothy Ripley, The Extraordinary Conversion, and Religious Experience of Dorothy Ripley, with Her First Voyage and Travels in America [New York, 1810], 63–6).

ANTHONY BENEZET, a Quaker reformer and abolitionist, founded a school for African Americans in Philadelphia (ANB description begins John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, New York and Oxford, 1999, 24 vols. description ends ).

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