Thomas Jefferson on abortion

During these strange political times I have found myself returning in thought to Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia for some reason. Don’t ask me why, for I am not entirely sure, but I do have to say that this work continually blows my mind. This might by the third or fourth time I have read it through, and there are a number of passages that truly leave me in awe thinking about just how nuts Jefferson was for better and for worse, which I think is the true mark of genius.

Anyway, this is post is neither an apology nor an indictment of Jefferson, just a reflection on one of his observations about the custom of naturally inducing abortions and contraception amongst Native American women in Query 6: “Minerals”:

They [Native Americans] raise fewer children than we do. The causes of this are to be found, not in a difference of nature, but of circumstance. The women very frequently attending the men in their parties of war and of hunting, child-bearing becomes extremely inconvenient to them. It is said, therefore, that they have learnt the practice of procuring abortion by the use of some vegetable; and that it even extends to prevent conception for a considerable time after.

What strikes me about this passage is just how sanguinely Jefferson remarks on this practice, which today is one of the hallmark issue that divides the US along “conservative” and “liberal” lines (I put these terms in quotes because I really don’t know what they mean in our moment anymore). Yet, for Jefferson it is a practice that is both naturalized and contextualized within a particular cultures relationship to “circumstance” and necessity. This passage does not highlight this as a savage practice of the other, nor is the explanation for this practice to be understood as ” a difference of nature.” In fact, I think the Notes is fascinating in that Jefferson is trying to reclaim the humanity of the Native Americans (despite the fact they have been al but decimated and removed from the 13 colonies) while at the same time struggling with that of the African American slave.  Possibly the most famous passage from the Notes is this bit from Query 14: “Laws”:

To emancipate all slaves born after passing the act. The bill reported by the revisors does not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it was prepared, to be offered to the legislature whenever the bill should be taken up, and further directing, that they should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up, at the public expence, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniusses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of houshold and of the handicraft arts, feeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c. to declare them a free and independant people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they shall have acquired strength; and to send vessels at the same time to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants; to induce whom to migrate hither, proper encouragements were to be proposed. It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. [My emphasis]

This may be the most insane political plan ever dreamed up (both politically and finanically), to send all slaves back to Africa to start a state of their own under the guidance of the US. A colonial state premised on prejudices and a difference of nature that can never be overcome. In many ways the election that is happening to us now makes me think that so many of the claims here, and the violent history out of which this nation was born, might begin to expose and heal the centuries of scars. I don’t want to ignore the potential power of the moment, and the historical precedent that reverberates deeply within it, yet I am afraid of the machine. Of the surety that it is not about nature, which Jefferson grants the Native Americans though refuses the African Americans, but circumstance. The circumstance of a nation and a people caught between two parties that are both chin-deep in corruption as is made all too clear by the current bi-partisan push for an ill-defined bailout of corporate greed, reminiscent of the post-9/11 push for an international witch hunt that manifested itself as the war in Iraq. And that corruption extends well beyond Capitol Hill into many a home across this fair land. The circumstances are bigger than any one candidate, but I want to try an honor the historic moment of Obama’s candidacy while simultaneously wonder if All the King’s Men hasn’t already written the script for this movie?

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7 Responses to Thomas Jefferson on abortion

  1. Pingback: Thomas Jefferson on abortion « Siren Songs

  2. Hi, I think Jefferson was politically astute in his comments about Africans–that is, in the passage you quote, I think he was very careful to say something that would make sense to the Whites of the time (an equally contradictory passage on race is in the document describing the discovery of the Lumbee tribe and their need for a school; they were of all hues of the rainbow or something similar, having in them the blood of Raleigh’s original lost colony, algonquian tribes, and escaped slaves; it was necessary to set them up with their own school and they were to be forbidden to intermarry anymore with ‘coloreds’). I also note that the British found it convenient to have the Scots off colonizing the Americas.


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