When Jefferson Became Southern
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Missouri Compromise

How to Cite

When Jefferson Became Southern: The Missouri Crisis as Inflection Point. (2020). The Political Science Reviewer, 43(2), 347-378. https://politicalsciencereviewer.wisc.edu/index.php/psr/article/view/617


Thomas Jefferson’s statesmanship on slavery is an enduring puzzle. Jefferson began his career as an outspoken critic of slavery and tried to restrict its growth in the territories. But by the 1820s, he advocated the spread of slavery in the territories, rejected abolitionism as a Northern plot, and implicitly threatened that the South would secede if the North kept trying to restrict slavery. How did Jefferson move from the proto-abolitionism of his youth to a position characteristic of the antebellum South? This essay finds the key to Jefferson’s trajectory on slavery in his republicanism. Jefferson believed that civic health required the protection and promotion of republican, agrarian virtue; yet in the American context, protection of agriculture meant protection of the South and slavery. Jefferson’s inability to resolve the tension between his republicanism and his natural rights doctrine was the source of his uniquely problematic legacy for the United States.

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