That Time Thomas Jefferson and Virginia Colonists Tried to Get King George to Stop the Slave Trade

Thomas Jefferson portrait

So I’ve just finished my first book and am working on another. The first is about the Hubble Space Telescope, the one I’m researching now is about history. Specifically, I'm planning to look at the roots of a very consequential revolution in my home state of Texas, and a lingering mystery about one of its heroes.

As I’m wandering around the internet, I find an interesting document. It’s dated April 1, 1772 (April Fool’s wasn’t a prank thing in England or the colonies then, so it’s no joke). Controversies and conflicts were brewing between the English crown and its American subjects. One of those issues was slavery.

I’ve written before about how slavery vexed the American revolutionaries. That the Declaration of Independence was a radical assault on monarchy and rule by fiat rather than rule by justice and law. That the revolution was aimed at decentralizing power, which is a principle at the heart of most of our political debates today.

Most of the founders opposed slavery’s continued existence, despite the fact that many of them actively owned slaves. Slavery was an abhorrent part of the economy most of them wanted gone. Among other things, it violated the ideals they would put their lives, treasure and sacred honor on the line for.

Those revolution debates were far from the first involving slavery in the New World. The debate goes back at least to America’s first colonial century. In 1772, 28-year-old Thomas Jefferson represented Albemarle County in Virginia’s colonial House of Burgesses. On March 20, the House approved sending a strong message to King George III. Jefferson helped draft that message. Its title: Virginia Colony to George III of England, April 1, 1772, Petition Against the Importation of Slaves from Africa.

The brief petition warns King George III that while many English citizens profit from the slave trade, it was an “inhumanity” that posed a serious threat to his American colonies.

The Importation of Slaves into the Colonies from the Coast of Africa hath long been considered as a Trade of great Inhumanity, and, under its present Encouragement, we have too much Reason to fear will endanger the very Existance of your Majesty’s American Dominions.

We are sensible that some of your Majesty’s Subjects in Great-Britain may reap Emoluments from this Sort of Traffic, but when we consider that it greatly retards the Settlement of the Colonies, with more useful Inhabitants, and may, in Time, have the most destructive Influence, we presume to hope that the Interest of a few will be disregarded when placed in Competition with the Security and Happiness of such Numbers of your Majesty’s dutiful and loyal Subjects.

“More useful,” meaning free.

Deeply impressed with these Sentiments, we most humbly beseech your Majesty to remove all those Restraints on your Majesty’s Governors of this Colony, which inhibit their assenting to such Laws as might check so very pernicious a Commerce.

The future revolutionaries warned him. They put it in writing that continuing the slave trade could bring about “the most destructive influence.” You can read the rest from the Library of Congress at the link above or here, including the notes from the House of Burgesses Journal.

King George, ever the tyrant, was also pro-slavery. England had yet to abolish slavery or ban the importation of slaves to Great Britain. It would not do that until 1807, or abolish slavery across the Empire until 1833. The Virginia Petition was 30 years ahead of the crown.

It was also a year ahead of the Boston Tea Party (1773) and four years before the Declaration of Independence (1776). In between, in 1775, Thomas Paine anonymously published a stirring attack on slavery, calling it “wicked.”

Our Traders in MEN (an unnatural commodity!) must know the wickedness of that SLAVE-TRADE, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their own hearts; and such as shun and stiffle all these, wilfully sacrifice Conscience, and the character of integrity to that golden Idol.

The Managers of that Trade themselves, and others, testify, that many of these African nations inhabit fertile countries, are industrious farmers, enjoy plenty, and lived quietly, averse to war, before the Europeans debauched them with liquors, and bribing them against one another; and that these inoffensive people are brought into slavery, by stealing them, tempting Kings to sell subjects, which they can have no right to do, and hiring one tribe to war against another, in order to catch prisoners. By such wicked and inhuman ways the English are said to enslave towards one hundred thousand yearly; of which thirty thousand are supposed to die by barbarous treatment in the first year; besides all that are slain in the unnatural wars excited to take them. So much innocent blood have the Managers and Supporters of this inhuman Trade to answer for to the common Lord of all!

When the founders met in Philadelphia in 1776 to draft what would become the Declaration of Independence, they debated slavery. Most wanted it done away with, but they recognized that they had a war against a vast and powerful (and at that time, pro-slave) empire to win. They had to hang together, as Benjamin Franklin said, or they would surely hang separately. The founders wrote a passage in the Declaration that made the king’s preservation of the slave trade one of the grievances that caused the revolution, alongside the taxation and other causes. According to Jefferson, they deleted that clause to keep Georgia and South Carolina in the revolutionary fold. Abolition would have to wait. The price would be the Civil War, America’s deadliest conflict.

King George III rejected Virginia’s petition to end the inhuman slave trade, and so it continued. But it should be noted that, far from the New York Times’ and the Howard Zinn-ified left’s depiction of America as founded on slavery, America’s leaders were among the first in the world to try and stop the slave trade, which over time would have strangled slavery itself. A future president was centrally involved. Thomas Jefferson deserves better than how his hometown Charlottesville, Va., now treats him. He introduced a bill banning the importation of slaves into Virginia in 1778, three years before the American Revolution ended.

The founders knew full well the implications they kept in the Declaration when they included the words “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” They knew this meant men and women and people of all races, and infused this equality into America’s DNA at the founding.

Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble's Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He's a writer, producer, veteran, author, Texan, and conservative strategist.