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Conclusion In 1781, Thomas Jefferson wrote his Notes on the State of Virginia. In this lengthy disquisition on American exceptionalism and superiority, Jefferson addressed the issue of race at length. In Query XIV, Jefferson stated plainly his belief in black inferiority. Jefferson “compared them [people of color] by their faculties [to whites]. . . . In reason,” he wrote, “[they are] much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless , and anomalous. . . . This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people [black slaves].” Even as a war dedicated to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness ” was coming to a successful close, Thomas Jefferson did not resolve the contradiction between the revolutionary ideals he espoused and his belief in white superiority and by extension in a slave system ensuring permanent black subservience. Jefferson’s belief in the inferiority of people of color would only deepen as the years passed. By 1814, Jefferson wrote that free people of color, “by their habits, [were] rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves and are promptly extinguished whenever industry is necessary for raising the young. In the meantime they are pests in society by their idleness and the depredations to which this leads them.” Evidently, not everyone in Jefferson’s beloved home county of Albemarle agreed with him. On November 9, 1785, Thomas West came to the courthouse in Charlottesville to file a deed. On that fall day, West, “for and in consideration of the sum of five shillings to him [Thomas West] paid by the said James,” manumitted his slave James Henry West. At first glance, this deed of manumission tells the reader very little. This individual manumis- Conclusion 201 sion occurred three years after the passage of the law of 1782 making individual emancipations possible. The deed does not contain any convincing language that demonstrates Thomas West’s adherence to revolutionary principles or that contradicts the holding of other humans in bondage. Nor does the document demonstrate that West and his slave had much of an economic motive for the manumission. The small five-shilling payment was perhaps cited as a mere formality. James Henry was probably not making the final payment after years of toiling to earn enough money to purchase himself. But James Henry West was much more than simply a favored slave who earned his freedom thanks to the beneficence of a kind master. James Henry was the son of Thomas West. West had a relationship with his former slave Priscilla, whom he may have informally freed at some point prior to 1782. By 1793, only eight years after becoming free, James Henry possessed land, owning one lot in Charlottesville. He contradicted Jefferson’s concept of free people of color as “pests in society by their idleness.” James Henry, at the death of his father in 1796, had become much more than an anomalous former slave. He already owned land, but his economic position was about to change dramatically. James Henry inherited his father’s estate, including eight slaves. James Henry West and Thomas West were family. It was this most personal of relationships that led to James Henry’s freedom. Though he was a former slave, and a light-skinned free mulatto subject to the same legal proscriptions as other free people of color, James Henry West’s life suggests he escaped those restrictions. He managed to cross the color line, achieving a social whiteness recognized by the Albemarle community as well as by people in locales beyond the confines of that rural county. His father raised him as if he were white. James Henry likely went to school with white children. Thus, even before his father died, James Henry West lived his life as if he were white. In July 1794, he married a white woman named Susannah Harlow in a ceremony that county officials recognized as legal. The white Albemarle resident Benjamin Wheeler, speaking in 1836 about James Henry and Susannah’s children, said they were “esteemed, received and accepted as white men, and allowed to intermarry without objection on the score of blood, with white women.” But the West family was not engaged in passing, a secretive claiming of whiteness that denied or obscured an interracial lineage. As Benjamin Wheeler suggested, the Wests were known to be of mixed heritage, but their ancestry, behavior, and reputation accorded them...


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