Document Type

Conference Proceeding


Cultural History | History | History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Intellectual History | United States History


Race, we are told, is a “social construction.” If this is so, Thomas Jefferson was its principal architect. Jefferson consciously framed his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia, to check the rising status of Africans and to combat growing critiques of slavery from America’s European friends. Jefferson did this by importing the slaveholder’s sense of slaves as chattel into an Enlightenment world view, providing a metaphysical foundation for prejudice by transmuting the traditional Christian concept of the saved vs. the damned into material and aesthetic terms. Recasting in quasi-scientific language the ancient doctrine of the mark of Cain, Jefferson formalized a doctrine of “skin depravity” in which the Manichaean dichotomy between black and white preempted questions about slavery and became the keystone of the new republic.


Presentation to conference on "Jeffersonian Democracy: Theory and Practice," Princeton University, May 18, 2012.