If Thomas Jefferson Had Lived In The Time of the Civil War

Dear readers, in this post I shall answer an extremely pressing Civil War question: if Thomas Jefferson lived in the time of the Civil War, what side would he have taken? Based on a number of factors, listed below, we shall figure out the answer.


The Civil War started out as a war about states’ rights. The Southern states claimed that the North had continually violated their basic rights as states, while the Northern states maintained that they had done nothing to provoke the South’s complaints. When the South seceded, they formed a confederacy – designed to strengthen states’ power and weaken federal power.

Thomas Jefferson was known throughout the American political scene for his fervent belief in states’ rights. He was an avid supporter of the Articles of Confederation, the document that preceded the Constitution and called for a weak federal government and equal rights for every state. Except for an eight-year lull (his two terms as President), Jefferson harshly condemned the strong executive branch created under the Constitution. Given all of this, it is likely that Jefferson would have stuck with the side that embodied his political ideas: namely, the Confederacy.


Robert E. Lee, the illustrious general from Virginia, had been offered a position as commander of the Union’s army. He politely declined the job, stating that he would rather side with his own state. It can be assumed that Jefferson, also a Virginian, would act similarly. This is supported by a letter he wrote, in which he stated some of the differences between Northerners and Southerners. A handy American History website I found* made a chart of the differences he mentioned.

In the north they are In the south they are
cool fiery
sober voluptuary
laborious indolent
persevering unsteady
independent independent
jealous of their own liberties, and just to those of others zealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of others.
interested generous
chicaning candid
superstitious and hypocritical in their religion without attachment or pretensions to any religon but that of the heart.

Even some of the vices Jefferson mentioned Southerners having sound suspiciously like compliments, especially in contrast to the cold, calculating, sly picture he paints of the North. This rather unsubtle favouritism is another indication that Jefferson would have sided with his home, the South.


If states’ rights was its original cause, the Civil War ended as a war about morals and equality. In 1863, after declaring the Battle of Antietam a victory, the North issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all Southern slaves. (Incidentally, Lincoln had no jurisdiction over the slaves who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, as they were all in C.S.A. territory. Therefore, he didn’t really free any slaves until he won the war in 1865).

This is perhaps the greyest component of the list. The freeing of slaves certainly tied in to the ideals Jefferson propagated in his numerous works. Time and time again, he stressed the importance of equality between men – something he included in the Declaration of Independence as well. He wrote of oppressed servants with slightly condescending compassion, expressing a desire to help them better their lives.

And yet he kept slaves. As the owner of a Virginia plantation, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves throughout his life**. Without them, his plantation would be impossible to run. Though he was not as inhuman as some slave masters, he was certainly severe, and forced even children to work long, hard hours in order to keep his plantation afloat. Despite his soaring words of “freedom for all!”, Jefferson did not free all of his slaves upon his death – and it is highly unlikely that he would have freed any earlier than that. Therefore, Jefferson would probably have supported the Confederacy’s view on slavery.


If Thomas Jefferson had lived during the time of the Civil War, history might have taken a considerably different course. Perhaps his lofty rhetoric might have convinced the teetering border states – Kentucky, Missouri and Maryland – to secede, and thus add more manpower and industrial strength to the Confederacy. If that had been the case – if the Confederacy had won – who knows what America would be like today? Or, indeed, if there’d be an America at all?

Other Historical Personas and Their Projected Sides:

1) George Washington: Union

Father of the Nation, anyone?

2) Henry Clay: Union

With a nickname like “The Great Pacificator…”

3) John C. Calhoun: Confederacy

Dude. South Carolina. “Southern Rights!!” He was originally a Unionist, though, so it’s a bit hard to tell. My guess is that he’d go with his state in the end.

4) Benjamin Franklin: Union

He’s from Pennsylvania. Well, okay, he was born in Massachusetts. STILL UNION ALL THE WAY.

5) Preston S. Brooks: Confederacy

(Wikipedia: “Brooks was a fervent advocate of slavery…”).

The South Carolinian who subjected Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to a brutal beating, all because Sumner made a speech that insulted Brooks’ uncle and the struggle over slavery in Kansas? Yeeeah… can’t see this guy as a Unionist.



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