The “Deplorable Entanglement” of Slavery

Brandon T. Kowalski
The “Deplorable Entanglement” of Slavery The Complexity of Thomas Jefferson and Slavery
presented by Suzanne Perlis

Suitable for History Classes
Adaptable for Grades 6 - 8

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will examine maps, photographs, newspapers articles, and documents to answer the essential question regarding the contradiction between Jefferson’s moral view of slavery and his actions towards the institution. Through a step-by-step process, students will examine the primary sources and develop a thesis statement arguing whether Jefferson was against slavery or supported slavery.

Essential Questions

Are there contradictions between Thomas Jefferson’s moral views of slavery and his actions towards the institution?

Was Thomas Jefferson in favor of or against slavery?


In this lesson students will be able to:

  • Analyze the primary source documents
  • Compare the documents and develop a thesis for an argumentative essay
  • Evaluate the documents to create a position of Jefferson’s view on slavery

Number of Class Periods

This lesson plan was developed to take 2 - 3 forty-five minute class periods.

Grade Levels

This lesson is suitable for 10th through 12th grade.

Historical Context

As Thomas Jefferson sat down in 1776 to write the words, “all men are created equal…with certain inalienable rights”, 20% of the population in the thirteen British colonies in North America was of African descent serving their masters as slaves. Although slavery existed in all thirteen British colonies in 1776, the economy of Virginia was particularly dependent on slave labor to produce its cash crop of tobacco.  Virginians, such as Jefferson, relied on enslaved persons for their livelihood. At the age of 21, Thomas Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres and 52 slaves from his father, Peter Jefferson.  Shortly after his marriage to Martha Wayles, Jefferson inherited two more plantations and an additional 135 slaves. By 1776, Jefferson was one of the largest planters in Virginia, owning over 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime. His economic success was reliant on slave labor.

Thomas Jefferson presented his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress for their approval in early July of 1776. The first version of the document included in its grievances, an attack on King George III for sponsoring the slave trade. Throughout his writings, Jefferson advocated gradual emancipation and colonization of African-American slaves, calling slavery an “abominable crime.” However, many questions remain regarding Jefferson’s attitudes towards slavery and his personal slave ownership. Slaves at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation, were not free to enjoy the liberties so eloquently described in the Declaration of Independence. Ultimately, Jefferson himself was unable to separate himself from what he called the “deplorable entanglement” of slavery.



Distribute / project map to the students and have them contemplate the following questions:

  • What generalizations can you make about slavery in the pre-Revolutionary War ear?
  • Is there any information on the map that surprises you?
  • What can you learn about Virginia from the map?
  • How does Virginia compare to other states?

After students have an opportunity to record their responses, hold a discussion and make note of students’ answers.

The teacher will display key observations for students.

The teacher will ask the following question:

Who are some well-known Virginians?

Answers will range from George Washington, Patrick Henry, and hopefully Thomas Jefferson.

Explain that for the rest of the class (and the next class period), the class will focus on Thomas Jefferson who was a slave owner in Virginia.

History Lab Activity

The teacher will divide students into groups of 4-5 students depending on the class size.

Students will travel around the room with their group spending 10-15 minutes on each station.  Students will discuss the document with their group and collectively answer the questions for each document.

Once the students have completed the questions for each station they should discuss with their group the question:

Was Thomas Jefferson in favor of or against slavery?

Students should note which documents support or refute each position.

Assessment and Summary

For homework, students will complete a pre-writing graphic organizer and then write an essay on the topic. Students must use evidence from the documents to prove their thesis.  The essay will be graded based on the attached rubric and writing checklist.

This lesson aligns to key concepts 4, 5, 6 and 10 of Teaching Tolerance’s Teaching Hard History Framework.