IN the summer of 1814, a young Virginian named Edward Coles — a protégé and family friend of Thomas Jefferson — wrote to his mentor asking for some advice. Coles, who had inherited slaves from his father, was considering setting them free, and sent off a letter seeking Jefferson’s blessing and guidance. When the reply came from Monticello, however, it scolded Coles for having ever considered ”abandoning this property, and your country with it.” Jefferson insisted he abhorred slavery, and foresaw its eventual demise, ”whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds” or by a ”bloody process.” Until that presumably distant day, however, it was the duty of every slaveholding gentleman to shoulder the ancestral burden as best he could, for the good of both races: there was no place for free blacks in a slave-based society. In a letter to another correspondent several years later, Jefferson expressed himself in starker metaphorical terms: ”We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”
These remarks — especially the famous ”wolf by the ear” comment — have long been quoted by historians to illustrate the supposed predicament of antebellum America: the South simply could not free its slaves, and since the North would not let it keep them, a bloody struggle between the two was inevitable. But what if Jefferson was wrong? What if the dreaded wolf would merely have licked his lips, trotted off and gone quietly about its business, had Southerners just mustered the courage to release their grip?