I’m not sure what language to use in the title. I know that “slave” is now replaced by “enslaved person”, so I suppose I should have called Jefferson an “enslaver”. I’ll take my chances. At any rate, Smithsonian Magazine has a long article on this issue from 2012 (11 pages printed out single spaced in 9-point type) on how Jefferson ran Monticello with a group of enslaved people (this is awkward to write; the article itself was written before “slave” went out of fashion). Those held captive numbered around 100 and went as high as 140. Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves during his life.
Although the article is nine years old, it’s still worth reading, though it ignores the issue of Sally Hemings, one of the enslaved people who in fact produced children by Jefferson. The Monticello site takes up that issue quite frankly, and you can also read Jon Meacham’s highly praised 2012 biography of the man, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power. I read it about six years ago, and have little recollection of how it treated Jefferson as a slaveholder.
Click on the screenshot to read. And remember, this article was written well before Wokeness shrouded the land.
I won’t summarize such a long article, and the data may have been updated, but here are a few facts:
- Jefferson’s slaves were, by and large, not paid, though some were. But they were not free to go, and he worked them hard.
- Many of the boys began work at Jefferson’s nail factory at age 10, and were whipped (Jefferson knew this, but tended to keep away from the issue) even as children. Adults often did backbreaking work growing tobacco.
- By and large, Jefferson was not an extraordinarily cruel slaveholder, but remember that he did hold humans against their will and even calculated the 4% “interest” he got on his slaves when they reproduced.
- Jefferson had an opportunity to free his slaves during his lifetime (George Washington did so on his own death), but didn’t do it. When revolutionary war hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish hero who fought on the American side during the Revolution, died in 1817, he left a huge amount of money to Jefferson (nearly $20,000, a huge amount in those days) with the express purpose that the money be used to free Jefferson’s slaves and buy them farming equipment and land. If Jefferson accepted the money, he had a legal obligation to abide by the terms of the will. He refused the bequest.
Most important, Jefferson lived in an era when it was NOT the Zeitgeist for everyone to think that slavery was okay. It was normal in Virginia, but remember that Jefferson wrote, in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, a denunciaton of slavery, at least according to Wiencek:
In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”
It is not as if the normal thing to do in America was to accept the existence of slavery.
There were plenty of people in Jefferson’s era, though perhaps not in his Southern environs, who saw slavery as a moral evil. Jefferson did not, though he clearly was conflicted. But in the end, he kept human chattel that he regarded as a bank account that gave interest.
What do we do with such a man? Should we put up statues to him, as they did at my alma mater, The College of William and Mary? (And of course there’s the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.) After all, the statues are there to honor his positive accomplishments, and one can make a case that Jefferson did more good than bad in his life (these are my criteria for honoring someone). But after reading this piece, and assuming that the facts are reported correctly, I have to think twice.
Please feel free to weigh in below.