Thomas Jefferson and his slaves

Plan B Theatre Company, in Salt Lake, has a well-deserved reputation for nurturing and developing outstanding new plays by local playwrights.  This past March saw the premiere of Utah law professor Debora Threedy’s The Third Crossing, a superb play given, as is always the case at Plan B, a marvelous production.  The play uses Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings as the jumping off point for a larger discussion of American miscegenation, especially its history in the law.  I found the play as intellectually engaging as it was heart-wrenching.  And what I especially appreciated is the careful way Threedy navigated the whole Jefferson/Hemings terrain.

Did Thomas Jefferson father Sally Hemings’ children?  The best answer comes in two parts.  Nobody knows for sure.  And, also, yes, of course he did.

Now comes Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, a book that matches the relentless honesty of Threedy’s play, but which fleshes out the history.  I obviously don’t mean to suggest that any closer connection than subject matter connects this book and that play; the book just came out last month.  But they arrive at the same conclusions. And, of course, it’s tricky.  Thomas Jefferson wasn’t just a Founding Father; he was Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, Ambassador to France, two term President, the Founder who provided the intellectual heft to match the revolutionary fervor of the other Founders.  Jefferson; scholar, historian, linguist, scientist, educator, theologian, inventor, architect. Heck: violinist.  This may be apocryphal, but the story is told that when John F. Kennedy invited a distinguished group of scientists, historians and artists to the White House, he said to them, “this must be the finest collection of minds and talent ever to gather together in this House.  Except for the times when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

And Jefferson was also a slave owner. And that’s where Wiencek comes in.

Wiencek begins his book by warning us against the common error, when looking at history, of presentism.  That is; we mustn’t judge the past by the mores of the present.  To condemn Jefferson, a slaveowner who lived in an age of slavery, a Virginian in a state with a slave-based economy, is to risk presentism.  Wiencek acknowledges the danger.  To understand Jefferson and the slaves of Monticello, we need to understand the history of the late eighteenth century South.

So Wiencek tells us the story of Edward Coles, a plantation owning friend and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson’s.  Coles was a cousin of Dolley Madison, and counted among his closest friends Patrick Henry and James Monroe. He also served as James Madison’s White House personal secretary, a position equivalent to White House Chief of Staff today. He was later appointed Madison’s special envoy to Russia.  So, in 1817, he took all his slaves on a trip down up the Ohio River.  When they reached Illinois, he gathered them together, freed them from slavery, and used the last of his funds to purchase 160 acre farms for each.  He lived next to them, as protector and neighbor.  He eventually was elected governor of Illinois.  A mural of Edward Coles’ freeing of his slaves hangs today in the capitol rotunda in Springville.

So if we say that Jefferson did not free his slaves because the conditions of his time and place made it impossible, we have the example of Edward Coles to confound us.  If we say that Jefferson could not have freed them posthumously, in his will, we have the counter-example of George Washington to shame him.  And if we say that Jefferson couldn’t free his slaves because his time and class didn’t think owning slaves was wrong, we have Jefferson’s own words, his many published denunciations of slavery as a moral abomination to contradict us.

If we even say that Jefferson couldn’t free his slaves because he couldn’t afford to, we have to confront the will of Thaddeus Kosciuszko to explain.  Kosciuszko was a Polish general who joined the US cause and was a hero of the Revolution, and who was also a close friend of Jefferson’s.  In his last will and testament (which Jefferson, as his attorney, drafted) Kosciuszko left Jefferson his entire estate, $20,000, a massive sum of money at the time, with instructions that he was to use it to purchase, emancipate, and provide for as many slaves as it would stretch to cover.  The language of the will was unequivocal; the obligation absolute.  When Kosciuszko died, Jefferson refused it.  Turned it down.

As Wiencek points out, you can find in Jefferson’s writings every possible point of view regarding slavery imaginable.  It was an abomination, it was a painful necessity, it was a moral imperative. Blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, blacks were as children, needing the constant guidance only slavery could provide, blacks were as capable artisans as could be found, and perfectly educable.  It’s all there; every possible perspective. Wiencek can only find one way to unpack those writings; Jefferson’s anti-slavery, pro-black writings were a ruse.  He was probably the most famous liberal in the world; a major Enlightenment figure, and surely the most important American public intellectual of his day, especially after Benjamin Franklin’s death.  And he was ever ready with ‘soft words’ to placate critics of slavery.  By placating them, he provided the cover that allowed the peculiar institution to continue.  Surely the time would come when slavery would end, when slaves themselves would be ‘ready’ to be freed.  Sometime.  In an infinitely extendable future.

In the meantime, Jefferson not only profited from slavery, he was a slavery innovator. His brilliance and energy were never more in display than in seeing how he pioneered new ways of making slavery even more lucrative.  Monticello’s slaves didn’t just toil in the fields, planting and harvesting tobacco.  He didn’t much like tobacco as a cash crop, though he did grow it; he thought it damaged his topsoil. He preferred wheat.  He was among the first to see the possibilities of cotton.  But Monticello was more than a mere farm.  Jefferson’s nailmaking slaves (mostly children), brought in enough cash to pay the plantation’s entire grocery bills.  Jefferson’s slaves were blacksmiths and carpenters, coopers and gardeners, cabinet makers and wheelwrights; Wiencek lists more than eighty professions in which Monticello slaves were trained.  Monticello was famous for the excellence of its cuisine, because Jefferson had the foresight, as President, to hire a French chef to train two teenaged girls, who became in time the chefs of Monticello. (And in the kind of marvelous detail that makes Wiencek’s book so readable, Jefferson’s grand-daughters were assigned to perch on stools in the kitchen and read recipes aloud, preserving the darkly comic illusion that these two superb professional cooks were working under white supervision.)

The key to understanding Jefferson can be found in the calculations in the margins of his meticulous farm records; his discovery that the mere ownership of slaves, quite apart from their labor, earned him four percent profit a year.  He used slaves as collateral for loans.  He sold them profitably, splitting up families.  And he had to do all that, sell slaves and set them to nailmaking and all the rest of it, because his personal habits were expensive ones. Fine clothing and horses and books and wines; Jefferson does not seem ever to have begrudged himself a luxury.

And all of it, the architectural brilliance of Monticello, the brilliant conversations at gourmet dinners, the magnificent library and fine horses and carriages, the inventions and innovations, it all rested on a superstructure of violence.  Jefferson was personally squeamish when it came to punishing slaves.  He didn’t like flogging, and was rarely present when slaves were put to the whip.  And his writings are full of moral indignation over the brutality of overseers.  He employed them nonetheless.  And ten year old boys don’t necessarily like sitting all day making nails.  Jefferson’s nailmakers had to be compelled.  Which means that Monticello was a place where children were routinely and frequently flogged.

And what of Sally Hemings?  As Wiencek points out, historians were, until recently, loathe to admit the possibility of Jefferson as father of her children.  Fawn Brodie was pilloried when her biography frankly included Hemings as his paramour.  When DNA evidence proved that, at least, the Hemings descendents had Jefferson ancestry, many turned to Jefferson’s brother, Randolph, as at least an alternate possibility.  Wiencek explodes that illusion too.  Randolph wasn’t around enough.

So the latest dodge is to put a romantic gloss on the Sally Hemings/Thomas Jefferson relationship. A deeply abiding, but sadly forbidden true love. A humanizing touch for a forbiddingly perfect Founder. That’s the approach taken by Barbara Chase-Riboud, in her 1979 Sally Hemings novel.  Well, who knows?  Eighteenth century notions of true love didn’t necessarily include equality, though personally, I think love requires, at the very least, assent.  Was Sally Hemings ever free to not sleep with her master?  Yes, possibly, briefly, when she and Jefferson were in Paris.  In France, she was free.  She spoke French, she looked white. She was tempted to stay.  She did not have to go back to Virginia.  The deal she made (according to the best account we have of her, the reminiscences of Madison Hemings, her son by Jefferson), was a commercial one.  She would return to Virginia, but in exchange, her children would be freed at the age of 21.  She was sixteen years old at the time she concluded this transaction.  And Jefferson lived up to it.

Thomas Jefferson is a hero of mine.  I have read several previous biographies, and I have always been willing to excuse slavery, as an accepted practice of his day, a sad weakness in a great man.  I remain dazzled by his brilliance, grateful for his legacy.  But we must fill out the picture, understand the man in whole.  And admit to ourselves that Thomas Jefferson was also a liar, a hypocrite and a coward. Complex, a paradox, a compartmentalized man?  No, sorry, those rationalizations seem inadequate.  His slaves were overworked, underfed, subjected to violence, their family relationships ignored, their humanity denied.  Wiencek does our understanding of history a great service with this astonishing book.

4 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson and his slaves

  1. N Wilson

    Maybe I’m naive, but it Thomas Jefferson seems fairly straightforward to me: A man with high ideals, who, through lack of moral fiber, or character, or whatever you want to call it, failed to live up to those ideals – who then tried to retroactively justify his choices with rationalization. I’m not saying this led to simple behavior – just that the underlying causes look quite straightforward from where I am.

  2. N Wilson

    To clarify: I don’t think he planned to deceive, to be a hypocrite. I just think that’s how it fell out when he didn’t have the moral courage to follow through with his ideals. That’s how I’ve seen it happen in people I know in person, and I think it’s far more common than deliberate deceit.

    1. admin Post author

      Interesting reaction. We’ll never know for certain, but Wiecek’s book offers a fascinating perspective.


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