Thomas Jefferson and slavery

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United States Declaration of Independence
1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy
1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy
CreatedJune–July 1776
RatifiedJuly 4, 1776
Author(s)Thomas Jefferson et al.
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Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and slavery has been extensively debated by his biographers, and by scholars of slavery.[1] He owned plantations totaling thousands of acres and owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime.[2][3] His record on slavery was mixed and contradictory. He was an opponent of the slave trade, disliked the effects of slavery on society, and believed slavery harmful to both slave and master.[4] He also opposed the practice of slave masters freeing their own slaves as he believed this made slave uprisings more likely.[5] In the Virginia Assembly in 1769, he prevented a manumission law from being enacted. Contrastingly, under the Articles of Confederation in 1784, Jefferson proposed federal legislation banning slavery in the New Territories of the North and South, which failed to pass Congress by one vote.[6][7] As president, he refused in 1804 to recognize Haiti, a new republic established by a slave rebellion, and in 1805 and 1806 enacted an arms and trade embargo against the new republic. In 1807, he signed a bill prohibiting the US from participating in the international slave trade.[8] The widower Jefferson was accused by a journalist of fathering a child with his mixed-race slave Sally Hemings, who was likely one of six half-siblings of his late wife. While some historians assert that he had four surviving children with her,[9][10] others continue to debate the issue of his paternity.

Although Jefferson was one of the wealthiest slave owners in Virginia on paper during 1788–1789, owning more than 200 slaves, his Monticello estate value was considerably weighted by his debts and liabilities.[11] Jefferson formally freed only two slaves during his lifetime, older brothers of Sally Hemings, in 1793 and in 1794. His friend Tadeusz Kościuszko entrusted Jefferson with his American estate and will in 1798, by which Kościuszko intended slaves to be purchased and freed, as he strongly supported abolitionism. Kościuszko died in 1817, but Jefferson never executed his will, although he could have freed all his own slaves with the money, at no cost to himself.[12] After a few years, he passed on the executorship to a friend, who also refrained from acting. Finally, in 1852, the US Supreme Court ruled that the estate should go to heirs in Poland.[12]

Jefferson allowed two of Sally Hemings' children to "escape" rather than legally freeing them; the other two were freed through his will after his death. The Sally Hemings children were the only family to gain freedom from Monticello.[13] In his will, he freed three other male slaves, all older men who had worked for him for decades. After his death, his daughter Martha Randolph gave Sally Hemings and Wormley Hughes "their time," an informal freedom.[13] In 1827 the remaining 130 slaves at Monticello were sold to pay the debts of Jefferson's estate.[14][15][16] Groundbreaking exhibits ran in 2012 on Jefferson and his slaves: Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, an outdoor installation at Monticello. Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello is also being presented in Atlanta and St. Louis in 2013 and 2014.

Early years (1744–1774)[edit]

Thomas Jefferson was born into the planter class of a "slave society," as defined by the historian Ira Berlin, in which slavery was the main means of labor production and elite slaveholders were the ruling class.[1] He was the son of Peter Jefferson, a prominent slaveholder and land speculator in Virginia, and Jane Randolph, granddaughter of English and Scots gentry.[17] Peter Jefferson died suddenly in 1757, leaving the eleven-year-old Thomas a large estate. When Jefferson turned 21, he inherited 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land, 52 slaves, livestock, his father's notable library, and a gristmill.[18][19] In 1768, Thomas Jefferson began to use his slaves to construct a neoclassical mansion known as Monticello, which overlooked the hamlet of his former home in Shadwell.[17] Both were in Albemarle County in the Piedmont area.

Starting in 1769, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for six years. He proposed laws that severely restricted free blacks from entering or living in Virginia: he would have banished children whose fathers were of African origin and exiled any white woman who had a child with a black man. Jefferson suggested that any free black found in violation of the laws would be in jeopardy of the lynch mob. According to the historian John Ferling, the Burgesses did not pass the laws "because they were excessively restrictive even for Jefferson's times."[20]

As an attorney, Jefferson represented people of color as well as whites. In 1770, he defended a young mulatto male slave in a freedom suit, on the grounds that his mother was white and freeborn. By the colony's law of partus sequitur ventrum, that the child took the status of the mother, the man should never have been enslaved. He lost the suit.[21] In 1772, Jefferson represented George Manly, the son of a free woman of color, who sued for freedom after having been held as an indentured servant three years past the expiration of his term. (The Virginia colony at the time bound illegitimate mixed-race children of free women as indentured servants: until age 31 for males, with a shorter term for females.)[22] Once freed, Manly worked for Jefferson at Monticello for wages.[22]

In 1773, the year after Jefferson married the young widow Martha Wayles Skelton, her father died. She and Jefferson inherited his estate, including 11,000 acres, 135 slaves, and £4,000 of debt. With this inheritance, Jefferson became deeply involved with interracial families and financial burden. As a widower, his father-in-law John Wayles had taken his mulatto slave Betty Hemings as a concubine and had six children with her during his last 12 years.[23] The Wayles-Hemings children were three-quarters English and one-quarter African in ancestry; they were half-siblings to Martha Wayles Jefferson and her sister. Betty Hemings and her 10 mixed-race children (as she had four children before being with Wayles), were among the slaves who were moved to Monticello. Betty's youngest child, Sally Hemings, was an infant in 1773. The Betty Hemings descendants were trained and assigned to domestic service and highly skilled artisan positions at Monticello; none worked in the fields. Over the years, some served Jefferson directly for decades as personal valets and butlers.

Jefferson became the second largest slaveholder in Albermarle County with these additional slaves. In addition, he held a total of nearly 16,000 acres of land in Virginia. He sold some slaves to pay off the debt of Wayles' estate.[17] From this time on, Jefferson took on the duties of owning and supervising his large chattel estate, primarily at Monticello, although he also developed other plantations in the colony. Slavery supported the life of the planter class in Virginia.[24] The number of slaves then at Monticello fluctuated from under to over 200.

In collaboration with Monticello, now the major public history site on Jefferson, the Smithsonian opened an exhibit, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty, (January – October 2012) at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It covered Jefferson as a slaveholder and the roughly 600 slaves who lived at Monticello over the decades, with a focus on six slave families and their descendants. It was the first national exhibit on the Mall to address these issues. In February 2012, Monticello opened a related new outdoor exhibition, Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, which "brings to life the stories of the scores of people—enslaved and free—who lived and worked on Jefferson's 5,000 acre plantation." (On the Internet at )

Revolutionary period (1775–1783)[edit]

In 1775, Thomas Jefferson joined the Continental Congress as a delegate from Virginia when he and others in Virginia began to rebel against the British governor Lord Dunmore. Trying to reassert British authority over the area, Dunmore issued a Proclamation in November 1775 that offered freedom to slaves who abandoned their rebel masters and joined the British army.[25] Dunmore's action provoked the mass exodus of tens of thousands of slaves from plantations across the South during the war years; some of Jefferson's slaves also took off as runaways.[26]

The colonials opposed Dunmore's action as an attempt to incite a massive slave rebellion. In 1776, when Jefferson co-authored the Declaration of Independence, he referred to the Lord Governor when he wrote, "He has excited domestic insurrections among us."[27]

United States Declaration of Independence
1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy
1823 facsimile of the engrossed copy
CreatedJune–July 1776
RatifiedJuly 4, 1776
Author(s)Thomas Jefferson et al.

[28] He condemned the King for "inciting American Negroes to rise in arms against their masters."[29][30][31] Jefferson included in the Declaration that King George III had forced the African slave trade on the Colonies, but the Continental Congress removed this because of southern opposition.[32][33][34][35] Jefferson did not condemn slavery as such in the Declaration. According to Finkelman, "The colonists, for the most part, had been willing and eager purchasers of slaves."[36]

In 1778 with Jefferson's leadership and probably authorship, the Virginia General Assembly banned importing slaves into Virginia. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the slave trade, and all other states except South Carolina eventually followed prior to the Congress banning the trade in 1807.[37][38][39]

As governor of Virginia for two years during the Revolution, Jefferson signed a bill to promote military enlistment by giving white men land, "a healthy sound Negro...or £60 in gold or silver."[40] As was customary, he brought some of his household slaves, including Mary Hemings, to serve in the Governor's mansion in Richmond. In the face of British invasion in January 1781, Jefferson and the Assembly members fled the capital and moved the government to Charlottesville, leaving Jefferson's slaves behind. Hemings and other slaves were taken as British prisoners of war; they were later released in exchange for British soldiers. In 2009, the Daughters of the Revolution (DAR) honored Mary Hemings as a Patriot, making her descendants eligible for membership in the heritage society.[41]

In June 1781, the British arrived at Monticello. Jefferson had escaped before their arrival and gone with his family to his plantation of Poplar Forest to the southwest in Bedford County; most of his slaves stayed at Monticello to help protect his valuables. The British did not loot or take prisoners there.[42] By contrast, Lord Cornwallis and his troops occupied and destroyed another Jefferson property, Elkhill in Goochland County, Virginia, northwest of Richmond. Of the 27 slaves they took as prisoners, Jefferson later noted that at least 24 had died of disease in the prison camp.[43] Similarly, more troops on both sides died of disease than of warfare in those years of poor sanitation.

While claiming since the 1770s to support gradual emancipation, as a member of the Virginia General Assembly Jefferson declined to support a law to ask that, saying the people were not ready. After the United States gained independence, in 1782 the Virginia General Assembly repealed the slave law of 1723 and made it easier for slaveholders to manumit slaves. Unlike some of his planter contemporaries, such as Robert Carter III, who freed nearly 500 slaves in his lifetime, or George Washington, who freed all his slaves in his will of 1799, Jefferson formally freed only two slaves during his life, in 1793 and 1794.[44][45] Virginia did not then require freed slaves to leave the state. From 1782 to 1810, as numerous slaveholders freed their slaves, the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased dramatically from less than 1 percent to 7.2 percent of blacks.[46] Jefferson later allowed two slaves to "walk away" in 1822, and freed five more in his will, but 130 slaves were sold from Monticello in 1827 after his death.

Following the Revolution (1784–1800)[edit]

Some historians have claimed that, as a Representative to the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson wrote an amendment or bill that would abolish slavery. But according to Finkelman, "he never did propose this plan" and "Jefferson refused to propose either a gradual emancipation scheme or a bill to allow individual masters to free their slaves."[47] He refused to add gradual emancipation as an amendment when others asked him to; he said, "better that this should be kept back."[47]

On March 1, 1784, in defiance of southern slave society, Jefferson submitted to the Continental Congress the Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory.[7] "The provision would have prohibited slavery in all new states carved out of the western territories ceded to the national government established under the Articles of Confederation." [6] Slavery would have been prohibited extensively in both the North and South territories, including what would become Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.[7] His 1784 Ordinance would have prohibited slavery completely by 1800 in all territories. Congress, however, rejected Jefferson's original 1784 Ordinance prohibiting slavery by only one vote, due to an absent representative from New Jersey.[7] On April 23, however, Congress did accept Jefferson's 1784 Ordinance without prohibiting slavery in all the territories. Jefferson said that southern representatives defeated his original proposal. Jefferson was only able to obtain one southern delegate to vote for the prohibition of slavery in all territories.[7] The Library of Congress notes, "The Ordinance of 1784 marks the high point of Jefferson's opposition to slavery, which is more muted thereafter." [48] Jefferson's Ordinance of 1784 did influence the Ordinance of 1787, that prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory.[7]

After 1785, Jefferson remained publicly silent on or did little to change slavery within the United States. From mid-1784 through 1789, Jefferson lived in Paris as the US envoy and minister to France. He took with him his oldest daughter Martha (Patsy) and some household slaves, including James Hemings, who trained as a French chef. In 1787 Jefferson sent for his surviving daughter Polly, and by chance, she was accompanied on the voyage by Sally Hemings, James' younger sister. (Both of the Hemings were among the six mixed-race children fathered by Jefferson's father-in-law, the widower John Wayles, with his slave Betty Hemings. They were three-quarters white in ancestry and half-siblings to Jefferson's late wife.)

Since about 2000, historians widely believe that the widower Jefferson started a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings while in Paris. According to her son Madison Hemings, she became pregnant and agreed to return with Jefferson to the US after he promised to free her children.[49] After their return to the US, her first child died, but she had six more children at Monticello with Jefferson. Four survived to adulthood, and he freed all of them, informally and formally, as they came of age at 21.[50]

From the 1770s on, Jefferson wrote of supporting gradual emancipation, based on slaves being educated, freed after 18 for women and 21 for men (Later he changed this to age 45, when their masters had a return on investment), and transported for resettlement to Africa. For all of his life, he supported the concept of colonization of Africa by American freedmen. The historian Peter S. Onuf suggested that, after having children with his slave Sally Hemings, Jefferson may have supported colonization because of concerns for his unacknowledged "shadow family."[51]

The historian David Brion Davis states that in the years after 1785 and Jefferson's return from Paris, the most notable thing about his position on slavery was his "immense silence."[52] Davis and other historians believe that, in addition to having internal conflicts about slavery, Jefferson wanted to keep his personal situation private; for this reason, he chose to back away from working to end or ameliorate slavery.[53]

As US Secretary of State, Jefferson issued in 1795, with President Washington's authorization, $40,000 in emergency relief and 1,000 weapons to colonial French slave owners in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in order to suppress a slave rebellion. President Washington gave the slave owners in Saint Domingue (Haiti) $400,000 as repayment for loans the French had granted to the Americans during the American Revolutionary War.[54]

In 1796, according to the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became Vice President after John Adams won slightly more electoral votes in their competition for the presidency. (Later this was amended so that politicians for the two positions would represent the same political party.)

In 1800, Jefferson was elected as President of the United States over Adams. He won more electoral votes than Adams, aided by southern power. The Constitution provided for the counting of slaves as 3/5ths of their total population, to be added to a state's total population for purposes of apportionment and the electoral college. States with large slave populations, therefore, gained greater representation even though the number of voting citizens was smaller than that of other states. It was only due to this population advantage that Jefferson won the election.[55][56] This advantage also aided southern states in their Congressional apportionment; thus, the planter class held disproportionate power nationally for decades, and southerners dominated the office of the presidency well into the nineteenth century.

In 1798, Jefferson's friend from the Revolution, Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish nobleman, visited the US to collect back pay from the government for his military service. He entrusted his assets to Jefferson with a will directing him to spend the American money and proceeds from his land in the US to free and educate slaves, including Jefferson's, and at no cost to Jefferson. Kościuszko revised will states: "I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others and giving them Liberty in my name." [12] Kosciuško died in 1817, but Jefferson never carried out the terms of the will, although he could have bought and freed many slaves at no cost to himself.[12]

As President (1801–1809)[edit]

Moved slaves to White House[edit]

Like other slave-owning presidents, Jefferson brought trusted members of his household to work in the White House. He offered James Hemings, his former slave freed in 1796, the position of White House chef. Hemings refused, although his kin were still held at Monticello. (Hemings later became depressed and turned to drinking. He committed suicide at age 36.) Jefferson's slaves worked and lived in the White House, and at least one would eventually be born there.[57]

Callender accusations[edit]

In September 1802, James Callender, Jefferson's former ally against the Federalist Party, published an account in the Richmond Recorder, that Jefferson had a slave concubine, Sally, by whom he had several children. Callender was said to be disgruntled after Jefferson denied him the appointment of Postmaster of Richmond, Virginia. The Federalist Party soon picked up the account and published it in their respective papers, as it was an election year.[58] Jefferson did not respond to the accusations. (By 1802, Sally Hemings was recorded in Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book as having had four children; two were surviving.)[59]

What became known as the Jefferson-Hemings controversy is commonly dated from this time. In the mid-nineteenth century, Jefferson's oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, told the historian Henry Randall that Jefferson's late nephew Peter Carr had fathered Sally Hemings' children (to explain their strong resemblance to his grandfather). For most historians, the issue was not resolved until a new consensus in favor of Jefferson's paternity emerged in the early 21st century following DNA analysis that showed a match between an Eston Hemings descendant and the Jefferson male line. (See section below.) Some historians continue to debate this conclusion.


After Toussaint Louverture had become governor general of Saint-Domingue following a slave revolt, in 1801 Jefferson supported French plans to take back the island.[60] He agreed to loan France $300,000 "for relief of whites on the island."[61] Jefferson wanted to alleviate the fears of southern slave owners, who feared a similar rebellion in their territory.[62] Prior to his election, Jefferson wrote of the revolution, "If something is not done and soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children."[61]

By 1802, when Jefferson learned that France was planning to re-establish its empire in the western hemisphere, including taking the Louisiana territory and New Orleans from the Spanish, he declared the neutrality of the US in the Caribbean conflict.[63] While refusing credit or other assistance to the French, he allowed contraband goods and arms to reach Haiti and, thus, indirectly supported the Haitian Revolution.[63] This was to further US interests in Louisiana.[61] Defeated in Saint-Domingue by late 1803, the French withdrew from their imperial ambitions in the western hemisphere, as this colony had generated the highest revenues. In 1803, Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase.

That year and once the Haiti declared independence in 1804, President Jefferson had to deal with strong hostility to the new nation by his southern-dominated Congress. He shared planters' fears that the success of Haiti would encourage similar slave rebellions and widespread violence in the South. The historian Tim Matthewson noted that Jefferson faced a Congress "hostile to Haiti", and that he "acquiesced in southern policy, the embargo of trade and nonrecognition, the defense of slavery internally and the denigration of Haiti abroad."[64] Jefferson discouraged emigration by American free blacks to the new nation.[61] European nations also refused to recognize Haiti when the new nation declared independence in 1804.[65][66][67] In his short biography of Jefferson in 2005, Christopher Hitchens noted the president was "counterrevolutionary" in his treatment of Haiti and its revolution.[68]

Virginia emancipation law modified[edit]

In 1806, with concern developing over the rise in the number of free blacks, the Virginia General Assembly modified the 1782 slave law to discourage free blacks from living in the state. It permitted re-enslavement of freedmen who remained in the state for more than 12 months. This forced newly freed blacks to leave enslaved kin behind. As slaveholders had to petition the legislature directly to gain permission for manumitted freedmen to stay in the state, there was a decline in manumissions after this date.[69][70]

Ended International slave trade[edit]

In 1806, Jefferson denounced the international slave trade and called for a law to make it a crime. He told Congress in his 1806 annual message, such a law was needed to "withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights ... which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe." Congress complied and on March 2, 1807, Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law; it took effect 1 January 1808 and made it a federal crime to import or export slaves from abroad.[71]

By 1808, every state but South Carolina had followed Virginia's lead from the 1780s in banning importation of slaves. By 1808, with the growth of the domestic slave population contributing to the development of a large internal slave trade, slaveholders did not mount much resistance to the new law. Jefferson did not lead the campaign to prohibit the importation of slaves.[72] "The two major achievements of Jefferson's presidency were the Louisiana Purchase and the abolition of the slave trade," according to historian John Chester Miller.[73]

Retirement (1810–1826)[edit]

In August 1814, Jefferson told his protege Edward Coles that he thought Coles was wrong to propose transporting his slaves to the Northwest Territories (present-day Ohio and nearby states) to emancipate them. By 1820, Jefferson denounced Northern meddling with Southern slavery policy. On April 22, Jefferson criticized the Missouri Compromise passed by the US Congress. The Missouri Compromise banned slavery "in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line". At the time of admission to the Union, Missouri permitted slavery while Maine banned slavery.

In a letter to John Holmes, Jefferson claimed slavery was a complex issue and needed to be solved by the next generation. Jefferson wrote that the Missouri Compromise was a "fire bell in the night" and "the knell of the Union". On April 13, Jefferson wrote to William Short that he feared the Union would dissolve, stating that the "Missouri question aroused and filled me with alarm." In regard to whether the Union would remain for a long period of time Jefferson wrote, "I now doubt it much."[74]

After his friend Tadeusz Kościuszko died in 1817, Jefferson never carried out his promise to execute his will. They had corresponded for 20 years and Jefferson had offered to let his Kościušzko live at Monticello and be buried there.[12] Kosciuszko in his first will provided for his estate in America to be used to free slaves and educate them for independence; another version directed that all the money be used to purchase freedom for slaves. Jefferson could have freed all his own slaves with this money at no cost to himself.[12] Claiming to be unable because of age to carry it out, Jefferson arranged to transfer the executorship to John Hartwell Cocke. He also failed to execute the will. The historian Merrill Peterson wrote about Jefferson's failure to act:

"The object of [Kosciuszko's] will was lost. Had Jefferson felt stronger about the object, he would have ventured the experiment, despite statutory obstacles and the shortness of years, for the experiment [of freeing his slaves] was one he often commended to others and, indeed, one he may have himself suggested to Kosciuszko."[12]

In 1852 the US Supreme Court awarded the estate, by then worth $50,000, to Kościuszko's heirs in Poland, having ruled that the will was invalid.[12][75]

The historians Gary Nash and Graham Russell Hodges argue that Jefferson did not carry out the pledge because of his own ties to the southern planter elite and its interests. He wanted to support "the economic and cultural leverage of the white South in national politics."[12] They say that he was worried about offending friends among the planter class, who were concerned by the increase in the number of free blacks in Virginia as numerous other slaveholders, especially from 1782–1810, had manumitted their slaves after the Revolution.[12]

Jefferson continued to struggle with debt after serving as President. He used his hundreds of slaves as collateral to his creditors. This debt was due to his lavish lifestyle, long construction and changes to Monticello, imported goods, art, etc. He frequently entertained house guests for extended periods at Monticello, and served them expensive wines and food.[76][77] He also incurred debt in helping support his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and her large family. She had separated from her husband, who had become abusive from alcoholism and mental illness (according to different sources), and brought her family to live at Monticello.

Despite his debt, Jefferson carried out his promise to Sally Hemings about freeing their children: in 1822, he allowed Beverly and Harriet Hemings to "walk away", to leave Monticello and go north, a few months apart. He authorized Edmund Bacon, the overseer, to give Harriet $50 and to ensure that she was put on a stagecoach to go north. She was the only female slave he freed.

Jefferson provided in his 1826 will for the manumission of his and Sally Hemings' two remaining sons: Madison and Eston Hemings. He also provided for manumission of three older men; each had served him for decades, and each was from the larger Hemings family. Jefferson included a petition to the legislature to allow the five men to stay in Virginia, where their enslaved families were held. This had been required since the legislature tried to force free blacks out of the state within 12 months of manumission.

Jefferson's 1820 plan to free all newborn slaves[edit]

In 1820 Jefferson worked with the governor of Virginia, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (his son in law) on a plan to free all the newborn slaves in Virginia and send them to Haiti as free people. At this point Haiti was welcoming freed blacks emigrating from the US—over 13,000 American free blacks did emigrate there in the 1820s, so the location was attractive and there was a base for Jefferson's colony. Jefferson considered compulsory manumission and resettlement of newborn slaves to Haiti to be a practical solution to how to abolish slavery in Virginia. He wrote to US minister to France Albert Gallatin: "My proposition would be that the holders should give up all born after a certain day, past, present, or to come, that these should be placed under the guardianship of the state, and sent at a proper age to S. Domingo [i.e. Haiti]. There they are willing to receive them, & the shortness of the passage brings the deportation within the possible means of [Virginia state] taxation aided by charitable contributions." The governor agreed with TJ and called on the legislature to endorse the plan but it refused.[78]

Posthumous (1827–1830)[edit]

At his death, Jefferson was greatly in debt, in part due to his continued construction program.[79] The debts encumbered his estate, and his family sold 130 slaves, virtually all the members of every slave family, from Monticello to pay his creditors.[76][80] Long stable slave families were split up, with some members sold to the Deep South.

Jefferson freed five slaves in his will, all males of the Hemings family. In addition to his two natural sons, he freed Sally's younger half-brother John Hemings, and her nephews Joseph (Joe) Fossett and Burwell Colbert.[81] He gave Burwell Colbert, who had served as his butler and valet, $300 for purchasing supplies used in the trade of "painter and glazier". He gave John Hemings and Joe Fossett each an acre on his lands so they could build homes for their families. His will included a petition to the state legislature to allow the freedmen to remain in Virginia to be with their families, who remained enslaved under Jefferson's heirs.[81]

Because Jefferson did not free Fossett's wife or their eight children, in the ensuing sale of slaves, they were sold to four different men. Fossett worked for years to buy his family members and purchase their freedom. While Jefferson made no provision for Sally Hemings, his daughter gave her "her time", enabling her to live freely with her sons in Charlottesville, where they bought a house. She lived to see a grandchild born free in the house her sons owned. Wormley Hughes was also given an informal freedom; he gained the cooperation of Thomas Jefferson Randolph in buying his wife and three sons so some of his family could stay together at Randolph's plantation. Other children, including three daughters were sold and scattered to the Deep South and Missouri.

In 1827, the auction of 130 slaves took place at Monticello. The sale lasted for five days despite the cold weather. The sale attracted national attention. According to a 2008 history by Graham Russell Hodges and Gary Nash,

"a small-town editor in a Susquehanna River town asked how Jefferson, 'surely the champion of civil liberty to the American people,' left 'so many human beings in fetters to be indiscriminately sold to the highest bidder.' In biting words, the editor wrote: 'Heaven inspired Jefferson with the knowledge 'that all men are created equal.' He was not forgetful—in his last moments he 'commended his soul to God, and his daughter to his country;' but to whom did he commend his wretched slaves?'"[12]

The slaves brought prices over 70% of their appraised value. Within three years, all of the "black" families at Monticello had been sold and dispersed.[80] Some were purchased by free relatives, such as Mary Hemings Bell, who worked to try to reconstitute her children's families.

Sally Hemings[edit]

Sally Hemings
Borncirca 1773
Charles City County, Virginia
Died1835 (aged 62)
Charlottesville, Virginia, US
OccupationDomestic servant
ChildrenHarriet Hemings, Beverly Hemings, Eston Hemings, Madison Hemings
ParentsBetty Hemings, John Wayles
RelativesJohn Wayles Jefferson, James Hemings, John Hemings, Mary Hemings, Frederick Madison Roberts

Sally Hemings (c. 1773–1835) was a mixed-race slave who was of three-quarters European ancestry, the youngest of six children of the mulatto slave Betty Hemings and the widower John Wayles, Jefferson's father-in-law. They were half-siblings of Jefferson's wife Martha. Following her father's death in 1773 a year after her marriage, Martha Jefferson and her husband inherited Betty Hemings and her 10 children among more than 100 slaves of her father; they also inherited 11,000 acres of land. Sally was an infant; as she and other Hemings children grew up at Monticello, they were trained and assigned to domestic duties. Hemings was described as a "light colored and decidedly good looking" mulatto. By Virginia law since 1662, as children of slave mothers, the Hemings were all born into slavery, regardless of their father's race or status, by the principle of partus sequitur ventrem.[82][83]

By chance, in 1787 Sally Hemings at the age of 14 was chosen to accompany Mary (Polly), the youngest daughter of Jefferson, to Paris to rejoin her father; the widower was serving as the US Minister to France. According to her son Madison Hemings, she became Jefferson's concubine while they were in Paris and became pregnant in 1789. Based on Jefferson's promise to free her children, she returned with him that year to the United States. Her first child died young. She had a total of six additional children, who were noted for their resemblance to Jefferson. The historic question of whether Jefferson was the father of her children has been known as the Jefferson-Hemings controversy (see below and main article). A 1998 DNA study showed a match between an Eston Hemings descendant and the Jefferson male line.

Jefferson freed each of Sally Hemings' surviving children: Beverley, Harriet, Madison and Eston, as they came of age. Three of the four entered white society as adults; they were seven-eighths European in ancestry. Following Jefferson's death, his daughter Martha Randolph, a niece of Sally Hemings, gave the older woman "her time," an informal freedom.[75] The former slave lived freely with her two younger sons in Charlottesville for her last nine years, in the house they owned.

Jefferson-Hemings controversy[edit]

This term applies to the question of whether Thomas Jefferson had an intimate relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings, and fathered her six children of record. The issue attracted interest because of his prominent social position. Reported by James Callender (who had previously been turned down by Jefferson for the Post Master General position) in 1802 during an election campaign, the story gained national attention. In 1874 the historian James Parton published Jefferson's grandson's claim that Jefferson's late nephew, Peter Carr, had fathered Hemings' children. Historians generally adopted and asserted this denial for nearly 180 years. After historians of the late twentieth century started reanalyzing the body of evidence, the results of a DNA analysis in 1998 were significant to revised conclusions. They showed a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of Eston Hemings (the last son), and no match between the Carr line and the Hemings descendant. The study also determined there was no match between descendants of Thomas Woodson, whose family had long claimed descent from Jefferson, and the president's male line, although the Woodson descendants had a European paternal ancestor.

Major Jefferson biographers, such as Joseph Ellis and Andrew Burstein, changed their opinions to acknowledge the likely paternity of Jefferson of all of Hemings' children. Separate studies by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 2000 and the National Genealogical Society in 2001 reached the same conclusion, and in 2000 PBS produced a major program, Jefferson's Blood, covering the issues, and noting the new consensus and "dissenting opinions." On a popular level, no major historian argued against the television mini-series Sally Hemings: An American Scandal (2000), based on a relationship between Jefferson and Hemings; by contrast, twenty years earlier, prominent Jefferson scholars put pressure on the president of CBS to drop a similar project.[84] The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society in 2001 rejected this conclusion, suggesting Randolph Jefferson as a more likely candidate, and several historians support such alternatives.

Current scholarship is studying the meaning of the interracial families at Monticello, in the South and the United States. Historians have assessed the potential effect on Jefferson's political decisions. For instance, new exhibits at Monticello include The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, which opened outdoors in 2012, opening outdoors in 2012;[85] publications in the last decade explore the interracial society of Monticello and Charlottesville. Historians also continue to publish works arguing that other Jefferson candidates were more likely fathers of Hemings' children.

In 2012 the Smithsonian Institution and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation collaborated on an exhibit, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty. Presented at the National Museum of American History from 27 January to 14 October 2012, it notes that evidence "strongly support[s] the conclusion that Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings' children."[86]

Monticello slave life[edit]

Slaves on a Virginia plantation (The Old Plantation, c. 1790)

Jefferson ran every facet of the four Monticello farms and left specific instructions to his overseers when away or traveling. Slaves in the mansion, mill, and nailery reported to one general overseer appointed by Jefferson, and he hired many overseers, some of whom were considered cruel at the time. Jefferson made meticulous periodical records on his slaves, plants and animals, and weather.[87][88] Jefferson, in his Farm Book journal, visually described in detail both the quality and quantity of purchased slave clothing and the name of each slave who received the clothing.[89] In a letter written in 1811, Jefferson described his stress and apprehension in regard to difficulties in what he felt was his "duty" to procure specific desirable blankets for "those poor creatures" – his slaves.[90]

Some historians have noted that Jefferson maintained many slave families together on his plantations; the historian Bruce Fehn says this was consistent with other slave owners at the time. There were often more than one generation of family at the plantation and families were stable. Jefferson and other slaveholders shifted the "cost of reproducing the workforce to the workers' themselves." He could increase the value of his property without having to buy additional slaves.[91] He tried to reduce infant mortality, and wrote, "[A] woman who brings a child every two years is more profitable than the best man on the farm."[92]

Jefferson encouraged slaves to marry at Monticello, and would occasionally buy and sell slaves to keep families together. In 1815, he said that his slaves were "worth a great deal more" due to their marriages.[93] Married slaves, however, had no legal protection or recognition by the law; masters could separate slave husbands and wives any time desired.[94]

Jefferson sometimes gave incentives in money or clothes to slaves for work in important positions. Jefferson's slaves probably worked from dawn to dusk. Although no record exists that Jefferson organized formal instruction of slaves, several enslaved men at Monticello could read and write.[citation needed]

Isaac Jefferson, ca. 1847, an enslaved blacksmith who worked on Jefferson's plantation. His Memoirs of a Monticello Slave (1843) provided a description of life at Monticello.[95][96]

Jefferson worked slave boys ages 10 to 16 in his nail factory on Mulberry Row. After it opened in 1794, for the first three years, Jefferson recorded the productivity of each child. He selected those who were most productive to be trained as artisans: blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers. Those who performed the worst were assigned as field laborers.[97]

According to the historian Lucia Stanton, Jefferson authorized his overseers to use physical violence against the slaves, though probably not as much as some of his neighbors. Jame Hubbard was a slave in the nailery who ran away on two occasions. The first time Jefferson did not have him whipped, but on the second Jefferson reportedly ordered him severely flogged. Hubbard was likely sold after spending time in jail. Stanton says children suffered physical violence. When a 17-year-old James was sick, one overseer reportedly whipped him "three times in one day." Violence was commonplace on plantations, including Jefferson's.[98] According to Marguerite Hughes, Jefferson used "a severe punishment" like whippings when runaways were captured, and he sometimes sold them to "discourage other men and women from attempting to gain their freedom."[99]

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation quotes Jefferson's instructions to his overseers not to whip his slaves, but noted that they often ignored his wishes during his frequent absences from home.[100] According to Stanton, no reliable document portrays Jefferson as directly using physical correction.[101] During Jefferson's time, some other slaveholders also disagreed with the practices of flogging and jailing slaves.[102]

Slaves had a variety of tasks: Davy Bowles was the carriage driver, including trips to take Jefferson to and from Washington D.C. or the Virginia capital. Betty Hemings, a mixed-race slave inherited from his father-in-law with her family, was the matriarch and head of the house slaves at Monticello, who were allowed limited freedom when Jefferson was away. Four of her daughters served as house slaves: Betty Brown; Nance, Critta and Sally Hemings. The latter two were half-sisters to Jefferson's wife. Another house slave was Ursula, whom he had purchased separately. The general maintenance of the mansion was under the care of Hemings family members as well: the master carpenter was Betty's son John Hemmings. His nephews Joe Fossett, as blacksmith, and Burwell Colbert, as Jefferson's butler and painter, also had important roles. Wormley Hughes, a grandson of Betty Hemings and gardener, was given informal freedom after Jefferson's death.[87] Memoirs of life at Monticcello, include those of Isaac Jefferson (published, 1843), Madison Hemings, and Israel Jefferson (both published, 1873).

The last surviving recorded interview of a former slave was with Fountain Hughes, then 101, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949. It is available online at the Library of Congress and the World Digital Library.[103] Born in Charlottesville, Fountain was a descendant of Wormley Hughes and Ursula Granger; his grandparents were among the house slaves owned by President Thomas Jefferson at Monticello.[104]

Two major exhibitions in 2012 address slavery at Monticello: the Smithsonian collaborated with Monticello in Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty, held in Washington, D.C. It addresses Jefferson as slaveholder and traces the lives of six major slave families, including Hemings and Granger, and their descendants who worked in the household. At Monticello, an outdoor exhibit has been installed to represent slave life. The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello makes use of archeological and other research to establish the outlines of cabins for domestic slaves and other outbuildings near the mansion. Field slaves were held elsewhere. (See each online at

Notes on the State of Virginia[edit]

In 1780, Jefferson began answering questions on the colonies asked by French minister François de Marboias. He worked on what became a book for five years, having it printed in France while he was there as US minister in 1785.[105] The book covered subjects such as mountains, religion, climate, slavery, and race.[106] Jefferson discussed his idea of emancipation and blacks. Jefferson wanted a gradual emancipation of freed blacks and deportation to Africa, followed by replacement with white settlers.

In the book Jefferson wrote against the ideas of French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon who held that "adverse environmental conditions...affected human beings and animals alike" such as an "assumption that colder climates produce smaller animals" and "nature in America reduces native people to little more than animals and subdues the faculties of European settlers....[Buffon] associated a supposedly weak libido among American Indians with their ostensible lack of social and cultural achievements."[107] Jefferson cited Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and David Rittenhouse to refute the idea that the climate had stunted the intellect of those of European ancestry. He then rose to the defense of the American Indian in his refutation of Buffon's logic (holding any issues of fertility were due to food shortages and war; and quoting Cayuga Chief Logan's speech about the murder of his family as proof that they were quite capable of eloquence and sentiment). Yet when it came to his thinking on Blacks Jefferson adapted a version of Buffon's thought "by arguing for a connection between what he deemed the negligible intellectual achievement of blacks, their underdeveloped morality, and their inferior beauty. All differences between races, Jefferson asserts are found in nature"[107] thereby dismissing objections that they are a societal construct or a matter of circumstances.[108] Jefferson wrote "The blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distant by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments of both body and mind."[108]

Jefferson wrote that a more visible blush response displayed by Caucasians proved their superiority, writing "Whether the black of the negro resides in the reticular membrane between the skin and scarf-skin, or in the scarf-skin itself; whether it proceeds from the colour of the blood, the colour of the bile, or from that of some other secretion, the difference is fixed in nature, and is as real as if its seat and cause were better known to us. And is this difference of no importance?...Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to the eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oran-ootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?"[107][109] (Scholar Fawn M. Brodie explains Jefferson's reference to an orangutan stems from confusion at the time "over precisely what an orangutan was: A creature of mythology, a 'man of the woods' but of another species, or a primate yet to be captured and examined.")[110]

This idea about "fixed nature" was Jefferson's rationalized justification for the racial caste of slavery.[111] He made no concessions to the effects of slavery on behavior holding that differences were innate by nature, writing "Besides those of colour, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat, and less so of cold, than the whites. Perhaps too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus, which a late ingenious experimentalist has discovered to be the principal regulator of animal heat, may have disabled them from extricating, in the act of inspiration, so much of that fluid from the outer air, or obliged them in expiration, to part with more of it. They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour. An animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect, must be disposed to sleep of course. Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous."[109] Scholar Norm Ledgin points out that it appears Jefferson, having seized upon a notion is mentally compelled to reinforce it, not able to see that it puts his logic at risk for Jefferson makes an apparent self-contradiction between the claim blacks "require less sleep" while also claiming they have a "disposition to sleep."[110]

Jefferson unaware of the advanced cultures of African empires and kingdoms in pre-colonial Africa held that one should not judge blacks by their presumably primitive conditions in Africa, but only in their present state where they had been exposed to the influence of Whites. Here he compared them to American Indians and declared them wanting again, "It would be unfair to follow them to Africa for this investigation. We will consider them here, on the same stage with the whites...many have been so situated, that they might have availed themselves of the conversation of their masters; many have been brought up to the handicraft arts, and from that circumstance have always been associated with the whites. Some have been liberally educated, and all have lived in countries where the arts and sciences are cultivated to a considerable degree, and have had before their eyes samples of the best works from abroad. The Indians, with no advantages of this kind, will often carve figures on their pipes not destitute of design and merit. They will crayon out an animal, a plant, or a country, so as to prove the existence of a germ in their minds which only wants cultivation. They astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture."[109][110] Jefferson expounded from this saying "The improvement of the blacks in body and mind, in the first instance of their mixture with the whites, has been observed by everyone, and proves that their inferiority is not the effect merely of their condition of life. ..among the [ancient] Romans, their slaves were often their rarest artists. They excelled too in science, insomuch as to be usually employed as tutors to their master's children. Epictetus, Diogenes, Phaedon, Terence, and Phaedrus, were slaves. But they were of the race of whites. It is not their condition then, but nature, which has produced the distinction."[109]

In his book White Over Black scholar Winthrop D. Jordan notes that at the same time that Notes was being published in England in 1787 Sally Hemings was on her way to Paris and speculates that "The fact that further writing did not contain such harsh and inaccurate generalizations about people of color may be credited to his subsequent relationship with Sally".[110]

Scholar David Tucker points out Notes exhibits Jefferson's idea that "based solely on their powers of observation and reasoning men can acquire the knowledge they need to organize and improve their lives."[112] He seeks to base his work on evidence, which leads him (in his discussion about minerals) to dismiss the idea that fossilized shells are a result of the Biblical flood of Noah. He dismisses this and other theories as not "sufficiently founded on the facts" but as products of dogmatic assertion or convention.[112] This philosophy is present "even with regard to the question of the faculties of the slaves" where Jefferson attempts to "avoid mere speculation by being embedded in what he claims are facts. (The prejudice at work in Jefferson's thinking in the case of the slaves is importantly another example off convention interfering with the understanding of nature.)"[112] Ledgin points out that in all the race claims within Notes "Jefferson offered no sign of having made a scientific collection of data to support his generalizations".[110] This was a vast difference from his refutation of Buffon's claim that cold climates could only produce small species where Jefferson had "assembled three tables containing data on the number and weight of quadrupeds in North America and Europe" to "undermine the very 'methodological and philosophical underpinnings of Buffon's argument.'...[he] flaunted long lists of specific measurements...[and] relied on three different sources" for his data.[107] Historian Merrill Peterson states that on the subject of race Notes on the State of Virginia is at odds with Jefferson's own academic standards and contains "opinions that seriously embarrassed his philosophy."[110]

Ledgin points out that Jefferson realizes he is "practicing science poorly in this area".[110] Indeed even in his racial claims Jefferson remains divided; hedging many of his statements. He ascribes characteristics to blacks but with phrases introducing uncertainty "this may perhaps proceed from..."[109] Holding that one cannot expect anyone to behave in a civilized manner when they have no contact with a civilized society and believing Africa was devoid of civilization he insists that it "would be unfair" to take any account of conditions there as demonstrative of their nature.[109] For the same reason he holds that the condition of blacks "confined to tillage, to their own homes, and their own society" cannot be held as evidence of their nature either.[109] Claiming that they have yet to produce great works he still holds out the possibility "...they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved."[109] Jefferson judges black poet Ignatius Sancho the greatest of black poets but inferior to any white one, but points out this would only be the case if certainty could be established that he had not been edited which "would not be of easy investigation."[109] Even in long arguments where black slaves are unfavorably compared to the white slaves of ancient Rome his conclusion admits of uncertainty "Whether further observation will or will not verify the conjecture, that nature has been less bountiful to them in the endowments of the head..."[109] and "the opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire, or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind."[109]

The historian Paul Finkelman argues that any concerns Jefferson's expressed about slavery within Notes was for the damage it did to whites and white society, not the damage it did to blacks.[108] This is supported by quotes like "There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it... thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. ...With the morals of the people, their industry also is destroyed. For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him."[109] Finkelman charges Jefferson feared slaves might successfully rebel and called for free blacks to be deported to prevent whites from losing control of their slaves.[108] This is supported by quotes where Jefferson appears to have sympathy for blacks but concludes their happiness is only possible away from whites who enslaved them, which would make violence impossilbe "For if a slave can have a country in this world, it must be any other in preference to that in which he is born to live and labour for another: in which he must lock up the faculties of his nature, contribute as far as depends on his individual endeavours to the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him."[109] Besides fear of violence, another reason that Jefferson held that it was necessary to colonize freed blacks out of the country was to prevent the races from inter-breeding "Many of their advocates, while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature, are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty....Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture."[109]

In Notes Jeferson dismisses the claim that blacks by nature have a "disposition to theft" and a "depravity of the moral sense."[109] Holding that "The man, in whose favour no laws of property exist, probably feels himself less bound to respect those made in favour of others. When arguing for ourselves, we lay it down as a fundamental, that laws, to be just, must give a reciprocation of right: that, without this, they are mere arbitrary rules of conduct, founded in force, and not in conscience: and it is a problem which I give to the master to solve, whether the religious precepts against the violation of property were not framed for him as well as his slave? And whether the slave may not as justifiably take a little from one, who has taken all from him, as he may slay one who would slay him? That a change in the relations in which a man is placed should change his ideas of moral right and wrong, is neither new, nor peculiar to the colour of the blacks."[109]

The section about slavery and race in Notes ends with Jefferson's often quoted passage about liberty being secure only if people realize it as "the gift of God". In context the quote is not about the need to encourage religion in the American citizenry, but is actually an expression of fear that a slave rebellion (similar to what would occur in 1791 in the Haitian Revolution) would occur on American soil and the outnumbered southern white slaveholders would face slaughter and enslavement by blacks, an event that even prayer wouldn't stop "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."[109] Despite these fears the conflicted slaveholding Jefferson can not see a workable path forward "But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation."[109]

Grégoire correspondence[edit]

Front page of his 1808 book on Negro literature.
Abbé Henri-Baptiste Grégoire.

In 1808, the French abolitionist and priest Henri-Baptiste Grégoire, or Abbé Grégoire, sent President Jefferson a copy of his book, An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties and Literature of Negroes. In his text, he responded to and refuted Jefferson's arguments of African inferiority in Notes on Virgina, citing the advanced civilizations Africans had developed as evidence of their intellectual competence.[113][114]

Jefferson wrote back, saying the rights of African Americans should not be dependent on intelligence and that Africans had "respectable intelligence." Jefferson wrote of the black race, "but whatever be their degree of talent it is not measure of their rights."[115] Jefferson thanked Grégoire for the book, but "had not modified his beliefs on the innate incompetence of Blacks."[116]

Views on slavery and race[edit]

Evaluations by historians[edit]

"Of all the Founding Fathers, it was Thomas Jefferson for whom the issue of race loomed largest. In the roles of slaveholder, public official and family man, the relationship between blacks and whites was something he thought about, wrote about and grappled with from his cradle to his grave."[117]

Important 20th-century Jefferson biographers including Merrill Peterson support the view of Jefferson as a man strongly opposed to slavery; Peterson said that Jefferson's ownership of slaves "all his adult life has placed him at odds with his moral and political principles. Yet there can be no question of his genuine hatred of slavery or, indeed, of the efforts he made to curb and eliminate it."[118] Peter Onuf stated Jefferson was well known for his "opposition to slavery, most famously expressed in his ... Notes on the State of Virginia."[119] The biographer John Ferling said that Thomas Jefferson was "zealously committed to slavery's abolition."[120]

Starting in the early 1960s, some academics began to challenge the Jefferson's position as they assessed his actions rather than his words.[121][122] Paul Finkelman wrote in 1994 that earlier scholars, particularly Peterson, Dumas Malone, and Willard Randall, engaged in "exaggeration or misrepresentation" to advance their argument of Jefferson's anti-slavery position, saying "they ignore contrary evidence" and "paint a false picture" to protect Jefferson's image on slavery.[123] Academics including William Freehling, Winthrop Jordan[124] and David Brion Davis have criticized Jefferson for his lack of action in trying to end slavery in the United States, including not freeing his own slaves, rather than for his views. Davis noted that although Jefferson was a proponent of equality in earlier years, after 1789 and his return to the US from France (when he is believed to have started a relationship with his slave Sally Hemings), he was notable for his "immense silence" on the topic of slavery. He did support prohibition of the importing of slaves into the United States, but took no actions related to the domestic institution. At the time, the internal slave trade was growing dramatically and would move one million people in forced migrations from the East Coast and Upper South to the Deep South, breaking up numerous slave families.

In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson supported the concept of gradual emancipation if based on deportation of freed blacks, as he feared their presence in the slave society would contribute to a slave revolt.[125]

there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery]... we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.[126][127]

He took no political action to achieve this.

Jefferson may have borrowed from Suetonius, a Roman biographer, the phrase "wolf by the ears", as he held a book of his works. Jefferson characterized slavery as a dangerous animal (the wolf) that could not be contained or freed. He believed that attempts to end slavery would lead to violence.[128]

According to Greg Warnusz, Jefferson held contemporary 19th-century beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites in terms of "potential for citizenship," and he wanted them deported. His views of a democratic society were based on a homogeneity of men. He claimed to be interested in helping both races in his proposal. His later views proposed gradually freeing slaves after the age of 45 (when they would have repaid their owner's investment) and resettling them in Africa. (This proposal did not acknowledge how difficult it would be for freedmen to be settled in another country and environment after age 45.) Jefferson's plan envisioned a whites-only society without any blacks.[33]

While privately proposing an end of slavery, Jefferson was a slaveholder and officially advocated slavery's expansion. According to James W. Loewen, Jefferson's character "wrestled with slavery, even though in the end he lost." Loewen says that understanding Jefferson's role with slavery is significant in understanding current American social problems.[129]

In an 1814 letter to Edmund Cole titled "Slavery and the Younger Generation",[130] Jefferson put forth some of his views on slaves and the institution of slavery. Discussing gradual emancipation with forced deportation he said:

"...the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come; and whether brought on by the generous energy of our own minds; or by the bloody process of St Domingo, excited and conducted by the power of our present enemy, if once stationed permanently within our Country, and offering asylum & arms to the oppressed, is a leaf of our history not yet turned over."[130]

He stated his views of freed African Americans:

"For men probably of any color, but of this color we know, brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, are by their habits rendered as incapable as children of taking care of themselves, and are extinguished promptly wherever industry is necessary for raising young. In the mean time they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them."[130]

Paul Finkelman states that Jefferson believed that Blacks lacked basic human emotions.[131]

Jefferson wrote about mixed-race marriages (miscegenation) between whites and blacks: "Their amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent."[130] His last page, acknowledging his advancing age, states that younger people will have to work to abolish slavery:

"I have overlived the generation with which mutual labors & perils begat mutual confidence and influence. This enterprise is for the young; for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation. It shall have all my prayers, & these are the only weapons of an old man."[130]

Dumas Malone explained Jefferson's racism expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) as the "tentative judgements of a kindly and scientifically minded man". Malone lightly covered Jefferson's view that African Americans were inferior to whites. Merrill Peterson claimed that Jefferson's racial bias towards African Americans was "a product of frivolous and tortuous reasoning...and bewildering confusion of principles." Peterson called Jefferson's derogatory racial views on African Americans "folk belief". Peterson did not apply the same scrutiny to Jefferson's miscegenation beliefs.[132]

Challenges to Jefferson as anti-slavery advocate[edit]

Jefferson was a slave owner, owning at times hundreds of slaves. He only freed a handful of slaves.[133] Although Jefferson's name had been associated with the anti-slavery cause during the early 1770s in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson viewed slavery as a "Southern way of life", similar to mainstream Greek and antiquity societies. In agreement with the Southern slave society, Jefferson believed that slavery served to protect blacks, whom he viewed as inferior or incapable of taking care of themselves.[134] Historians such as Peter Kolchin and Ira Berlin have noted that by Jefferson's time, Virginia and other southern colonies had become "slave societies," in which slavery was the main mode of labor production and the slaveholding class held the political power.

Jefferson claimed in 1777 and 1778 to have authored bills that would have emancipated slaves, liberated the children of slaves, and deported them from the colonies. Jefferson claimed to have withdrawn the legislation and said the "public mind" would not be able to accept emancipation at this time. But, there is no evidence from Jefferson's collective writings that he authored such legislation.[20]

Jefferson had opportunities to disassociate himself from slavery. In 1782 after the American Revolution, Virginia passed a law making manumission by the slave owner legal and more easily accomplished, and the manumission rate rose across the Upper South in other states as well. Northern states passed various emancipation plans. Yet, Jefferson's actions did not keep up with those of the antislavery advocates.[5] On September 15, 1793, Thomas Jefferson agreed in writing to free James Hemings, his mixed-race slave who had served him as chef since their time in Paris, after the slave had trained his younger brother Peter as a replacement chef. Jefferson finally freed James Hemings in February 1796. According to one historian, Jefferson's manumission was not generous; he said the document "undermines any notion of benevolence."[135] With freedom, Hemings worked in Philadelphia and traveled to France.[136] About the same time, in 1794 Jefferson allowed James' older brother Robert Hemings to buy his freedom. These were the only two slaves Jefferson freed by manumission in his lifetime. (They were both brothers of Sally Hemings], believed to be Jefferson's concubine.)

By contrast, so many other slaveholders in Virginia freed slaves in the first two decades after the Revolution that the proportion of free blacks in Virginia compared to the total black population rose from less than one percent in 1790 to 7.2 percent in 1810.[137] By that time, three-quarters of the slaves in Delaware had been freed, and a high proportion of slaves in Maryland.[137]

Historians use Jefferson's correspondence with Edward Coles as an example of his anti-slavery views. Coles believed Jefferson would help him with his plan to free his slaves, and wrote to Jefferson about it in 1814. In Jefferson's response, the first part of the letter seemed to support Coles' plan and the anti-slavery movement, but further on, the former president discouraged Coles from emancipating his slaves. He wrote:

The laws do not permit us to turn them loose, if that were for their good: and to commute them for other property is to commit them to those whose usage of them we cannot control. I hope then, my dear sir, you will reconcile yourself to your country and its unfortunate condition; that you will not lessen its stock of sound disposition by withdrawing your portion from the mass.


Jefferson claimed to want to protect slaves from ill usage and to employ them in reasonable labor, though at the same time he insisted that Coles should not free his slaves.

But in the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.

(Note: Coles took his slaves to present-day Illinois, a free territory, where he freed them and gave them land purchased for their use, 160 acres to each head of household. He also helped provide employment for them to get started in freedom)[138]

Jefferson inherited slaves as a child, and owned slaves the rest of his life.[2] The historian Herbert E. Sloan says that Jefferson's debt prevented his freeing his slaves,[139] but Finkelman says that freeing slaves was "not even a mildly important goal" of Jefferson, who preferred to spend lavishly on luxury goods like wine and French chairs.[140]

As was typical of planters, Jefferson made decisions about breaking up families when he gave slaves to his sisters and daughters as wedding presents. He considered children over the age of 10 or 12, when they began working on the plantation, as ready to leave their families.[141] For instance, he gave the 14-year-old Betsy Hemmings, a mixed-race slave, and 30 other slaves to his daughter Mary Jefferson Eppes and her husband on the occasion of her marriage.[142] From 1784–1794, he gave away or sold 161 slaves from Monticello.[141]

Isaac Jefferson learned tinsmithing and nailmaking while held as a slave by Jefferson. Born into slavery in 1775, in 1847 he was interviewed as a free man by the author and historian Charles Campbell. The material remained unpublished until 1951 when Raymond Logan edited it into Memoirs of a Monticello Slave.[143] Isaac Jefferson's account provided valuable details to historians about daily life and family relationships at Monticello.[144][145] Additional narratives, published by former Monticello slaves in 1873, are those of Madison Hemings (who stated he and his siblings were Thomas Jefferson's children by Sally Hemings), and Israel Jefferson, who confirmed Madison's account.

According to the historian Stephen Ambrose: "Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many others, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property."[146] He believed they were inferior to whites in reasoning, mathematical comprehension, and imagination. Jefferson thought these "differences" were "fixed in nature" and was not dependent on their freedom or education.[33] He thought such differences created "innate inferiority of Blacks compared to Whites". In Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson claimed that blacks prefer the beauty of whites over other blacks, and cited "the preferences of the Orangutan for the black woman over those of his own species".[147]

Jefferson did not believe that African Americans could live in American society as free people together with whites.[148] For a long-term solution, he thought that slaves should be freed after reaching maturity and having repaid their owner's investment; afterward, he thought they should be sent to African colonies in what he considered "repatriation", despite their being American-born. Otherwise, he thought the presence of free blacks would encourage a violent uprising by slaves' looking for freedom.[149] Jefferson expressed his fear of slave rebellion: "We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."[150]

In 1809, he wrote to Abbé Grégoire, whose book argued against Jefferson's claims of black inferiority in Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson said blacks had "respectable intelligence", but did not alter his views.[115][151] In August 1814 the planter Edward Coles and Jefferson corresponded about Coles' ideas on emancipation. Jefferson urged Coles not to free his slaves, but the younger man took all his slaves to the Illinois and freed them, providing them with land for farms.[140][152]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998, pp. 7–13
  2. ^ a b William Cohen, "Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Slavery," Journal of American History 56, no. 3 (1969): 503–526, p. 510
  3. ^ Jackson Fossett, Dr. Judith (June 27, 2004). "Forum: Thomas Jefferson". Time. Retrieved 12-04-2010. 
  4. ^ Howe (1997), Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, p. 74
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  6. ^ a b William Merkel, "Jefferson's Failed Anti-Slavery Proviso of 1784 and the Nascence of Free Soil Constitutionalism," Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2008
  7. ^ a b c d e f Rodriguez, Junius P. (1997). The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Volume 1; Volume 7. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, Inc. p. 380. 
  8. ^ "Jefferson: Key Events", Miller Center
  9. ^ Jefferson's Blood, PBS Frontline, 2000. Section: "Is It True?" Quote: On 5 November 1998 the journal Nature placed an inaccurate and misleading headline based on this study which read, "Jefferson Fathered Slave's Last Child"./In this section, FRONTLINE discusses the implications of the DNA match with a male linear Jefferson. It stated that any one of 18 Jeffersons alive at the time could possibly have fathered Easton Hemings, Sally's youngest child, and "We know from the historical and the DNA data that Thomas Jefferson can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated in the paternity of illegitimate children with his slave Sally Hemings." accessed 10 March 2012
  10. ^ Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, Exhibit 27 January – 14 October 2012, Smithsonian Institution, accessed 15 March 2012
  11. ^ Sloan (1995), Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt, p. 14
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Hodges (2008). "Why We Should All Regret Jefferson's Broken Promise to Kościuszko". Friends of Liberty. excerpt at History News Network. Retrieved 2009-04-30. 
  13. ^ a b Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: "After Monticello", Smithsonian NMAAHC/Monticello, January – October 2012, accessed 5 April 2012
  14. ^ Herbert E. Sloan, Principle and Interest: Thomas Jefferson and the Problem of Debt (2001) pp. 14–26, 220–21.
  15. ^ Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, 978-0765604392
  16. ^ Finkelman, Paul (1994). "Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 102 (2). 
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  68. ^ Ted Widmer, "Two Cheers for Jefferson": Review of Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, New York Times, 17 July 2005, accessed 19 April 2012. Quote: Hitchens "gives us a measured sketch that faults Jefferson for his weaknesses but affirms his greatness as a thinker and president."... "To his credit, Hitchens does not gloss over Jefferson's dark side. There is a dutiful bit on Sally Hemings, and some thoughtful ruminations on the Haitian revolution, which revealed how counterrevolutionary Jefferson could be."
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Academic journals[edit]

  • Finkelman, Paul. "Regulating the African slave trade," Civil War History 54.4 (2008): 379+.
  • Matthewson, Tim. "Jefferson and Haiti", The Journal of Southern History, 61 (1995)
  • Pasley, Jeffrey L. "Politics and the Misadventures of Thomas Jefferson's Modern Reputation: a Review Essay," Journal of Southern History 2006 72(4): 871–908. Issn: 0022-4642 Fulltext in Ebsco.
  • Scherr, Arthur. "Jefferson's 'Cannibals' Revisited: A Closer Look at His Notorious Phrase," Journal of Southern History 77.2 (2011): 251+
  • Tewell, Jeremy J. "Assuring Freedom to the Free: Jefferson's Declaration and the Conflict over Slavery," Civil War History (Mar 2012) 58#1 pp. 75–96.

Online resources[edit]