Thomas Jefferson and slavery

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

The complex relationship between Thomas Jefferson and slavery has been extensively debated by his biographers and by scholars of slavery.[1] Throughout his lifetime Jefferson owned hundreds of African-American slaves acquired by inheritance, marriage, births of slaves, and trade.[2][3][4] Starting in 1767 at the age of twenty-one, Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land and fifty-two slaves by his father's will. In 1768 Jefferson began construction of his Monticello plantation. Through his marriage to Martha Wayles in 1772 and his father-in-law John Wayles inheritance in 1773 Jefferson inherited two plantations and 135 slaves. By 1776 Jefferson was one of the largest planters in Virginia. However, the value of his property (land and slaves) was increasingly offset by his growing debts, which made it very difficult to free his slaves and thereby lose them as assets.[5]

In his writings on American grievances justifying the Revolution, he attacked the British for sponsoring the slave trade to the colonies. In 1778 with Jefferson's leadership Virginia banned importing slaves into Virginia. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the slave trade. Jefferson was a lifelong advocate of ending the trade and as President led the effort to criminalize the international slave trade that passed Congress and he signed on March 2, 1807; it took effect in 1808. Britain independently made the same move on March 25, 1807.

In 1779, as a practical solution to end slavery Jefferson supported gradual emancipation, training, and colonization of African-American slaves rather than unconditional manumission, believing that releasing unprepared slaves with no place to go and no means to support themselves would only bring them misfortune. In 1784 Jefferson proposed federal legislation banning slavery in the New Territories of the North and South after 1800, which failed to pass Congress by one vote.[6][7] In his 1785 published Notes, Jefferson expressed belief that slavery corrupted both masters and slaves alike, supported colonization of freed slaves, suspected that African-Americans were inferior in intelligence, and that releasing large numbers of such slaves made slave uprisings more likely.[8] In 1793 and 1794 Jefferson manumitted two of his male slaves by deed who had been trained and qualified to hold employment.

Historians now generally accept that after the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson had a long-term relationship with her half-sister, the slave, Sally Hemings. He probably fathered some or all of her children.[9][10] Other historians however maintain that DNA and other evidence also points to other male Jefferson family members. Jefferson allowed two of Sally Hemings's surviving four children to "escape;" the other two he freed through his will after his death. The Sally Hemings children were the only family to gain freedom from Monticello.[11] In 1824 Jefferson proposed a national plan to end slavery by the federal government purchasing African-American slave children for twelve dollars and fifty cents, raising and training them in occupations of freemen, and sending them to the country of Santo Domingo. In his will, Jefferson 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.[11] In 1827 the remaining 130 slaves at Monticello were sold to pay the debts of Jefferson's estate.[12][13][14]

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.[15] 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.[16][17] 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.[15] 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."[18]

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.[19] 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.)[20] Once freed, Manly worked for Jefferson at Monticello for wages.[20]

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.[21] 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.[15] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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."[25]

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

[26] He condemned the King for "inciting American Negroes to rise in arms against their masters."[27][28][29] 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.[30][31][32][33] 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."[34]

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.[35][36][37]

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."[38] 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 female descendants eligible for membership in the heritage society.[39]

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.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42][43] 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.[44] 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."[45] He refused to add gradual emancipation as an amendment when others asked him to; he said, "better that this should be kept back."[45]

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." [46] 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.[47] 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.[48]

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."[49]

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."[50] 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.[50]

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.[51]

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. Because they were from different political parties, they had difficulty working together. (Later the Constitution was amended so that candidates for these two positions had to be elected as a ticket representing 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.[52][53] 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.

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.[54]

Callender accusation[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.[55] 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.)[56]


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.[57] He agreed to loan France $300,000 "for relief of whites on the island."[58] Jefferson wanted to alleviate the fears of southern slave owners, who feared a similar rebellion in their territory.[59] 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."[58]

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.[60] 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.[60] This was to further US interests in Louisiana.[58] 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."[61] Jefferson discouraged emigration by American free blacks to the new nation.[58] European nations also refused to recognize Haiti when the new nation declared independence in 1804.[62][63][64] In his short biography of Jefferson in 2005, Christopher Hitchens noted the president was "counterrevolutionary" in his treatment of Haiti and its revolution.[65]

Jefferson expressed ambivalence about Haiti. During his presidency, he thought sending free blacks and contentious slaves to Haiti might be a solution to some of the United States' problems. He hoped that "Haiti would eventually demonstrate the viability of black self-government and the industriousness of African American work habits, thereby justifying freeing and deporting the slaves" to that island.[66] This was one of his solutions for separating the populations. In 1824, book peddler Samuel Whitcomb, Jr. visited Jefferson in Monticello, and they happened to talk about Haiti. This was on the eve of the greatest emigration of U.S. Blacks to the island-nation. Jefferson told Whitcomb that he had never seen Blacks do well in governing themselves, and thought they would not do it without the help of Whites.[67]

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.[68][69]

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.[70] By its Slave Trade Act 1807, Great Britain prohibited the slave trade in its colonies. The nations cooperated in enforcing interdiction of the slave trade on open seas.

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 enabling 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.[71] Historian John Chester Miller rated Jefferson's two major presidential achievements as the Louisiana Purchase and the abolition of the slave trade.[72]

Retirement (1810–1826)[edit]

By 1820, Jefferson denounced Northern meddling with Southern slavery policy. On April 22, Jefferson criticized the Missouri Compromise because it might lead to the breakup of the Union. Jefferson said 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". Jefferson said 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."[73]

In 1798, Jefferson's friend from the Revolution, Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish nobleman and Polish revolutionary, visited the United States 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 U.S. 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." Kosciuško died in 1817, but Jefferson never carried out the terms of the will: At age 77, he pleaded an inability to act as executor due to his advanced age[74] and the numerous legal complexities of the bequest—the will was contested by several family members and was tied up in the courts for years, long after Jefferson's death.[75] Jefferson recommended his friend John Hartwell Cocke, who also opposed slavery, as executor, but Cocke likewise declined to execute the bequest.[76] In 1852 the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the estate, by then worth $50,000, to Kościuszko's heirs in Poland, having ruled that the will was invalid.[77]

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.[78][79] 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.

In April 1820 Jefferson wrote to John Holmes concerning slavery:

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.[82]

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.

The U.S. Congress finally implemented colonization of freed African-American slaves by passing the Slave Trade Act of 1819 signed into law by President James Monroe. The law authorized funding to the colonize the coast of Africa with freed African-American slaves. In 1824 Jefferson proposed an overall emancipation plan that would free slaves born after a certain date. [83] Jefferson proposed that African-American children born in America be bought by the federal government for twelve dollars and fifty cents and that these slaves be sent to Santo Domingo. [83] Jefferson admitted that his plan would be liberal and may even be unconstitutional, however, he suggested a constitutional amendment to allow congress to purchase slaves. Jefferson also realized that seperating children from slaves would have a humanitarian cost. Jefferson believed that his overall plan was worth implementing and that setting over a million slaves free was worth the finincial and emotional costs. [83]

Jefferson provided in his 1826 will for the manumission 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.

Posthumous (1827–1830)[edit]

At his death, Jefferson was greatly in debt, in part due to his continued construction program.[84] 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.[78][85] Slave families who had been well established and stable for decades were sometimes split up. Most of the sold slaves either remained in Virginia or were relocated to Ohio.[86]

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.[87] 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.[87]

Because Jefferson did not free Fossett's wife or their eight children, they were sold at auction. They were bought by four different men. Fossett worked for years to buy back his family members and purchase their freedom. While Jefferson made no provision for Sally Hemings, his daughter gave the slave "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 that some of his family could stay together at Randolph's plantation. Other children, including three daughters, were sold and relocated to the Deep South and Missouri.[citation needed][dubious ]

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?'"

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.[85] Some were purchased by free relatives, such as Mary Hemings Bell, who worked to try to reconstitute her children's families.

Sally Hemings and her children[edit]

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 much younger half-siblings of Jefferson's wife Martha. Following her father's death in 1773, Martha Jefferson and her husband inherited Betty Hemings and her 10 children among more than 100 slaves of her father. Sally 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 a slave mother, the Hemingses were all born into slavery, by the principle of partus sequitur ventrem.[88][89]

By chance, in 1787 Sally Hemings at age 14 accompanied 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 Sally's son Madison Hemings, Sally became Jefferson's concubine and pregnant in 1789. Madison stated Jefferson promised Sally to free her child and subsequent children if she remained his "concubine" when she returned with him that year to the United States. Her first child, according the Madison, died young at Monticello. Sally subsequently had a total of six additional children, some who were noted for their resemblance to Jefferson.[89] The modern historic question of whether Jefferson was the genetic father of Sally's children has been known as the Jefferson-Hemings controversy.

During the election of 1800 rumors began to spread by Federalists that Jefferson was sleeping with a female slave concubine at his Monticello plantation. [90] In 1801 Jefferson was rumored to have "golden children" whom he was affectionate with at Monticello. [90] On September 1, 1802 the scandal became national when James Callender published a story in the Richmond Recorder, a Federalist newspaper, that Jefferson had an African-American mistress and children by her. [91] Callander specifically named the concubine as "Sally". [91] Callander became a Federalist supporter after President Jefferson refused to appoint Callendar Post Master of Richmond. [91] Callander had prior been under the employment of Jefferson to politically attack the Federalists. [91] Jefferson made no response to Callander's story, however, Jefferson supporters rebutted Callander and stated any number of men could have fathered Sally's children. [91]

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 this account for nearly 180 years. However, historians of the late twentieth century challenged this assumption. 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 (Sally's 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. The Woodson descendants were found to have a European paternal ancestor. After the DNA study, 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. In 2000 PBS produced a major program, Jefferson's Blood, covering the issues and opinions on both sides of the question. It noted the new consensus while reporting "dissenting opinions." The Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society in 2001 rejected this conclusion, suggesting Randolph Jefferson or his sons as more likely candidates for paternity.

Jefferson freed each of Sally Hemings' surviving children: Beverley, Harriet, Madison and Eston, as they came of age, the latter two in his will. Three of the four later entered white society as adults; they were seven-eighths European in ancestry.

Monticello slave life[edit]

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

In 2012 the Smithsonian Institution and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation of Monticello collaborated on an exhibit, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty. It is the first to explore Jefferson as a slaveholder, and concentrates also on six major slave families at Monticello. It was held in Washington, DC, as well as touring to Atlanta, St. Louis and Philadelphia through 2014.

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.[92][93] Jefferson, in his Farm Book journal, visually described in detail both the quality and quantity of purchased slave clothing and recorded the names of each slave who received the clothing.[94] 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.[95]

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.[96] 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."[97]

Jefferson encouraged slaves at Monticello to marry at Monticello. He 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.[98] Married slaves, however, had no legal protection or recognition by the law; masters could separate slave husbands and wives any time desired.[99]

Jefferson sometimes gave incentives in money or clothes to slaves for work in important positions. His 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.[100][101]

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.[102]

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.[103] 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."[104]

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.[105] According to Stanton, no reliable document portrays Jefferson as directly using physical correction.[106] During Jefferson's time, some other slaveholders also disagreed with the practices of flogging and jailing slaves.[107]

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 Hemings. 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.[92] Memoirs of life at Monticello, 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.[108] Born in Charlottesville, Fountain was a descendant of Wormley Hughes and Ursula Granger; his grandparents were among the house slaves owned by Jefferson at Monticello.[109]

Two major exhibitions opening in 2012 addressed 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 was 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 (1785)[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 U.S. minister in 1785.[110] The book covered subjects such as mountains, religion, climate, slavery, and race.[111]

Views on race[edit]

In his Notes, Jefferson contemporarily described blacks as inherently (fixed nature) inferior to whites in critical reasoning and beauty. [112] Blacks, however, according to Jefferson were superior in musical ability then whites. [112] Jefferson believed that the bonds of love for blacks were not as strong as the bonds of love for whites. [112] According to one scholar, William Peden, this idea about fixed nature was Jefferson's rationalized justification for the racial caste of slavery.[113]

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 Virginia, citing the advanced civilizations Africans had developed as evidence of their intellectual competence.[114][115] 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."[116] Jefferson thanked Grégoire for the book, but "had not modified his beliefs on the innate incompetence of Blacks."[117]

Dumas Malone, Jefferson's biographer, explained Jefferson's contemporary views on race as expressed in Notes were the "tentative judgements of a kindly and scientifically minded man". Merrill Peterson, another Jefferson biographer, claimed Jefferson's racial bias towards African Americans was "a product of frivolous and tortuous reasoning...and bewildering confusion of principles." Peterson called Jefferson's racial views on African Americans "folk belief". [118]

Supported colonization plan[edit]

In his Notes Jefferson wrote of a plan he supported in 1779 in the Virginia legislature that would end slavery through the colonization of freed slaves. [119] This plan was widely popular among the French people in 1785 who lauded Jefferson as a philosopher. According to Jefferson this plan required enslaved adults would continue in slavery but their children would be taken from them and trained to have a skill in the arts or sciences. These skilled women at age 18 and men at 21 would be emancipated, given arms and supplies, and then be sent to colonize a foreign land. [119] Jefferson believed that colonization was the practical alternative since he believed freed blacks living in a white American society would lede to a race war. [120]

Criticized effects of slavery[edit]

In Notes Jefferson critisized the effects slavery had on both white and African-American slave society. [121] He believed slavery destroyed the industriousness of whites stating "no man can labour for himself who can make another labour for him..."[121] believing slavery was "the most unremitting despotism" by whites and "degrading submissions" for blacks. Jefferson defended blacks, who were stereotyped as thieves, stating that this was due to their condition of slavery rather then any moral depravity.[121]

Evaluations by historians[edit]

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.[122]

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."[123] Peter Onuf stated Jefferson was well known for his "opposition to slavery, most famously expressed in his ... Notes on the State of Virginia."[124] The biographer John Ferling said that Thomas Jefferson was "zealously committed to slavery's abolition."[125]

Starting in the early 1960s, some academics began to challenge the Jefferson's position as they assessed his actions rather than his words.[126][127] 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.[128] Academics including William Freehling, Winthrop Jordan[129] 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.

Author Henry Wiencek in 2012 was ultra critical of Jefferson who concluded that Jefferson tried to protect his legacy as a Founding Father by hiding slavery from visitors at Monticello. [130] According to Wiencek's view Jefferson made a new frontage road to his Monticello estate to hide the overseers and slaves who worked the agriculture fields. Wiencek believed that Jefferson's "soft answers" to abolitionists were to make himself appear a foe of slavery.[130] Wiencek stated that Jefferson brandished enormous political power yet "did nothing to hasten slavery's end during his terms as a diplomat, secretary of state, vice president, and twice-elected president or after his presidency."[130]

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 recolonized to independent Liberia and other colonies. His views of a democratic society were based on a homogeneity of working men which was the cultural normality throughout most of the world in those days. 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.[31]

Concerning Jefferson and race author Annette Gordon-Reed stated the following:

"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."[131]

Paul Finkelman states that Jefferson believed that Blacks lacked basic human emotions.[132]

According to historian Jeremy J. Tewell, 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.[133] 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.

According to Joyce Appleby, 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.[8] 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."[134] With freedom, Hemings worked in Philadelphia and traveled to France.[135] 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.[136] By that time, three-quarters of the slaves in Delaware had been freed, and a high proportion of slaves in Maryland.[136]

According to the historian Stephen Ambrose: "Jefferson, like all slaveholders and many others, regarded Negroes as inferior, childlike, untrustworthy and, of course, as property."[137] 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.[31] 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".[138]

Jefferson did not believe that African Americans could live in American society as free people together with whites.[139] 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.[140] 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."[141]

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.[142][143]

See also[edit]


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  135. ^ "The Thomas Jefferson Timeline: 1743–1827". Retrieved 12-09-2010.  ; Finkleman (1994), Thomas Jefferson and Antislavery, pp. 193+
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  143. ^ Twilight at Monticello, Crawford, 2008, Ch 17, p. 101


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]