Thomas Jefferson and slavery

One of the things that happen when you get older is that you realize that everyone, even the people you look up to, has flaws. But it still does not make it easier to deal with the fact that those whom we greatly admire for some things turn out to be quite awful in other respects.

Thomas Jefferson is one such person. While it is well known that he owned slaves to the end, yet his image has in general been quite positive. He has been depicted as a reluctant slaveholder, trapped in a system that he inherited and personally disliked but trying to make the best of a bad situation by being benevolent within those limits.

A new book may change that. In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, historian Henry Wiencek paints a very dark picture of Jefferson indeed. The person who expressed in soaring words his admirable views on liberty and freedom and the role of government and the separation of church and state turns out to have been reprehensible when it came to slavery, even when measured by the times he lived in.

Wiencek has an essay titled The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson in which he poses a grave challenge to that popular image of Jefferson, and reveals him to be a terrible hypocrite. In fact, unlike George Washington and others of his time, his trajectory took him towards greater support of slavery as he grew older, not less.

Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.

The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.

We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

What made Jefferson harden his views on slavery later in life? It turns out that in 1792 he did a calculation and discovered that the production of slave children was a good source of steady income that could be quantified.

What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.

The date of Jefferson’s calculation aligns with the waning of his emancipationist fervor. Jefferson began to back away from antislavery just around the time he computed the silent profit of the “peculiar institution.”

What is perhaps most shocking is the brutality with which children were treated at Monticello, with beatings and whippings administered regularly by his overseers, especially of those working in the ‘nailery’, a nail factory that he owned.

Throughout Jefferson’s plantation records there runs a thread of indicators—some direct, some oblique, some euphemistic—that the Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated brutality.

Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”

So how did Jefferson’s image get to be so sanitized? Wiencek says that successive authors have airbrushed away the facts, painting an image of Monticello as an oasis of decent treatment of slaves in an era of brutality.

In a 1941 biography of Jefferson for “young adults” (ages 12 to 16) the author wrote: “In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master…. The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.”

It might seem unfair to mock the misconceptions and sappy prose of “a simpler era,” except that this book, The Way of an Eagle, and hundreds like it, shaped the attitudes of generations of readers about slavery and African-Americans. Time magazine chose it as one of the “important books” of 1941 in the children’s literature category, and it gained a second life in America’s libraries when it was reprinted in 1961 as Thomas Jefferson: Fighter for Freedom and Human Rights.

It was during the 1950s, when historian Edwin Betts was editing one of Colonel Randolph’s plantation reports for Jefferson’s Farm Book, that he confronted a taboo subject and made his fateful deletion. Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”

Betts decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed, omitting this document from his edition. He had an entirely different image in his head; the introduction to the book declared, “Jefferson came close to creating on his own plantations the ideal rural community.” Betts couldn’t do anything about the original letter, but no one would see it, tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The full text did not emerge in print until 2005.

Betts’ omission was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand. Relying on Betts’ editing, the historian Jack McLaughlin noted that Lilly “resorted to the whip during Jefferson’s absence, but Jefferson put a stop to it.”

The essay is well worth reading if depressing. There is no sense in hiding from the truth.


  1. kraut says

    “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.”

    you cannot beat a proper economic analysis. Morals or ethics be damned.

  2. slc1 says

    Apparently, the “profits” that Jefferson was realizing from his slaves were not sufficient to prevent him from being effectively bankrupt at the time of his death.

    It should be noted that, in his will, he freed the slaves that he had fathered with Sally Hemmings, although not her (she was freed the following year by Jefferson’s daughter).

  3. Steve Schuler says

    Thanks for the link to a very interesting but disturbing article. No doubt, Thomas Jefferson was a ‘complex man’…

    Here’s a bit more on Sally Hemmings and her children apparently sired by Jefferson extracted from a Wikipedia entry about Sally:

    “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. She spent two years there. Hemings and Jefferson are believed to have begun a sexual relationship then or after their return to Monticello. She had a total of six children of record born into slavery; four survived to adulthood and were noted for their resemblance to Jefferson. Sally Hemings served in Jefferson’s household as a domestic servant until his death.

    The historical question of whether Jefferson was the father of her children has been known as the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. Following renewed historic analysis and a 1998 DNA study that found a match between the Jefferson male line and a descendant of her last son, Eston Hemings, a consensus among historians supports that the widower Jefferson fathered her son Eston Hemings and likely all her children.[2] Some historians disagree.[3]

    Even though he was deeply in debt, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’ children: Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston, as they came of age. They were seven-eighths European in ancestry, and three of the four entered white society as adults. Their descendants identified as white.[4][5] As the historian Edmund S. Morgan has noted, “Hemings herself was withheld from auction and freed at last by Jefferson’s daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, who was, of course, her niece.”[6] Hemings lived her last nine years with her two younger sons in Charlottesville, and saw a grandchild born in the house her sons owned. After their mother’s death in 1835, Eston and Madison Hemings migrated with their families to Chillicothe in the free state of Ohio.”

    The entire article can be seen at:

  4. Mano Singham says

    Interesting point. I wonder if people like Barton will quickly turn on Jefferson if they find this new view of him taking hold.

  5. Psychopomp Gecko says

    Of course David Barton isn’t going to bother with anything so silly as “facts” when he writes his alternate history books.

  6. kuralssssp says

    I’ve always found this quote by JFK at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Laureates “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone,” pompous stupid ignorant and exaggerated. We know Jefferson was a man of many talents but to imagine that this man of deep seated racial prejudice, imperial expansionist who sought to exterminate the Native Americans, hypocrite slave owner, spendthrift and given to some very unlearned ideas (that African-Americans are biologically different from Whites in kidney function) was a patch on any law abiding and educated citizen of the 1960s USA, leave alone Nobel Laureates, is laughable. Adams may have been the best of his time, in actually abjuring slavery and his wife Abigail, probably among the the most learned citizens of her time, was withering in her criticism of the institution. Julian Bond speaking at the NAACP convention in 2006 put it right, America unscrambled is “I am race”.
    What do you think Mano? And I hope you’re rooting for Sri lanka in the T20 Finals vs. West Indies!

  7. says

    Wiencek writes to support his premise. If you accept that premise as gospel, then you’ll come to the same skewed conclusion.
    I’m not making any excuses for slavery or for Jefferson-the-slaveholder, but a full examination of Jefferson’s life will lead to another conclusion, a more accurate one. You’ll see a conflicted man, unsuccessful in his efforts to rally his peers to emancipation, who never gave up on that goal.
    In his 1821 Autobiography, he wrote, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
    Five years later, and just six weeks before his death, he wrote this in a May 20 letter to James Heaton. Read it carefully.
    “A good cause [slavery] is often injured more by ill-timed efforts of its friends than by the arguments of its enemies. Persuasion, perseverance, and patience are the best advocates on questions depending on the will of others. The revolution in public opinion which this cause requires, is not to be expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all things, will outlive this evil also. My sentiments have been forty years before the public. Had I repeated them forty times, they would only have become the more stale and threadbare. Although I shall not live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but living or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayer.”
    For a balanced view of Jefferson, read his blog at Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of topics, including slavery.

  8. slc1 says

    It should also be noted that Hemmings was the 1/2 sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife, both having the same father.

  9. slc1 says

    That’s not altogether clear. While they were in France, she was not the property of Jefferson because slavery had been abolished in France for years. Her status there was as a servant in the Jefferson household and she was perfectly free to wish Jefferson adios at any time and, in fact, was perfectly free to refuse to return to Virginia with him. Apparently, he had to persuade her to return with him by making a number of commitments, at least some of which he honored.

  10. slc1 says

    Jefferson’s views on race were very much in the scientific consensus at the time. I would point out that Charles Darwin also considered the black race to be inferior to the Caucasian race and he was some 60 years later then Jefferson (Jefferson died 8 years before Darwin stepped on board the Beagle.

  11. kraut says

    “I would point out that Charles Darwin also considered the black race to be inferior to the Caucasian race and he was some 60 years later then Jefferson (Jefferson died 8 years before Darwin stepped on board the Beagle.”

    Darwin however never justified slavery.

  12. slc1 says

    In fact, Darwin went further then just not endorsing slavery. He and his influential inlaws, the Wedgewoods, were adamantly opposed to slavery. They actively opposed any intervention by the British Government on behalf of the Confederacy and were quite influential in the ultimate decision not to intervene.

  13. says

    Actually, when Jefferson claimed in the 1780s that blacks were an inferior race, many leading thinkers of the time, in both America and Europe, were saying that racial differences were superficial, the result of environmental factors. Robert Forbes has an article about this — “The Cause of This Blackness”: The Early American Republic and the Construction of Race — in American Nineteenth Century History.

  14. hyphenman says

    Good evening Mano,

    While Jefferson’s accomplishments cannot excuse his flaws, neither should those flaws negate his accomplishments.

    We are complex creatures and I have yet to meet, or even read about, the perfect human. For many years there was a debate in Israel as to whether or not any of the music of Richard Wagner could be performed there. It was not until this past June that his music — officially banned since 1938 — was finally presented in Israel.

    Just as I believe that 100 years from now our descendents will wonder how we could have ever held many of the majority views that we now think reasonable, so too must we not judge Historic figures by our current, and certainly not universal or ultimate, standards.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Have Coffee Will Write

  15. kuralssssp says

    It’s impossible to make your case Patrick. No. We know now what Jefferson really did. Big difference.

  16. lorn says

    Ancient Athenians, Spartans, damn near every society at the time, understood that cheap labor, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than slave labor, was essential for maintaining a highly profitable business environment jump forward a few thousand years to the antebellum south. It was an entire parallel society based on this principle. The south couldn’t function without the cheap labor of slaves.

    Generations of largely uneducated poor white folks could entertain the conceits of honor and nobility, and avoid the worse of the heavy and degrading heavy physical labor, by virtue of those burdens being handed off to slaves. This would change after the war as the burden on blacks was reduced and the poor whites were forced, through what might be called slavery lite, sharecropping, to take up the slack. I would contend that the total percentage of unpaid labor remained the same even as it was redistributed. Underpaid labor can be seen as a mix of correctly paid, and unpaid, labor.

    Advance to the 30s when certain economists claimed that for capitalism to prosper there needed to be a goodly proportion of unemployed to help keep wages, benefits, and worker rights low. FDR ran, in part, claiming that this was nonsense. That unemployment was a tragedy and burden on a free society.

    Come forward another eighty years and we have conservative economists, and the guiding lights of the GOP who have systematically engineered an economic downturn and ballooned both a deficit and unemployment to create an excuse to reestablish the right of money to have an inexpensive, compliant, commodified and entirely expendable labor force.

    Thomas Jefferson, particularly after his enlightenment as to the financial benefits, would approve.

  17. hyphenman says

    I also found this instructive:

    Henry Wiencek is not at all conflicted. He loathes Thomas Jefferson. In Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, his attempted takedown of the man, the third president appears as a demonic figure warped one summer day by a sudden discovery that being a slaveholder could pay. I’ll detail how Wiencek arrives at his bizarre proof of a Jefferson who suddenly becomes Simon Legree, but I should say up front that this book fails as a work of scholarship. This is surprising. I favorably reviewed Wiencek’s book about George Washington, Imperfect God, and I admire The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. What happened with Master of the Mountain?

  18. Jovan Jungling says

    Hell! He could move over the border into Ohio. The age of consent is 17, the pedophiles love this.


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