While Jefferson believed that there were “indelible lines of distinction” between whites and blacks, he thought the condition of African Americans could be improved. Jefferson believed that his enslaved laborers shared in the universal human desire to emulate and excel.
On Mulberry Row, Jefferson capitalized on this desire by hiring white artisans to educate African American workers. Enslaved men and women, Jefferson predicted, would be motivated to imitate their mentors and to strive toward efficient and productive work. This “stimulus of character,” rather than the “degrading motive of fear” of the whip, would prompt his enslaved people to become industrious artisans. In many cases, the primary reason that Jefferson hired white artisans was to “teach some of his own hands.” Often, slaves became just as highly skilled in specific trades as the white artisans who taught them.
Jefferson hired a number of free white craftspeople to pass their skills on to apprenticed slaves. The German immigrant Jacob Silknitter trained Frank in the art of charcoal-burning; after Silknitter’s departure from Monticello, Frank carried on the periodic charcoal-burning that fueled many of the Mulberry Row workshops. The Irish house joiner James Dinsmore schooled both Lewis and John Hemmings in the art of fine joined and turned woodwork; from 1809, Hemmings directed the Mulberry Row joiner’s shop. The talented though often inebriated blacksmith William Stewart taught Joseph Fossett how to make intricate ironwork; when Stewart was dismissed, Fossett became Monticello’s head blacksmith. William McLure, a weaver from North Carolina, introduced mechanized cloth production to several enslaved women and girls; these same talented spinners and weavers later occupied the Mulberry Row textile workshop.
From 1795 to 1797, Jefferson hired German immigrant Jacob Silknitter to burn charcoal at Monticello; one of his tasks was to impart this trade to enslaved laborers. After Silknitter’s departure, Frank carried on the periodic charcoal-burning on the mountaintop; Jefferson pledged to “give Frank a half dime for every bushel to the cord of wood which his coal kilns yield. His last yielded 30 bushels to the cord: therefore paid 1.5 D.” By the time he burned his third kiln, Frank had increased his efficiency to 39 bushels to the cord.
William Stewart, the Monticello blacksmith from 1801 to 1807, trained Joseph Fossett, Moses Hern, and other enslaved smiths. As the overseer Edmund Bacon remembered, Stewart’s capacity to educate enslaved men was a primary reason that Jefferson tolerated his drunkenness. “He was a fine workman, but he would have his sprees—would get drunk,” Bacon remembered. But Jefferson “kept him a good many years longer than he would have done because he wanted him to teach some of his own hands.” After Stewart was fired, Fossett ran the blacksmith shop, shoeing horses, sharpening hoes and plows, and even making the metal parts of an elaborate carriage that Jefferson designed in 1814.