How were Jefferson’s slaves treated?

Slavery was an inherently violent and coercive system, although Jefferson tried to mitigate it.  “My first wish is that the labourers may be well treated,” he wrote to his overseer Manoah Clarkson in 1792. Rather than force a slave to work under the threat of the whip, Jefferson attempted to motivate slaves to perform tasks with incentives such as “gratuities” (tips) or other rewards.  He experimented with “new modes of governance” of enslaved people, which was intended to moderate physical punishment and to capitalize on the human desire to emulate and excel. 

Often absent from Monticello, Jefferson did not always succeed in lessening the violence of slavery.  Several slaves were whipped at the hands of Monticello overseers.  For example, William Page, an overseer at Lego farm for four years, had a reputation as a “terror” among slaves and was characterized as “peevish & too ready to strike.”  William McGehee, an overseer at Tufton farm for two years, was “tyrannical” and carried a gun “for fear of an attack from the negroes.”  And Gabriel Lilly, a nailery manager and overseer at Monticello for five years, whipped James Hemings three times in a single day, even when he was too ill “to raise his head.”

How did Jefferson acquire his slaves?

Jefferson acquired most of the over six hundred slaves he owned during his life through the natural increase of enslaved families. He acquired approximately 175 slaves through inheritance: about 40 from the estate of his father, Peter Jefferson, in 1764, and 135 from his father-in-law, John Wayles, in 1774. Jefferson purchased fewer than twenty slaves in his lifetime, in some cases to unite spouses and in others to satisfy labor needs at Monticello.

Did Jefferson think that slavery was profitable?

In Virginia, unlike the Caribbean, enslaved women achieved fertility rates that allowed for a self-reproducing slave population.  Planters could satisfy the demand for slave labor without having to import slaves from Africa.  Many slaveowners, including Jefferson, understood that female slaves—and their future children—represented the best means to increase the value of his holdings, what he called “capital.” "I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm," Jefferson remarked in 1820.  "What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption."  An enslaved couple, Minerva and Bagwell Granger, came close to fulfilling Jefferson's disturbing calculation; they had nine children between 1787 and 1810.

Did Jefferson buy and sell slaves?

Jefferson did not engage in the commercial buying or selling of slaves. He purchased slaves occasionally, because of labor needs or to unite spouses. Despite his expressed "scruples" against selling slaves except "for delinquency, or on their own request," he sold more than 110 in his lifetime, mainly for financial reasons. Seventy-one were sold from his Goochland and Bedford county plantations in three sales in the 1780s and 1790s. Chronic runaways and resisters like Sandy, James Hubbard, and Billy were almost invariably sold. At least three individuals (Mary Hemings, Robert Hemings, and Brown Colbert) were sold at their own request.

To provide dowries for his sister and daughters, and occasional gifts to other family members, Jefferson transferred eighty-five slaves by gift. His record of slaves "alienated" from his ownership—whether by sale or gift—in the ten-year period from 1784 to 1794 listed 160 men, women, and children.

Did Jefferson free his slaves?

During his lifetime, Jefferson freed two enslaved men.  At his death, Jefferson bequeathed freedom to five men in his will.  At least three other slaves were unofficially freed when Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, and James Hemings, son of (Critta Hemings Bowlesto leave Monticello without pursuit. 

A single paragraph cannot do justice to the issue of Jefferson's failure to free more than a handful of his slaves. Some of the possible reasons include: the economic value of his human property (at certain times, his slaves were mortgaged and thus could not be freed or sold); his lifelong view that emancipation had to go hand-in-hand with expatriation of the freed slaves; his paternalistic belief that slaves were incapable of supporting themselves in freedom and his fear they would become burden to society; his belief in gradual measures operating through the legal processes of government; and, after 1806, a state law that required freed slaves to leave Virginia within a year. Jefferson wrote that this law did not "permit" Virginians to free their slaves; he apparently thought that, for an enslaved African American, slavery was preferable to freedom far from one's home and family.


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