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Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson argued that knowledge was power. Many, however, have faced challenges in receiving an education in this country since its founding. For the holiday season, this podcast episode focuses on a few stories about individuals who strove to access and share with others the gift of education.

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Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton.

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, […] it expects what never was & never will be.”

-Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816

“It is believed that the most effectual means of preventing [tyranny] would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.”

-Thomas Jefferson, “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge”

Throughout his life, Thomas Jefferson inherently understood the power of knowledge and education. We have covered in past podcast episodes Jefferson’s own background in education, his work in founding the University of Virginia, and his lifelong promotion of learning.

However, throughout the history of the United States, the path to education has not always been guaranteed to all people living in this country. In fact, many were actively denied it altogether.

Today in the spirit of the holidays, this podcast episode focuses on a few stories about individuals who strove to access and share with others the gift of illumination, the gift of education.

We begin with the story of Peter Fossett. Fossett was born on the Monticello plantation in 1815. He was a son of Edith and Joseph Fossett’s and throughout his childhood he was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. When he turned 11 years old, he was put up for auction during a dispersal sale which occurred a few months after Jefferson’s death. He was sold to Colonel John Jones of Richmond and forcibly separated from his family.

Many, many years later, Fossett shared his life story with a newspaper, the New York World. Fossett explained that, during his time at Monticello, he had been taught how to read by Lewis Randolph, one of Jefferson’s grandsons. “When I was sold to Col. Jones,” he stated, “I took my books along with me. One day I was kneeling before the fireplace spelling the word ‘baker,’ when Col. Jones opened the door, and I shall never forget the scene as long as I live.

“‘What have you got there, sir?’ were his words.

“I told him.

“‘If I ever catch you with a book in your hands, thirty-and-nine lashes on your bare back.’ He took the book and threw it into the fire, then called up his sons and told them that if they ever taught me they would receive the same punishment.”

But this did not stop Peter Fossett. In fact, as he learned he shared what he knew with others enslaved on Jones’ plantation: “I was teaching all the people around me to read and write, and even venturing to write free passes and sending slaves away from their masters.”

Andrew Davenport, Public Historian at Monticello and Manager of the Getting Word African American Oral History Project, is a descendant of the Hemings family that was enslaved at Monticello. He explains that acts like Peter Fossett’s are evidence of “stolen” education and the power of that education: “That education, that small education that we stole for ourselves has strong resonances into the present.” It is, for example, Peter Fossett recognizing that his own education could lead to freedom and a better future for others.

***

Cornelia Randolph was a granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson’s, and a daughter of Martha and Thomas Randolph’s. She like other members of her family was encouraged to read and write, especially by her grandfather. In 1808, a few days before Christmas, Cornelia Randolph wrote her first letter, a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson. She writes:

“Dear Grandpapa,

I hope you will excuse my bad writing for it is the first letter I ever wrote, there are a number of faults, in it, I know, but those you will excuse; I am reading a very pretty little book called dramatic dialogues, that mrs smith gave sister Elen when she was a little girl; I am very much pleased with it. all the children send their love to you we all want to see you very much. adieu my dear Grandpapa, believe me to be your most affectionate Granddaughter.”

One week later, the third President of the United States wrote back a reply, emphasizing the importance of her studies and writing:

“I congratulate you, my dear Cornelia, on having acquired the invaluable art of writing. how delightful to be enabled by it to converse with an absent friend, as if present.

[…]

“I rejoice that you have learnt to write for another reason; for, as that is done with a goose quill, you now know the value of a goose, and of course you will assist Ellen in taking care of the half dozen very fine grey geese which I will send by Davy.

[…]

“Remember me affectionately to your Papa & Mama, & kiss Ellen & all the children for me.” 

But as a woman, Cornelia was not guaranteed a formal education. Her grandfather’s University of Virginia, for example, was only for men and would continue to be so for many years. In the 1830s, Cornelia Randolph helped establish a school at the family home of Edgehill near Monticello. There she taught drawing, painting, and sculpture. It was called the Boarding School for Young Ladies at Edge Hill.

***

“I was born at Monticello, the seat of Thos. Jefferson, third President of the United States, December 25 — Christmas day in the morning. The year, I suppose, was 1797.” Thus begins the recollections of Israel Gillette Jefferson, who was enslaved at Monticello throughout his childhood and young adulthood. At the age of 10, Gillette Jefferson was made a postillion — a driver of Thomas Jefferson’s carriage, privy to many conversations between Jefferson and his guests. On one such occasion, he drove Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette and overheard an important discussion:

“Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free; that no man could rightfully hold ownership in his brother man; […] that it would be mutually beneficial to masters and slaves if the latter were educated. […] Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom. He seemed to think that the time had not then arrived. To the latter proposition of Gen. Lafayette, Mr. Jefferson in part assented. He was in favor of teaching the slaves to learn to read print; that to teach them to write would enable them to forge papers, when they could no longer be kept in subjugation.” 

In time, and through the help of his wife, Gillette Jefferson would eventually become a free man and the two of them left for Ohio. He explains, “Since I have been in Ohio I have learned to read and write, but my duties as a laborer would not permit me to acquire much of an education. But such as I possess I am truly thankful for, and consider what education I have as a legitimate fruit of freedom.”

Olivia Brown: This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at Monticello.org. 



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