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Jefferson and Slavery

"My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, and be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them."
--Thomas Jefferson, 1814|

"An Abominable Crime"

Bone buttonsJefferson, who called the institution of slavery an "abominable crime," was all his life a slaveholder. Successful in outlawing the international slave trade to Virginia, he was disappointed by the failure of his early efforts to end or restrict slavery, and came to believe that a practicable solution to the problem could not be found in his lifetime. He continued, however, to advocate privately his own emancipation plan, which included a provision for resettling slaves outside the United States.

"Those Whom Fortune Has Thrown on Our Hands"

When Jefferson inherited about twenty slaves from his father in 1764, Virginians had been working their plantations primarily with black slave labor since the beginning of the century. In 1774, Jefferson inherited 135 more slaves from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who had been directly involved in the importation of enslaved Africans into Virginia. This practice was not prohibited until 1778, by an act drafted by Jefferson himself.

By 1796, Jefferson owned about 170 slaves -- 50 living on his land in Bedford County and 120 in Albemarle County. The seventy adult slaves on the Monticello plantation were the foundation of Jefferson's labor system, performing the farming and household tasks, driving the wagons, constructing the buildings, and making items of wood and iron necessary for plantation and house.

Slave Life

Tin CupMonticello's African-American laborers worked from dawn to dusk, six days a week. Only after their long work day, and on Sundays and holidays, could they follow their own pursuits. Music, dancing, and prayer meetings, as well as midnight excursions in search of wild honey, are mentioned in the records. It is also evident that they devoted much of their free time to supplementing their rations -- by working in their vegetable gardens and poultry yards, by fishing and trapping, and by making furniture and clothing. Jefferson paid them for vegetables, chickens, and fish for the main house, as well as for extra tasks performed outside their normal working hours. He also encouraged some of his enslaved artisans by offering them a percentage of what they produced in their shops.

"Protect Them From Ill Usage"

"Nothing would induce me to put my negroes out of my own protection," Jefferson wrote in 1820. Like many of his contemporaries in Virginia, he held paternalistic views of his human property, feeling responsible for their welfare while doubting their ability to succeed in a free white world. He even advanced the "suspicion," in his Notes on the State of Virginia, that blacks were inferior to whites. Jefferson had strong scruples against selling slaves, while freeing "persons whose habits have been formed in slavery," he said, "is like abandoning children." Yet, economic difficulties forced him to sell almost one hundred slaves during his lifetime, and his death left the remainder unprotected. He freed or bequeathed freedom to only seven slaves, all skilled artisans who could be expected to prosper as free men. Because Jefferson died deeply in debt, most of the other members of the Monticello African-American community were sold at auction and dispersed among different owners in Albemarle and surrounding counties.

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Image Credits

  • Buttons found in archaeological excavations of slave dwellings on Mulberry Row.
  • Tin cup also found in excavations of slave dwellings on Mulberry Row.
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