Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life. 400 people were enslaved at Monticello; the other 200 people were held in bondage on Jefferson’s other properties. At any given time, around 130 people were enslaved at Monticello.
How did Jefferson treat the people enslaved at Monticello?
Slaves at Monticello were treated much like enslaved people at most other plantations in the upper south during the time period. Slavery was an inherently violent and coercive system, although Jefferson wrote that he wished to mitigate the violence. “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. He wrote that the whip “must not be resorted to except in extremities;” but this does mean that the whip was used at Monticello. Physical violence took place, sometimes brutally so.
Jefferson did not succeed in lessening the violence of slavery. Not only was he often absent from Monticello, but he struggled to reconcile humane practices with demand for productivity and profit. 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 – Critta Hemings’ son – three times in a single day, even when he was too ill “to raise his head.”
Overseers and Violence at Monticello
How did Jefferson acquire his slaves?
Jefferson acquired most of the over six hundred people he owned during his life through the natural increase of enslaved families. He acquired approximately 175 enslaved people 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.
Did Jefferson think that slavery was profitable?
Jefferson knew slavery was the primary economic engine for the South. Jefferson directly profited from the labor of enslaved people on his four quarter farms and at his retreat home, Poplar Forest. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop that required a considerable enslaved labor force, and Jefferson was generally concerned about his profit. Additionally, the people themselves were 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.” This would have been especially true after the abolishment of the slave trade in 1807 in America, which prohibited the importation of new enslaved people and thus increased the value of the people already living in bondage. "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 enslaved people?
Jefferson did buy and sell human beings. 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 people 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 Bell, Robert Hemings, and Brown Colbert) were sold at their own request. Jefferson also “gifted” eighty-five people to family members and to provide dowries for his sister and daughters. 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 anyone he owned?
Of the over 600 people Jefferson owned, he formally freed only seven. During his lifetime, Jefferson freed two enslaved men. At his death, Jefferson bequeathed freedom to five men in his will, two of them were his sons Madison and Eston Hemings. At least three other slaves were unofficially freed when Beverly Hemings, Harriet Hemings, and James (son of Critta Hemings Bowles) were allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit.
A single paragraph cannot sufficiently explain Jefferson’s failure to free more than a handful of his slaves. Some of the possible reasons include his economic burdens, his luxurious lifestyle, and his complex beliefs about race and slavery.Jefferson occasionally mortgaged human beings to borrow against his property. He believed slaves were incapable of supporting themselves in freedom as the degradations of slavery rendered them “helpless as children.” He also wrote that he suspected blacks were inferior to whites and thus further incapable of caring for themselves. In 1806, Virginia passed a law requiring freed slaves to leave Virginia within a year. Jefferson wrote this law did not “permit” him to free his slaves. He wrote to Edward Coles, a Virginia planter who encouraged Jefferson to support abolition, that freeing slaves was injurious. He wrote that the best choice was not to free slaves, but to protect them: “we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed & 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.”
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