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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 (son of Critta Hemings Bowles) were allowed to leave Monticello without pursuit.  (Sell also Slaves Who Gained Freedom.)

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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Comments's picture
slavery was profitable that's why they fought to keep slavery
Equalityunderthelaw's picture
Monticello as an institution needs to reinvent itself as a purveyor of the complete truth about slavery in general and Jefferson's passion for slaveholding in particular. This blurb is immensely disappointing in its sugar coating and mitigation of the brutal reality of Jefferson's cruel and greed-driven passion for slavery. This blurb gives the impression that cruelties on the plantation were isolated incidents or otherwise anomalous. This is a lie. The slaves were kept industrious through all of the usual and horrific means of terror--and Jefferson's own writings and the archaeological evidence make this clear. Jefferson wasn't, as this blurb would have us believe, trapped by a system he longed to escape--he was, in fact, an innovator and enthusiast among slaveholders, using any means necessary to increase his profits. True, he did not personally whip slaves; he hired overseers to do the dirty work that he himself devised and/or approved. Jefferson helped perpetuate a vile system that many prominent men and women if his time publicly abhorred. There is no excuse for Jefferson's actions, which directly savaged the lives of hundreds of men, women, and children. And there is likewise no excuse for Monticello's continued complicity in hiding the well documented truths of this most dark location--the slave city upon a hill.
Truth out
agamemnon's picture
I am reading "The American Slave Coast," which appears to be a well researched book on slavery in America. It provides a very unfavorable view of Jefferson. Although I am currently only 10% through the book, it attributes these things to Jefferson: a) Support of the Virginia slave breeding economy where slave women are basically slave factories and continuously raped to provide this economic function. Jefferson's support for stoppage of slave imports from Africa was to provide higher value to this Virginia industry. b) Jefferson repeatedly raped some of his female slaves. He had a slave concubine during his marriage which was a half-sister of his wife who looked very much like his wife. His wife was born of a free white woman. His concubine was born of a slave woman. Both women had the same father who raped the concubine's mother. c) When a slave became old and not able to do his or her work Jefferson put the slave on half-rations so that this would accelerate that person's death and reduce the cost of keeping that person on the plantation. For most of my life Jefferson was a hero of mine. His writings on science and religion I find very insightful. All this, from this current book I am reading, comes as a shock. However, I do know that one book doesn't make history.
pamward's picture
DID JEFFERSON THINK THAT SLAVERY WAS PROFITABLE? How can you state that "Virginia enslaved women had higher fertility rates" without acknowledging these enslaved women were forced to have sex at unthinkable ages of 7,8,9 unlike the more civilized rates of the Caribbean.


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