Violence and coercion undergirded the Chesapeake slave system. Jefferson, however, tried to mitigate slavery's violence.
“My first wish is that the labourers may be well treated,” Jefferson wrote in 1792. Aware of the potential for brutality, he attempted to balance the humane treatment of slaves with the need for hard work and the income it provided.
Jefferson experimented with alternatives to the common use of harsh physical punishment. Rather than use force to compel his enslaved artisans to work, Jefferson offered financial incentives—gratuities (tips) or percentages of workshop profits to those who maximized efficiency and output.
He avoided the flogging of slaves, which he believed would “degrade them in their own eyes,” and rarely approved the use of the whip on his plantations. One overseer remembered that Jefferson “could not bear to have a servant whipped.” A former Monticello slave, Peter Fossett recalled that “slaves were seldom punished, except for stealing and fighting.” Most recorded incidents of brutality came from overseers and stewards.
To support his “more rational and humane plan” of treatment, Jefferson sought overseers who embraced his approach. Jefferson stipulated that the whip “must not be resorted to except in extremities,” but his instructions were often ignored during his long absences. In the Mulberry Row nailery for example, the “small ones” could be whipped for “truancy.” In the fields, enslaved men or women could be flogged for arriving late or weeding too slowly.
The harshest punishment was to sell a slave so as to separate him from his family. Chronic runaways and troublemakers were “sold in any other quarter so distant”—including sugar or cotton plantations in the Lower South—so as to “never more to be heard of among us.” Being sold away from friends and families at Monticello, Jefferson knew, was the ultimate punishment, the equivalent of being “put out of the way by death.”