Slavery made the world Thomas Jefferson knew. The colonial society into which he was born—in 1743 in what became Albemarle County, Virginia—would not have existed without it. Enslaved people tilled his father’s tobacco fields, cured the tobacco and packed it for shipment, cooked and served the family’s meals, cared for Thomas Jefferson and his siblings, and accompanied him to the College of William and Mary. The profits from slave-based agriculture made his parents’ household and lifestyle, and his education and exposure to the colonial capital of Williamsburg, possible. Though Jefferson came to abhor slavery, his livelihood depended on it.

NEXT: Enlightenment, Freedom, and Slavery

Enlightenment thinkers argued that liberty was a natural human right. But Enlightenment reason also provided a rationale for slavery, based on a hierarchy of races.