How many people did Thomas Jefferson own?

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.

Was Thomas Jefferson a “Good Slave Holder?”

Though it surprises many, one of the most common questions guides are asked at Monticello is some form of: “was Jefferson a good slave owner?”  It seems many people asking this question are struggling to understand how Jefferson treated the people he held in bondage. Some are trying to understand how he could profess to love liberty and yet own human beings. The reality at Monticello is that treatment of the people Jefferson enslaved was typical for the time and region. Jefferson wrote that he wished to ameliorate the conditions of slavery and treat people less harshly than other violent slaveholders, but he still forced people to labor for the wealth and luxury of his white family. This force was upheld through violence, the threat of violence, family separation, and emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. Even at the home of Thomas Jefferson, a man who professed to abhor slavery and love liberty, there is no such thing as a “good” slaveholder.

Were people beaten at Monticello?

Yes. People at Monticello were physically beaten. Several overseers had a reputation for cruelty and violence: Gabriel Lilly, William Page, and William McGeehee. There are no documents of Thomas Jefferson personally beating a slave, but such actions were uncommon for slaveholders. Most slaveholders would consider such physical labor beneath them, and hired overseers to perform the actual administration of violence. Thomas Jefferson did order physical punishment.

Overseers and Violence at Monticello

How could Jefferson write “all men are created equal” and still own human beings?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that slavery was evil, yet never freed the vast majority of people he held in bondage. Jefferson wrote about the differences between groups of people based on emerging ideas about race in his Notes of the State of Virginia and in many personal letters. The racist ideas promoted by European Enlightenment philosophers strongly influenced Jefferson’s worldview, and his writings confirm he harbored the same racist beliefs as many of his peers. He knew slavery was wrong, yet rationalized his ownership of others through a sense of paternalistic racism, writing that freeing them was like “abandoning children.” It is impossible to understand the Trans-Atlantic slave trade or American chattel slavery without understanding the context of Enlightenment racism. Whereas slavery has been officially illegal in the United States for over 150 years, the racist ideas that undergirded the system remain.

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 enslaved 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 BellRobert 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 enslaved people escape Monticello?

Yes. There were over twenty known escapees from Monticello from 1769 to 1819.

Did Jefferson free anyone he enslaved?

Yes.  Thomas Jefferson freed two people during his life. He freed five people in his will. He allowed two or three people to escape without pursuit, and recommended informal freedom for two others. In total, of the more than six hundred people Jefferson enslaved, he freed only ten people – all members of the same family.

For more information about the people Jefferson freed, see People Enslaved at Monticello Who Gained Freedom.