Thomas Jefferson owned plantations and held property in human beings his entire adult life.  Becoming a slaveholder for the first time at age twenty-one, when he was still a subject of the British Empire, Jefferson inherited 30 enslaved people from his father, the British provincial surveyor and tobacco planter Peter Jefferson, in 1764.  A decade later, after he married Martha Wayles Skelton, daughter of the wealthy slave trader John Wayles and half-sister of Sally Hemings, Jefferson inherited more human property—135 men, women, and children.  He also became a substantial landowner after the death of his father-in-law in 1774, gaining title to four plantations that comprised 14,000 acres in the Virginia piedmont.  By 1782, a year before the end of the war with Britain, Jefferson had become the second largest slaveholder in Albemarle County. 1 From his vantage point as the “most blessed of the patriarchs” at Monticello, the “little mountain” and nerve center of his far-flung landholdings, Jefferson considered two unlikely things: his new slave empire and a future end to slavery.2

“Unremitting despotism…degrading submissions”

“This abomination must have an end,” Jefferson wrote of the American slave system in 1787.3  Not only was the institution unjust, holding millions of people as captive chattel, but it also threatened to destroy the fledgling union of American states created in 1776.   “A commerce of the most boisterous passions,” slavery was—as John Locke termed it— a “state of war” between the “unremitting despotism” of the master and the “degrading submissions” of the captive.  Jefferson predicted that the continuance of slavery in America would inevitably result in a race war “which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race”—with whites, he thought, being most likely to be destroyed.  Still, Jefferson conceded the difficulties of ending the “perpetual” system of slavery in America, especially when white men were “nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny.”  Indeed, he noted, “the man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved” by the violence of the slave system.4

And yet, Jefferson sought to be that “prodigy.”  In his lifetime, he owned 607 men, women, and children, sold or gave away over 100 enslaved people, and purchased around 20 individuals—and still he believed that slavery had to end.  In the 1780s and 1790s, it seemed possible to imagine the young United States without slave labor.  In the absence of a guaranteed British market, tobacco production was in decline and cotton had not yet become a viable crop (Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793).  Given the prospects for the emergence of free labor and small-scale farming—a change Jefferson already viewed in Northern states enacting gradual emancipation laws—he was heartened by increasing antislavery sentiment after the American Revolution.  But until all slaveholding masters consented to free their human property in a “total emancipation,” Jefferson, like many other “enlightened” planters of the era, thought that slavery could first be reformed on individual plantations. 5

“A rational and humane plan”

Though an inherently violent and coercive system, he argued that slavery could be ameliorated: material conditions could be improved and incentivized labor could replace corporal punishment.  In sum, Jefferson thought slave labor could be made to look more like free labor; through reform, enslaved people could be placed on the “comfortable footing of the laborers of other countries.”6 Beginning in the 1790s, Jefferson attempted to bring the Enlightenment to his slave plantation by instituting  “a rational and humane plan.”7 The words “rational” and “humane” are key to understanding the core of Jefferson’s project: the replacement of slaveowners’ violent caprice with rational management and the recognition of enslaved people as humans—albeit inferior to whites on the “scale of beings”—rather than as “subjects of property as … horses or cattle.”8

 After American independence, Jefferson imagined a conscious break with Virginia’s slaveholding colonial past.  At Monticello, he began by largely abandoning the “slovenly business of tobacco making,” a crop that both depleted the soil and had been grown for the British market, and instead cultivated wheat and implemented small-scale industries like nail-making and textile production.9 Yet transforming Monticello into a wheat farm presented Jefferson with a challenge—it required less than a month of slave labor each year although about 130 enslaved people lived and worked on his Albemarle plantation at any given time.  Jefferson’s labor “surplus” led to a second innovation: the transition of many of his enslaved laborers from field “hands” to more skilled workers in the shops and storehouses that lined Mulberry Row, the main plantation street and industrial hub of the plantation.  Several enslaved women became domestic servants in the main house or along Mulberry Row, working as laundresses, parlor maids, cooks, and seamstresses.  Enslaved men often learned skilled trades that supported Jefferson’s extensive renovation of Monticello between 1796 and 1809; they served as charcoal-burners, blacksmiths, house joiners, nail-makers, and carpenters.  This transition also ushered in a third change: Jefferson attempted to mitigate slavery’s violence.  “My first wish is that the labourers may be well treated,” he wrote as he began experimenting with alternatives to the harsh and normative use of the whip.  To compel enslaved individuals to be productive artisans and domestic laborers, Jefferson offered financial incentives—gratuities (tips) or percentages of workshop profits to those enslaved people who maximized efficiency and output.10  The last major prong of Jefferson’s reform project was to mitigate the material conditions of slavery.  After the transition from tobacco to wheat production, housing patterns shifted—no longer did enslaved people at Monticello live in large multifamily dwellings clustered around an overseer’s dwelling.  Instead, as archaeological excavations at Monticello have demonstrated, enslaved people increasingly lived in single-family cabins scattered across the plantation.  During a visit to Monticello in 1809, the Washington socialite Margaret Bayard Smith noted that the “out houses for the slaves” were “all much better, than I have seen on any other plantation.”  Still, Smith admitted that the “cabins” formed “a most unpleasant contrast with the palace that rises so near them” on Jefferson’s mountaintop.11

The “whole machine . . . would move in exact equilibrio”

Jefferson’s quest to impose Enlightenment ideals—order, clock-time rationality, and machine-like efficiency—also meant exercising greater control over the lives of the people he owned.  In 1792, he installed a Chinese gong in the main house that would “serve as the bell to a clock, which might be heard all over my farm”—a reminder to bondspeople that they were being “mastered,” even in the distant crop fields.12 Jefferson also surveilled his enslaved workers in person; he took daily rides across his farms each morning, overseeing his human property from horseback.13 As manager of the Mulberry Row nailery in the 1790s, Jefferson constantly monitored the enslaved boys and men who labored there.  He arrived at dawn to weigh the nailrod, then returned in the evenings to weigh the nails they produced, thus calculating each nailer’s efficiency and “waste.”14 During the wheat harvest, Jefferson asserted control over about 60 men and women, seeking to transform the “force” into a “whole machine” that “would move in exact equilibrio” wherein “no part … could be lessened without retarding the whole, nor increased without a waste of force.”15 Jefferson also encouraged—and wielded control over—enslaved families, particularly the bodies of enslaved women.  “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years” as “an addition to the capital,” Jefferson wrote.16  Like many planters in the nineteenth century, Jefferson sought to capitalize on the rising value of enslaved human bodies, who were increasingly being mortgaged, sold, leased, and insured for the financial benefit of their owners.

“Never more to be heard of among us”

Yet the experiences of enslavement demonstrated the limits of Jefferson’s attempts to reform slavery.  Between 1784 and 1809, Jefferson was largely absent from Monticello while he held political office, with the exception of a brief “retirement” from 1794 to 1796.  This meant that Jefferson’s efforts largely fell to his overseers, sons-in-law, and hired white workmen—most of whom ignored his directives.  As a result, the experiences of enslaved individuals were often dependent on their location on the plantation—whether on the mountaintop or in the fields—or on capricious white managers.  Peter Fossett, a Hemings descendent, noted that those who worked in the main house remembered Jefferson as “kind and indulgent” and that “slaves were seldom punished, except for stealing and fighting.”17 Madison Hemings, Jefferson’s mixed-race son and a enslaved house joiner on Mulberry Row, recalled that “we were free from the dread of having to be slaves all our lives long, and were measurably happy,” although he and his siblings were denied the “partiality or fatherly affection” that Jefferson showed his “white grandchildren.”18 Although there is no documentary evidence that Jefferson himself ever used the whip, there are many examples of his overseers doing so.  In 1804, house joiner James Oldham complained of overseer Gabriel Lilly’s “Barbarity” toward James Hemings (son of Critta Hemings Bowles), who was “whipd … three times in one day” and was “not able to raise his hand to his Head.”  Hemings later ran away because of Lilly’s “moast cruel” treatment, taking up life as a boatman on the Rivanna River.19 Bagwell and Minerva Granger, who worked in the fields at Shadwell and Lego, labored under the cruel regime of overseer William Page, who was “peevish and too ready to strike.”20 Even Jefferson’s son-in-law had little problem meting out the punishment of enslaved children in the nailery on Mulberry Row: “none have incurred” the whip, he wrote Jefferson in 1801, except for the “small ones for truancy.”21 While Jefferson maintained that “I love industry and abhor severity,” he would occasionally have individuals punished publicly, as a warning to other bondspeople.22 Jame Hubbard, a chronic runaway, was brought to Monticello in irons and “severely flogged in the presence of his old companions.”23

"In pursuit of a young mulatto man”

But enslaved people countered the increased control of their labor and bodies at Monticello in important ways.  Dozens of enslaved men and women ran away—some to claim their freedom and others to rejoin family.  During the American Revolution, 19 of Jefferson’s slaves fled to British lines in exchange for liberty.  Still others, like Joseph Fossett, ran toward family members; Fossett fled Monticello to join his wife, Edith, who worked as a cook in President Jefferson’s executive mansion in Washington.24 Some enslaved people resorted to extremes, including theft or violence.  At Jefferson’s Poplar Forest plantation in Bedford County, Hercules, Gawen, and Billy were charged with stabbing the overseer with the intent to kill him.25 Still, most enslaved men, women, and children practiced day-to-day resistance—they collaborated to set their work pace, alleviate labor conditions, and maintain plantation privileges.  Many people skillfully negotiated with Jefferson and other ­­white managers to diminish workloads and gain access to material goods.  But for the Grangers, Hubbards, Gillettes, Hemingses, and Herns, the most important way to resist the brutal and dehumanizing effects of slavery was to preserve their families.  In 1818, for example, Jefferson directed that “Maria now having a child, I promised her a house to be built this winter”—Maria had successfully petitioned Jefferson for a home for her own family.26 When James Hern was threatened with separation from his wife Lucretia, who belonged to a departing overseer, he asked Jefferson to intervene.  In 1805, Jefferson purchased Lucretia, her two sons, and “the child of which she is pregnant, when born” for 600 dollars.27 Enslaved people also increased the bargaining power of their families by engaging in the local cash economy.  Between 1805 and 1808, Jefferson’s granddaughter Anne Cary Randolph recorded hundreds of transactions that involved the purchase of produce from dozens of enslaved people.  Archaeological excavations around slave dwellings have unearthed Spanish dollars and American half dimes, clues to the payment that enslaved men, women, and children received for the chickens, eggs, cabbages, lettuce, animal skins, fish, nuts, and other goods sold to the “great house” or at the Sunday market in Charlottesville.28 The accumulation of capital from these sales helped mitigate Jefferson’s mastery by increasing enslaved families’ negotiating power and autonomy.

“We soon found ourselves sadly mistaken.”

During the decades that Jefferson sought to reform slavery at Monticello in preparation for future large-scale emancipation, the institution was only becoming more entrenched in Virginia and elsewhere.  But Jefferson had not predicted this.  “Mr. Madison thought, we all thought,” he noted to a Monticello visitor in 1822, that Congressional prohibition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808 represented real progress toward abolition as “a great desideratum of giving slavery its death-blow, or the blow at least under which the institution could only linger a few years to perish from the land.”  But, Jefferson admitted, “we soon found ourselves sadly mistaken.”  “When the time arrived on which all had counted for its rapid decline,” he related, “we saw it taking root deeper than ever.”29  Without the transatlantic slave trade, the enslaved population in America was not contracting, as Jefferson had prophesied.  Instead, the population self-reproduced its numbers—from about 1.13 million in 1810 to nearly 2 million by 1830—the only New World slave society to do so.30 The expansion of American slavery was fueled by the cotton boom in the South and West in the first decades of the nineteenth century.  To satisfy planters’ demand, nearly one million enslaved men, women, and children were torn from their homes and families in the Upper South and sold southward between 1810 and 1860.  By contrast, the transatlantic slave trade had forcibly brought 500,000 captives to the North American mainland over about two centuries.  Enslaved people, as laborers and as commodities, became central to the credit economy of the vast American cotton empire, fueling the industrialization of Britain and making America one of the leading capitalist economies in the world by 1860.31

“We were scattered all over the country”

Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, and the enslaved families who lived and worked there, were not exempted from this expanding slave economy.  After Jefferson died in 1826, leaving $107,000 of debt to his white Randolph heirs, nearly everything from the house and plantation was sold, including “130 valuable negroes.”  Although Jefferson freed five men in his will, including his mixed-race sons Madison and Eston Hemings, “all the rest of us were sold on the auction block,” recalled Israel Jefferson Gillette.32 Wormley Hughes and Joseph Fossett, both granted freedom by the terms of Jefferson’s will, watched as their wives and children were sold away to different bidders.  David Hern, his children, and grandchildren were auctioned off to at least eight different purchasers.  In all, 126  men, women and children were sold in 1827, and a further 30 people were auctioned off in 1829.33  Although Jefferson’s granddaughter Mary Jefferson Randolph maintained that most were “sold to persons in the state,” namely several faculty members at the University of Virginia, this was cold comfort to spouses, parents, and siblings divided forever by the slave trade.34  As Peter Fossett, who was sold away from his family at the 1827 sale, later remembered, “we were scattered all over the country, never to meet each other again until we meet in another world.”35