New research casts the founding father in a different light.
WHEN THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE, a hero of the American Revolution, returned for a triumphal tour of the United States in 1824, he stayed a fortnight with Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. The two old friends took daily rides in a carriage driven by a slave, Israel Gillette Jefferson, who left a memoir in which he recounted what he remembered of their conversations: “Lafayette remarked that he thought that the slaves ought to be free, that no man could rightly hold ownership in his brother man; that he gave his best services to and spent his money in behalf of the Americans freely because he felt that they were fighting for a great and noble principle—the freedom of mankind. Mr. Jefferson replied that he thought the time would come when the slaves would be free, but did not indicate when or in what manner they would get their freedom.”
The conventional wisdom about Jefferson is that he would have eventually freed his slaves if he had been savvier about handling his business affairs and had not fallen hopelessly in debt. But a close examination of recently published volumes of the scholarly edition of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson suggests that the firebrand who denounced the slave trade as “an execrable commerce” and a “cruel war against human nature itself ” in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence later came to view slavery as an evil he could live with, no matter what his ideals, because it brought him financial success.
As Jefferson was listing his plantation’s profits and losses in a letter to President Washington in 1792, he scribbled some calculations in the middle of the page, enclosed in brackets. Jefferson noted that he was making a significant profit every year from the birth of slave children. “I allow nothing for losses by death, but on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their numbers.” In other words, his slaves were yielding him a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. In correspondence around the same time with neighbors who had suffered financial losses, Jefferson wrote that they “should have been invested in negroes,” and that if the family had any cash, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which…bring a silent profit of from 5 to 10 per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”
Jefferson was a compulsive record keeper who monitored everything from the number and types of seeds planted in his garden to the weight of materials used to make nails and textile products at Monticello. The big surprise that emerges from Jefferson’s papers is not only that he embraced slavery as essential to maintaining his personal standard of living but that he was at the forefront of efforts by Virginia plantation owners to modernize and prolong the “peculiar institution.” Jefferson is remembered today as a champion of yeoman farmers and a fierce opponent of manufacturing—but that was the younger Jefferson. The mature master of Monticello pioneered the industrialization of farming and cottage industry on his estate and profited handsomely from it because of his slave labor.
Scholars often quote a comment Jefferson made at a dinner party near Paris in 1788, when he was minister to France, as evidence that he was a typical man of his times who thought freed slaves would have difficulties surviving on their own because of their ignorance. “To give liberty to, or rather to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children.” But Monticello records reveal that far from regarding slaves as childlike, Jefferson realized they were capable of specialized skills that could be exploited. He took an emancipation plan he had outlined in Paris—training slaves to prepare them for citizenship—and turned it on its head. Like other plantation owners in the South, Jefferson was intent on reshaping slavery and bringing it into the new republic as acceptable and respectable.
Years before Jefferson’s carriage conversations with Lafayette, another hero of the Revolution urged him to free his slaves and take the lead in moving Virginia toward emancipation. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Polish officer and military engineer who volunteered to fight with the patriot army because he was inspired by the clarion call to freedom in the Declaration of Independence, bequeathed Jefferson roughly $20,000 in his will to free as many Monticello slaves as that sum would buy and send them anywhere Jefferson wanted, with equipment to start life on their own. At that time, Jefferson had 230 slaves on all his properties; about 130 of them at Monticello. Each slave would have been worth between $150 (the price of a small child) to $500 (for an adult male). Using a conservative average price of $200 per person, Jefferson’s total holdings in slaves might have been worth $46,000. When Kosciuszko died in 1817, Jefferson left the $20,000 on the table. At that time Jefferson was transferring slaves to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, passing slavery to the next generation.
Jefferson realized that, thanks to the modernization of slavery and its robust expansion into the Deep South and the Louisiana Territory, blacks at Monticello were his most profitable investment. He spoke bluntly on the subject: “I consider a [slave] woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital.” By 1860, enslaved black people were the second most valuable asset in the United States, after the land itself.
We associate the growth of plantation slavery with cotton, but before cotton there was wheat. In the late 1700s, planters all over the Chesapeake region shifted away from tobacco to wheat, which revitalized the economy, reshaped the agricultural landscape and wrought enormous changes in the lives of slaves. Jefferson led the way with innovations. He designed an ingenious new plow blade “of least resistance” that cut and turned the earth efficiently, requiring less force than other plows. Equally important, the plow was simple in its design so slaves could fabricate the blade on the farm.
A detailed 1795 plan for a harvest Jefferson laid out in his Farm Book resembled a military operation in its coordination and discipline, involving 66 laborers. His enslaved manager and blacksmith, Great George Granger, would ride behind the harvesters “with tools & a grindstone mounted in the single mule cart…constantly employed in mending cradles & grinding scythes. The same cart would carry about the liquor…cradlers should work constantly,” Jefferson wrote. Five of the “smallest boys” would be the gatherers, supervised by a “foreman.” Women and “abler boys” would bind the sheaves. There were stackers, loaders, cooks and carters: “The whole machine would move in exact equilibrio, no part of the force could be lessened without retarding the whole, nor increased without a waste of force.” Jefferson estimated that this force of laborers, fueled by four gallons of whiskey, could “cut, bring in, & stack” 54 acres a day.
Mechanization began to take hold of agriculture. In 1791, Jefferson visited a farm outside Philadelphia to inspect a new threshing machine. Later he ordered models of several different designs, which he then modified himself, eventually putting three machines into operation at Monticello. Outside contractors built the machines, but Jefferson depended on slaves to operate and repair them.
Wheat farming required a variety of skilled laborers, and Jefferson’s ambitious plans required a retrained workforce of millers, mechanics, carpenters, smiths, spinners, coopers, and plowmen and plow-women. The complex operation of raising wheat required a lot of hauling, so the plantation needed more wagons; blacksmiths, carpenters and wheelwrights became ever more valuable. The new agricultural machines and other equipment had to be fabricated or regularly maintained by mechanics who knew what they were doing. Monticello’s historians have compiled a list of 46 different occupations carried out by slaves on the plantation.
The meticulous records Jefferson kept show how one of the most persistent myths about slavery— that industrialization would kill off the institution—is utterly wrong. When shifts in agriculture created surplus laborers, Jefferson launched manufacturing operations at Monticello, staffed by retrained field hands and his growing supply of young slaves.
Jefferson opened a nail factory just below his mansion in 1794: “I now employ a dozen little boys from 10 to 16 years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself.” He supervised it for three years, weighing and distributing iron rod to the nailers every morning and then weighing the finished nails each night. Exuberant over its success, Jefferson wrote: “My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe.” The profit was substantial. Just months after the factory began operation, Jefferson wrote that the nailery “now provides completely for the maintenance of my family.” Two months of labor by the nail workers paid the entire annual grocery bill for the family in the mansion. Success spurred Jefferson to develop other enterprises staffed by skilled slaves that brought in cash or made Monticello self-sufficient.
By 1811, Jefferson had started a textile factory on his plantation, hiring an outside expert to assemble spinning and weaving equipment. Slaves were trained to run the machinery. He ordered a 12-spindle spinning machine from New York, hoping to produce all the coarse cloth needed to make garments for his slaves. Once the training had been completed, two women, Dolly and Mary, took over the weaving operation. Other women and girls (including Jefferson’s enslaved daughter, Harriet Hemings) did the spinning, while boys did the carding. In 1815 Jefferson wrote, “I make in my family 2000 yds. of cloth a year, which I formerly bought from England, and it only employs a few women, children and invalids who could do little in the farm.” Some workers excelled. “Maria is becoming a capital spinner,” Jefferson wrote in 1813. Others did not. Writing about a girl who was not performing well in the textile mill, Jefferson threatened: “I have given her notice that she shall have some days trial more, and if there be no improvement, she must cease to spoil more cloth and go out to work with the overseer.”
To spur productivity Jefferson offered “encouragements” to some slaves. Teenagers who performed well in the nail factory got extra food; the top nailer got a suit of clothes. After making 30 barrels for Jefferson, a cooper would be paid for the 31st. Incentives to cooperate with the system, to work hard and follow orders, were compelling. But Jefferson’s system did not function entirely on incentives and encouragement. Throughout the records are indications that Monticello operated on carefully calibrated violence. Some people, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.”
The new scholarly edition of Jefferson’s papers includes an 1801 letter reporting to Jefferson that his nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. Not every 10-, 11- or 12-year-old willingly showed up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. The overseer, Gabriel Lilly, whipped them “for truancy.” That part of the letter had been suppressed by an editor in the 1950s. This careful deletion of an unpleasant fact played an important role in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand.
In dozens of different ways, slaves operated the plantation—coopering, charcoal burning, milling, brickmaking, even using explosives for earthmoving and construction. Slaves learned their jobs as apprentices to hired white workers and then ably assumed the positions of the whites at a fraction of the cost. All the while Jefferson continued to insist, as he had in the 1780s, that slaves were a drain on his resources. He wrote in 1805, “The value of the slave is every day lessening; his burden on his master daily increasing.”
Jefferson made these complaints just as Monticello’s slaves were about to bring him a new level of luxury. When he was president, Jefferson brought three young slave women from Monticello to learn the intricacies of French cuisine at the White House, under the French chef he had hired. Meanwhile, at Monticello he constructed and equipped one of the most modern kitchens in the country. For 17 years after Jefferson’s retirement from the presidency in 1809, the Monticello kitchen was run by two sisters-in-law, Edith Hern Fossett and her second in command, Frances “Fanny” Hern.
The complexity and sophistication of Monticello’s culinary operations did not become apparent until 2004, when curators completed a reconstruction of the kitchen, a marvel of innovation in a spacious room underneath Jefferson’s private terrace. The kitchen had a large hearth and a bread-baking oven, but also a “set kettle,” heated by charcoal, which yielded a steady, reliable flow of hot water. Along one wall stood a row of eight charcoal-heated burners called a stew stove. The heat of each burner could be individually regulated, anticipating the convenience, flexibility and utility of a modern multiburner stove.
Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern used some 60 pieces of French copper cookware, of a type seldom seen in the United States at that time—far lighter and much more efficient in conducting heat than cast-iron cookware. Skilled and experienced, the cooks maneuvered skillets, tart pans, fish cookers and chafing dishes over the burners of the stew stove to produce the French-inspired dishes and sauces Jefferson loved. The kitchen boasted one of the most valuable items in the mansion—an extremely costly, highly accurate “timer” in the form of a tall-case clock. Jefferson wound it himself every eight days. The presence of this exquisite timepiece reveals the precise coordination and the high level of performance that created meals one visitor called “always choice.”
Every day at least 14 people in his extended family were waiting upstairs to be fed, including his sister Anna Scott Marks and her three children, his daughter Martha, her husband and her six children. When guests arrived, the kitchen fed 18 to 20, sometimes as many as 25 people; one day the kitchen fed 57. To get breakfast on the table at 9, Fossett, Hern and the scullions began working by 5:30, slicing ham, making bread and preparing beverages. Jefferson was particular about his coffee, so the kitchen staff roasted beans almost every day. Hot chocolate was also made from scratch, using a block of hard chocolate.
As breakfast was cooked, one or two people began dinner preparation, plucking fowl (chickens, ducks or geese—some sold to the “big house” by slaves who ran their own farming operations). An average dinner at Jefferson’s house was on the scale of a modern holiday feast. Every dinner featured three or four meats and a fish dish, four vegetable dishes with a sauce—potatoes, peeled asparagus (served on toast), parsnips or an elaborate stuffed cabbage. Every meal featured four desserts—ice cream (for which vanilla beans had to be steeped), thin cookies, custards, cakes and perhaps baked apples in pastry.
Fossett and Hern coordinated the menus and provisions with Wormley Hughes, the enslaved head gardener who presided over a mini-plantation of orchards, berry patches and vegetable gardens. He advised the cooks on what produce his acreage was yielding, what was ripening and what was slow in coming. Jefferson chose Fossett, Hern and Hughes for posts when they were young, had them trained, then expected a lifetime of loyal service. Thanks to this highly professional team, who ran a culinary operation equivalent to that of a modern luxury resort, Jefferson and his guests dined sumptuously every day. And yet he wrote in 1814 that slaves lived “without necessity for thought or forecast” and were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves”—a pronouncement that historians have endlessly repeated.
In an account of Lafayette’s 1824 visit to Monticello, his traveling companion Auguste Levasseur marveled at Jefferson’s carriage, which he described as “an elegant calash.” When he expressed his sense of amazement that the carriage had been “constructed by his negroes on his estate,” Levasseur confronted the Jeffersonian puzzle that confounds us today: “I found in this fact a powerful argument against those who pretend that the intelligence of the negroes can never be elevated to the mechanical arts.”
Jefferson’s carriage had been made by four of his top craftsmen—Joseph Fossett and Moses Hern, blacksmiths; Burwell Colbert, painter and glazier; and John Hemings, master carpenter and joiner. One of Jefferson’s overseers, Edmund Bacon, said that John Hemings “could make anything that was wanted.” He fashioned bedsteads, Venetian blinds, dressing tables and a set of items Jefferson prized—several campeche, or “siesta chairs.” “I long for a Siesta chair,” he wrote to his daughter from his country retreat, Poplar Forest. “I must therefore pray you to send…the one made by Johnny Hemings.” Jefferson was so proud of Hemings’ handiwork that he gave some of these chairs as gifts. Hemings also rebuilt a harpsichord that had fallen apart.
We will never know the true level of Hemings’ skill because his greatest masterpiece burned. Hemings created all the woodwork at Poplar Forest, a private retreat near Lynchburg, Va., that Jefferson described as “the most valuable of my possessions.” The villa was gutted by a catastrophic fire in 1845. Hemings had labored on it for a decade between 1815 and 1825. A dozen letters between Jefferson and Hemings survive from this period, when the slave was working on the complex task of creating the interior of a neoclassical house for the most demanding architect in America. Following Jefferson’s designs, Hemings created neoclassical trim throughout the interior—entablatures in the Tuscan, Doric and Ionic orders—a Tuscan entablature for the exterior, a classical balustrade and a Chinese Chippendale railing.
Hemings began doing rough carpentry for Jefferson at age 14, but he was 34 before he drew an annual paycheck—the sum of $20, which Jefferson told Hemings was “a gratuity” or “a donation.” In his private records Jefferson acknowledged that $20 amounted to one month’s pay for a year’s worth of work—“which I allow him as an encouragement.” No matter how hard Hemings worked, however, Jefferson calculated that he was entitled to only one-twelfth of what a white man would get for the same labor.
Jefferson inherited about 175 slaves—40 from the estate of his father and 135 from his father-in-law, John Wayles. Jefferson, his children and his grandchildren forever referred to the slaves at Monticello as a burden, and historians have sympathetically echoed that complaint, writing that Jefferson was “trapped” or “entangled” in a system he hated. But again and again the sale, the hiring or the mortgaging of black souls rescued the Jeffersons from a bad harvest, bought time from the bill collectors and kept the family afloat while a new and grander version of Monticello took shape. Between 1784 and 1794, he sold 85 people and gave 75 to relatives. But the community constantly replenished itself as the young, unmarried idealist aged into the father, worrying about making “provision for my children” and enlarging “that capital which a growing family has a right to expect.” Jefferson, the eloquent advocate of freedom, was a slaveowner holding a crystal ball in which he saw a golden future for America while standing precariously at the edge of a moral abyss.
Henry Wiencek’s book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves will be published in October.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.