How Thomas Jefferson defined life, liberty and happiness for his slaves

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

WASHINGTON -- America's founders sought the sweetness of freedom, but among the nation's first 18 presidents, a dozen of them held human beings in the bitter bonds of slavery.

Among them was Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. While drafting the phrase "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" he kept 130 slaves at his Virginia plantation. In his will, he ordered that "130 valuable Negroes" be sold to pay his debts of $107,000, which, in today's dollars, would be more than $1 million.

If you go
'Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello'

Where: Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 1400 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 20560 (on the National Mall).

When: Through Oct. 14. Extended summer hours are 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily.

Admission: Free.

Information: 1-202-633-1000 or

A new exhibition at the National Museum of American History examines daily life for slaves at Monticello, Jefferson's 5,000-acre Virginia plantation. Decades of research reveal the third president's complicated, patriarchal relationship with his slaves plus inspiring accounts of how African-Americans survived, prospered and assumed positions of leadership after gaining their freedom.

"Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty" runs through Oct. 14. This show represents a collaboration between the National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open here in 2015, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello in Charlottesville, Va.

"We wanted to use the 50 years of research done on slavery at Monticello to enable people to see this system that denied people their basic humanity so that slavery would become less of an abstraction and more about real people who lived real lives," said Elizabeth Chew, curator at Monticello.

A life-size statue of Jefferson greets visitors at the museum; behind him, on a large red panel, are the names of slaves who worked from dawn to dusk six days a week. This strong visual presentation underscores a contradiction in Jefferson's character. A man of the Enlightenment who valued books, reason and scientific research, he called slavery an "abominable crime." But he also controlled the fate of an entire village of people, including what they ate, whether they got cloth for new clothes and how many blankets they had to keep warm.

Clearly, Jefferson stood on the sturdy shoulders of slaves who cooked meals, built his stunning mansion, tilled the soil, tended his crops, manufactured nails and made furniture that remains in place today. Fragments of household goods unearthed at Monticello show the contrast between stylish living for the master versus simplicity for the slave. Jefferson's table included salt-glazed stoneware and Chinese export porcelain; his slaves ate from primitive bowls they fashioned out of clay.

A few slaves who worked at Monticello accompanied Jefferson to Paris when he served as U.S. ambassador to France in the 1790s. These included Sally Hemings, with whom Jefferson began a longstanding relationship, and her brother, James.

Jefferson encouraged familial bonds among slaves and many African-American families at Monticello remained intact. Although marriage between slaves was illegal in Virginia, lasting unions between husband and wife were the norm on the plantation. But freedom was a long time coming for the blacksmiths, spinners, weavers, tinsmiths, sawyers, carpenters, charcoal burners and stablemen.

The seeds of slavery began with the founding of Jamestown, Va., in 1607. By 1619, there were 20 slaves in the colony. By 1770, Colonial America had 412,000 slaves, who represented one-fifth of its population.

At Monticello, Jefferson kept careful records of what it cost to house, feed and care for the people who tended the more than 20 workshops, houses and storage buildings on Mulberry Row, a 1,300-foot-long section of road that encircles the mansion.

For example, some males between ages 10 and 16 worked in the nailery and swung hammers over a hot forge, producing 8 to 10 pounds of nails daily. Jefferson calculated that Isaac Granger, who later gained his freedom and added the surname of Jefferson, was the most efficient because he used the least amount of nailrod to produce the highest yield -- 507 nails between Jan. 1 and March 31, 1796.

The exhibition briefly addresses Sally Hemings, who was 14 when she traveled to Paris as a lady's maid in 1787. Word of Jefferson's longstanding relationship with Hemings was first published in a newspaper in 1802. After reviewing historical records, oral histories and DNA tests, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation issued a report in 2000 saying that Jefferson was the likely father of six of Hemings' children, two of whom did not live to adulthood. The four children who survived were Harriet Hemings, William Beverly Hemings, James Madison Hemings and Thomas Eston Hemings.

The Hemings family played a major role at Monticello, but of equal interest is a project called "Getting Word," an initiative begun in 1993 by Lucia "Cinder" Stanton to find and interview 200 descendants of the plantation's slaves. The photographs and synopses of these people's lives show repeatedly that strong family bonds endured despite the separations forced by the buying and selling of human beings.

Among the descendants were the Rev. Peter Fossett, whose father, Joseph, was a Monticello blacksmith and father of 10 children. Peter Fossett became a caterer, founded the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, Ohio, in 1870, and led many slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

In 1898, while Fossett recalled his life at Monticello, he said, "I resolved to get free or die in the attempt." It took 20 years but ultimately, free members of the Fossett family bought Peter's freedom.

"He finally got back to his family. That says something to me about the concept of family by this enslaved community," said Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Another Fossett family descendant was the Boston newspaper editor and civil rights activist William Monroe Trotter, who, with W.E.B. DuBois, founded the Niagara Movement, which became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.

Virginia Craft Rose, a descendant of Mr. Trotter, told Ms. Stanton, "We couldn't forget slavery, but we could overcome it. That was the theme of our family."


Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?