Thomas Jefferson, enthusiastic, brutal slaver

Update: Be sure to read Annette Gordon-Reed's rebuttal to Wiencek's biography.

Marilyn sez, "My historian friend Henry Wiencek was distressed when he found, halfway into his research on Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves a new book about Thomas Jefferson, that generations of historians had been covering up Jefferson's dark side: he wasn't the lenient, soft-hearted, reluctant slave owner that he'd been made out to be. He found he could make money by raising slaves and selling them, and he allowed the littlest boys who worked under miserable conditions in his nail factory to be beaten if they were disobedient. Preview of the book in this month's Smithsonian Magazine."

We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do..."

Once, a missing bundle of rod had started a fight in the nailery that got one boy’s skull bashed in and another sold south to terrify the rest of the children—“in terrorem” were Jefferson’s words—“as if he were put out of the way by death.” Perhaps this very bundle was the cause of the fight.

...The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “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 own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.

In another communication from the early 1790s, Jefferson takes the 4 percent formula further and quite bluntly advances the notion that slavery presented an investment strategy for the future. He writes that an acquaintance who had suffered financial reverses “should have been invested in negroes.” He advises that if the friend’s family had any cash left, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”

...And this world was crueler than we have been led to believe. A letter has recently come to light describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work in Jefferson’s nail factory, whose profits paid the mansion’s grocery bills. This passage about children being lashed had been suppressed—deliberately deleted from the published record in the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, containing 500 pages of plantation papers. That edition of the Farm Book still serves as a standard reference for research into the way Monticello worked.

...It was during the 1950s, when historian Edwin Betts was editing one of Colonel Randolph’s plantation reports for Jefferson’s Farm Book, that he confronted a taboo subject and made his fateful deletion. Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson [Smithsonian]

Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves [Amazon]

(Thanks, Marilyn!)


      1. The Hitler part is over the top, but some politicians who shall remain nameless have been rather clear that they would have supported states’ rights in the matter of slavery.

        1. Most Libertarians I know and have read think slavery is the grossest, basest violation of individual rights this country has engaged in. In fact, it was a proto-Libertarian named Lysander Spooner — surely one of the best 19-century American names ever — who convinced Frederick Douglass the Constitution wasn’t a corrupt “slave-holder’s document” like other abolitionists believed. In his book “No Treason,” Spooner squared the Civil War circle, condemning slavery and upholding secession as a natural consequence of voluntary association.

          1. I’ve never heard of this Lysander Spooner?  Did he leave behind any books that are worth looking into?  And what makes him a “proto-libertarian”, exactly?  Are we reading into the past what we want to see?  Isn’t libertarianism (which I’m not aware of the literature on, I’ll admit) a 20th century political view? What does it have it’s roots in the 19th century, if you don’t mind me asking?  What 19th century thinkers are they pulling from?

            As to your view of the constitution being a document of freedom – Except the constitution ignored slavery (the word at least – which doesn’t appear until the 13th amendment, banning it), allowed for blacks to be counted as 3/5ths of a person to appease the southern delegation, and did not abolish slavery.  And it had a fugitive slave provision, which was strengthened with the compromise of 1850 (the fugitive slaver provision).  All while not saying the “S” word.  Without going overboard on this, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the constitution, while maybe not a “slave holder’s document”, sure as hell was not the basis of freedom and equality for a wide swath of human beings living under it’s authority for well into the 20th century.

            They tried “voluntary association”.  It was called the articles of confederation and it was completely untenable and unworkable for a larger federal structure. We would not be the “united states” had the articles continued to be our ruling framework (of course, I can’t prove a counter-factual, but a government can do nothing which can’t tax, etc). Federalism worked, but that included quite a bit of supremacy of the state and local to the federal, and the ability to amend the constitution in order to address issues that cropped up going forward.

            I think people forget that the constitution was/is not an infallible document that was handed down on high. It was a document, created by men with interests (at times competing), who wished to defend those interests.  That it (and other revolutionary/ early republic era docs) have been used in various freedom struggles does not take it out of it’s historical moment. Can we stop fetishing these things?

          2. Replying to preston, just below me – now just above…:

            I think the problem with Stormfront is that they want to grasp onto whatever they think reinforces their racist world view. They might grasp onto things which might not actually do that.

          3. Lysander Spooner is best described as an anarchist, honestly, but many of his beliefs map directly onto the beliefs of modern-day liberals and libertarians: for instance, he wrote a book titled VICES ARE NOT CRIMES, which argued for the decriminalization of victimless crimes.

            In THE UNCONSTITUTIONALITY OF SLAVERY, Spooner argues constitutional legitimacy rests on its protections of natural rights (which are inherent and don’t derive from the government), that the Constitution lacks explicit language abridging these rights for the purposes of slavery; he even points out the famous “3/5’s clause” refers to “other persons,” which was a euphamism for slaves, but could easily be interpreted as something else, such as “resident alien.”

            Douglass drew on much of this reasoning for his fabulous “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July” speech, where he stated, “if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither ‘slavery,’ ‘slaveholding,’ nor ‘slave’ can anywhere be found in it?” This connection is made explicit in FREDERICK DOUGLASS AND THE FOURTH OF JULY.

            This isn’t fetishization: this is the active interpretation of a living document that differs from the meaning imbued by its creators nearly a century before.

          4.  Replying to Nathan down below:

            Thanks for the info on spooner.  I’ll have to look some of his works up. Maybe I can include it as a reading in one of my classes.

            I do think there still is a great deal of fetishization of the constitution, because it did indeed reinforce the prevailing order. I guess I fall on the “not so radical” side of that debate of the founding fathers. Getting to the point of it changing meaning to include natural rights for all, was a long struggle, and not necessarily one that was always popular.

            If Spooner was arguing against the constitutionality of slavery, he was arguing against at least some of the prevailng notions of slavery at the time (ante-bellum?). Plenty of people argued for the constitutionality of slavery and that the Fed should defend that right (John C. Calhoun, for one among many – George Fitzhugh argued for slavery for all poor people, etc). Honestly, I do not know the dude’s work, so I can’t say. 

            I take your point on his interpretation of the document, but he clearly was not in the majority on that. What did the ante-bellum SC say about the document, because that is what gave the constitution of the day it’s actually implementation.  It took a war to change that.

            Also, can you address Preston’s concerns, about Stormfront liking Spooner? 

          5. >>>>I think the problem with Stormfront is that they want to grasp onto whatever they think reinforces their racist world view. 
            That’s the point I was making to my neighbor about FA Hayek, which is also a case of nativists latching onto the absolute worst part of someone’s work. It’s like only remembering Wilhelm Reich for the orgone box.

            von Mises had some very nice insights sprinkled with lines that have been embraced by neofascists and Holocaust deniers.  

            Nock?  He drove right off the cliff of antisemitism.

          6. mindysan33:

            And I would fall on the other side: the Founding Fathers’ vision was radical, but to paraphrase William Gibson, it wasn’t evenly distributed. 

            Spooner’s philosophy was simple, but also radical: he was against coercion of any kind. He celebrated voluntary associations like the labor movement and attacked targets that limited free association, like the Post Office (for limiting competition). He wasn’t popular, but he proved influential.

            As for the Stormfront nonsense, I dare anyone to find a racist or white nationalist word in Lysander Spooner’s writings. Can’t be done. I don’t really care which writers tickle Neo-Nazis’ fancy; I can decide for myself whose ideas are repugnant without reverse-engineering a skinhead’s reading list.

          7. Most Libertarians I know and have read think slavery is the grossest, basest violation of individual rights this country has engaged in. 

            …but the Free Market would have ended it soon anyway if it hadn’t been for the War of Northern Aggression, right?

          8. A different ruling in the Dredd Scott case would have effectively ended it, too. The only reason slavery existed is because the law allowed some people to be kept as slaves. It is popular to think libertarians worship the free market, and to be honest, we really do like it a lot. But libertarianism is more than just the free market, it’s also about free people. And that means government can’t say that people can be slaves. 

        2. At least one who shall remain nameless says freeing the slaves by war was wrong, and the slaveowners should have simply been bought out with tax dollars instead and the slaves given frontier land.  While I do not think this is evidence of racism, I do think it’s evidence of wishful thinking and a blinkered viewpoint that interprets all data in terms of certain political and economic obsessions.  Or to put it another way, he’s not racist, and might not be crazy, but he sure attracts crazies and racists to his banner.

          1. I honestly think Lincoln was more racist than who shall remain nameless (I love calling him that, and that some people fear him like Voldermort.)

      2. Well, when my neighbor told me he was reading libertarian stuff, I told him to google every name along with “Holocaust denier,” and to check out how many fans each “expert” had over at, as well as watching out for any sites that advertise books like “The Holocaust Hoax.”

      3. I have heard argument from people who call themselves Libertarian who said that slavery would have been abolished by the free market. Technology would have displaced the need of manual labor, so slave owners would just let their slaves go.  They argue that Lincoln was overstepping his power by signing the Emancipation Proclamation because he was interfering with the free market. Seriously, people have made this argument. 

        1. When people argue that the North “selflessly” fought to free the slaves of the South, Marxist historians are quick to point out that it was the North’s demand for free labor in the factories that motivated monied interests to get behind the Civil War. In other words, they criticize the North for being not selfless but capitalistic. So, yeah, seriously, people have made this argument—people whom you could never construe as libertarians. Slavery would have eventually been made obsolete by the free market.

          1. I’ve heard this before, and I find it baffling. I can see that the institution of slavery as it was run then would have had to undergo many changes to remain viable, but why must it have dissolved due to market pressures? We’ve seen global slavery persist in the face of industrialization and technological advancement, though it doesn’t necessarily have the same trappings as the American slave trade. What do the experts point to as evidence that slavery would not have been sustained?

          2.  The trouble with that argument, of course, is history. History tells us that in fact slavery was adapting beautifully to the changing conditions of industrial work. Check out how slaveowners in places like Richmond and Birmingham were “renting” their slaves out to factories, charging a fee for their labor and essentially avoiding the cost of maintaining their slaves.

            Bottom line: Slavery was EXPANDING in the 1850s, adapting nicely to the changing world of industrial work. That is why free labor advocates like the Republican party were so terrified of slavery. It was WINNING.

          3. Amusingly, that very argument is debunked by the original article on this very discussion.  Jefferson pointed out that simply owning the slaves meant a 4% return year over year, before you even account for the labor they provided, simply from the cost of selling the babies like cattle.  If free market conditions had prevailed we would still have slavery. 

          4. There are two different arguments here- one for emancipation, and one for opposing secession. One can favor Emancipation, even overriding ‘State’s Rights’ (because seriously, while there is some validity to the ‘laboratories of democracy’ argument, basic equal human rights shouldn’t be up for debate), while still opposing a war to prevent secession. 

    1. Not even close. The Emancipation proclamation freed precisely zero slaves, nor was it intended to.

  1. I don’t think anyone ever claimed that Jefferson really was a “would be emancipator”, only that (unlike the vast majority of his fellow slaveowners who saw no problem with it), he realized full well that slavery was incompatible with democracy and would have to end sooner or later. It’s not very different from wealthy Marxists in the 19th century who were often factory owners themselves despite being critics of the capitalist system in theory.

    1. I don’t think anyone ever claimed that Jefferson really was a “would be emancipator”

      Of course they have.

      Find absolutely any beloved but flawed historical figure and you’ll find people vociferously defending how he didn’t really WANT to do it and wanted to change things.

      1. “flawed”? We got to remember that he was a product of his time. He was a wealthy landowner in the 18th century. Of course he was a racist. Of course he was misogynic. I never get why americans need their founding fathers to be weird out-of-time-saints. It just doesn’t work like that.

        If it did that would mean that humans and ideas where free floating, magical time-less genies that from time to time inhabited someones head and shaped the world with them towards some magical utopia in the future.

        1. I never get why americans need their founding fathers to be weird out-of-time-saints. It just doesn’t work like that.

          Non-Catholics have to take their saints where they find them, I guess.

          1. Catholics found many of their saints by stealing local deities and giving them a new back story when they built their new church atop the old pagan temple. 

        2. Of course he was a racist. Of course he was misogynic.

          Yet others like John Adams weren’t, so your argument fails.  Jefferson was just a piece of shit as a human being.  Please stop apologizing for him.  And for racism.

          1. I’m pretty sure Adams’ views on race and gender wouldn’t be acceptable to 21st century standards either. Yes, being a Founding Father who didn’t own slaves certainly improves his reputation to modern society compared to Washington and Jefferson — but how much of that is really because he was so morally superior rather than simply having been born a New Englander rather than an Virginian?  

        3. Right there in the linked Smithsonian article is a citation of his more enlightened contemporaries pleading with him to change his ways. Like so many powerful men of the past who knew better, he opted for convenience over morality.

        4. Visit Monticello. You’ll find out that Jefferson really wanted to free all his slaves, and eventually did. That is what they will tell you.

          We have to be honest about these people.

    2. I never could reconcile this kind of thinking, where we are supposed to venerate the Founding Fathers who were slave owners; after all, they were only participating in something that most of the people of their day were doing. Then why should we be upset about Romney being a monster capitalist, destroying businesses for his own profit, and taking advantage of all the loopholes our tax system has to offer?

        1. Sorry I didn’t state that more clearly, I meant it bothers me to venerate the ones who were slave owners, and not to imply that they all were.

      1. Because you judge historical figures by the standards of the day to understand history. Unless you are Doctor Who you have no way to influence them. Romney et al  are our responsibility to influence lest we be judged by their deeds.

      2. Please tell me you’re kidding. According to your argument, because our standards of civilization were once worse than they are today, there can be no moral judgment of anybody, ever.

        1. No, quite the opposite. Not my clearest post I guess. I am saying that I do not forgive Jefferson and the other slave owners, nor do I forgive Romney’s hypocrisy, just because what they were doing was legal

    3. I cannot source this, but it might be from Fawn Brodie’s bio of Jefferson. Anyway, what I have heard asserted was that TJ’s hands were tied, even if he wanted to emancipate, because everything he owned, including his slaves, were mortgaged to the hilt. TJ was a massive overspender, not the best business man, and usually seriously in debt. Or so I seem to remember. Whether this is anymore historically accurate than “Thomas Jefferson, friend of the slave”, I can’t say. In any case, I’m sure Jefferson had some fine rationalizations that worked for him, even if we know it was BS.

      1. Not trying to cavil with you, but this is how I understood what you were saying:
        “TJ couldnt get rid of his slaves because he kept spending or mismanaging the revenue generated by his slaves.”

        1.  Not me saying. Just throwing out one of the views of TJ I have seen reported elsewhere.. It is often been the case that “rich” men are overleveraged, and nearer to bankruptcy than many would suspect. I imagine that Jefferson could genuine convictions against slavery and genuine fear of personal economic ruin, and choose the least admirable course. But I guess we get to judge him as a hypocrite then. But even if the calculus of manumission/bankruptcy applies, I doubt that Jefferson’s thinking o slavery was ever so streamlined. Too many contradictions in his actions for that to be the case.

  2. As an idea, I think Thomas Jefferson is the model human being.  A self-actualized person, jack of all trades.  Philosopher, architect, political scientist, engineer and so on… In reality, I think he was a human like most people. 

    1. Interesting, and I agree.  Allow me to re-phrase, without irony:

      As an idea, I think the United States is the model nation.  A self-actualized country, jack of all trades.  In reality, I think the United States is a nation like most humans.

      1. Ha. Exactly. 

        The argument that patriarchal “owners” of slaves and women only seem flawed to us now because we have the benefit of hindsight, that they were all really just flawed, human (and thus, really, humane) products of their time — it’s bullshit.

        There was plenty of understanding around already in TJ’s time that slavery was an abomination, and plenty of people were already making that argument. The Quakers, for starters.

      2. And the constitution is a flawed document as well.  Something that these folks who fetishize the founders can’t seem to admit.

        1. Even the Founders themselves recognized that it had inherent shortcomings, which is why they included the amendment process.

    2. Don’t know what circles you hang around in, but I know a lot of people, and none of them are slave owners…

  3. Wingnuts would despise everything about Jefferson (especially his hundreds of comments abut the evil of organized religion), but he was opposed to a federal reserve bank, so they love him for that.

    But they overlook the fact that Jefferson really was a truly lousy businessman and much in debt.  Compare that to Ben Franklin, who became one of the richest men in the colonies through his businesses, contracts, and inventions. 

    So when some goober starts quoting TJ about the debt and paper money, I remind them that Jefferson was no model of financial wisdom. 

    1. Cruelty toward blacks will accomplish much toward the rehabilitation of a man’s image. As the liberals draw away from TJ, expect teabaggers to rediscover their love for him.

    2. They also overlook the fact that Bush Jr was a truly lousy businessman and bankrupted everything he touched.  Mythology isn’t always improved with generous application of facts.

    3. And, hey–turnabout is fair play. Jefferson would be disgusted by our nation. Women voting? Brown people voting? Poor white men voting? None of this was true in his Virginia and none of it was imagined by the framers.

  4. It’s worth pointing out that white children were subject to similar child labor right up through the the early 20th century.  And they got shipped out on “orphan trains.”

    1.  The idea of money as worth isn’t new. Unfortunately, the idea of departing from that seems a heresy to some even today.

      1. Money is not the issue. The desire to consolidate power is. Without money the power struggles would still exist with only different concepts & objects to manifest it.

      1. Yeah, the Holocaust happened. But that was 70+ years ago. More recently, sex slavery in Eastern Europe where white teenage girls are sold like cattle as well.

        1. …sadly not just in Eastern Europe. Increasingly, everywhere that’s not a source of the slave trade is a destination

      2. Actually, yeah, they kind of were in the colonial period, especially where indentured servitude was still common in the 17th century.  It began to go away by the 18th century.  Poor kids back in England were often taken off the street, without parents consent, and sent to the colonies.  I’m not trying to make the “moral equivalence” argument here, just trying to point out an historical reality. I recognize that people use this to make the “slavery in the Americas was not so bad argument”.  This is NOT what I’m doing here…

      3. Check out the Catholic laundry scandals that continued up through the 1970s. Girls weren’t seized, but they were used as slave labor and they were held against their will.

        1. I largely agree with you but I dont see how you can claim that they werent seized:

          Mary Norris ended up in a Magdalene laundry for disobeying an order. A teenage servant in Kerry, she took a forbidden night off, and was taken away to a convent where the nuns had her examined to see was she still a virgin (which she was). From there she was dispatched to the Magdalene laundry in Cork. Immediately on arrival, the nuns changed her name – standard practice in all the Magdalene laundries.

          “When I went in there,” recalls Mary, “my dignity, who I was, my name, everything was taken. I was a nonentity, nothing, nobody.”

          The only way out was if a family member claimed you, and Mary was lucky. She had an aunt who tracked her down and got her out after two years of hard, unpaid labour.

          1. They were mostly sent by their parents, as are most child laborers working in the Indian brick kilns or faceting the diamonds for anniversary bracelets.

            I had not heard stories about servants being sent to the laundries for disobedience. Certainly the equivalent of “being sold down the river!” Note the gratuitous sexual sadism.

            I guess if you had power, you could use the system to dispose of inconvenient people.

          2. I am not sure where you are getting your information from.

            The Irish Human Rights Commission produced a report on the Magdalene Launderies in Ireland which states that young girls and women were incarcerated resulting from requests by parents, relatives, social workers, welfare officers, clergy and police and that the precise number of women and girls who resided in Magdalen Laundries, and the circumstances in which they entered are not publicly available.


            I would have considered the Magdalene Launderies to be the best known example of this. Perhaps you were referring to other Catholic launderies or you have more accurate sources than I do?

    2. Let’s not forget immigrant girls as well. Do people genuinely forget the fact that the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire were predominantly Jewish & Italian immigrant teenagers and adolescents?

      You know there are still sweatshops in the U.S. staffed mostly by Asians.

      Cheap labor has been the dirty secret of the world since forever.

      1.  I don’t think it’s a secret though. It’s absolutely well known. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know how our cheap stuff is made.  People either explain it away as the cost of doing business, an unfortunate side effect of capitalism, a defect or they argue that eventually these people will be lifted out of poverty, and emerge as a middle class nation, with some sort of safety net – they have to go through “this phase” to emerge as a modern economy. No wants to address the possibility that maybe this is not a defect of capitalism, but a feature.

          1. Compartmentalizing bad stuff as “things only other people do” and then deep frying it in displaced rage is how a person becomes a monster.

          2. >Serious question — Who are you saying is doing that

            Pretty much anyone with a personality disorder, which is a predatory (or masochistic) person who refuses to take responsibility for their own actions, thoughts, or emotions. Always has elaborate fantasies that they know exactly what other people think. Believes whatever they do is justified or self defense. Always, always, always claims to be “saving” others.

            In a less severe and less criminal form, throw in a family history of alcoholism and the need to be “better” than others. You can find them at Al-Anon.

          3. Okaaaaaay. But you see, “rage,” if that’s what you want to call it, over white supremacy isn’t “displaced” when many of the effects and practices of white supremacy still degrade the lives and life chances of people of color. The effects and practices of the Arab Slave Trade, for instance, are not still with us; nor are those of American factory owners who used the enforced labor of white children.

          4. >>>Okaaaaaay. But you see, “rage,” if that’s what you want to call it, over white supremacy isn’t “displaced” 

            Actually I was thinking more of white racists, since their rage is usually rooted in a deep sense of personal failure. There are also plenty of predators out there masquerading as white liberals also, but the pendulum has swung in the side of movement conservatism.

            But simply being angry over anything is not absolution, it does not make a person “better” in any sense. A lot of people are addicted to anger as a way of blotting out other feelings, much as someone would experience nausea or fainting to avoid an unwanted emotion.  As Homer Simpson said “I’m a rageaholic! I’m addicted to rageahol!”  We recognize Homer as the powerless angry sad-sack.

          5. Always has elaborate fantasies that they know exactly what other people think. Believes whatever they do is justified or self defense.

            Hmmm, sounds a whole lot like a certain threadjacker I could name…

      1. Accounts of little white girls  literally worked to death in mills were common right up through the 20th century.  See vintage photos of white children up through the 1920s working in factories and on the street barefoot.  Employed but shoeless.  Children slept outdoors piled up in the stairwells of NYC.  They jumped for a chance to work in a sweatshop, even if they never did get a pair of shoes.

        1.  I think it’s more like they had to help support the family, so probably at least some of their parents jumped at the chance to get them jobs….  That being said, childhood did not hold the same “sacred” place in their imagination that it does in ours – which is really just a marketing term, especially teenager, at least if you buy Jon Savages argument about youth and being a teenager.

          1. A lot of children were abandoned or sent to relatives because a parent lost their job, was drunk, or became disabled, and these kids were expected to earn their keep, like Cinderella. Often one child was given to an orphanage while the others got to stay home. 

            Also, it was very common for families to send a child to live with someone they knew close by.  A child who resulted from adultery or just unplanned and unwanted? 

          2.  Are you claiming that poor people used to not care for their children?  children were expected to earn their keep because they did not view childhood the same way we do now. 

          3. In eras where children (and parents)  frequently died, many families found themselves with an “excess” child.  Many kids in orphanages did have parents.  I was horrified to hear my neighbor tell me that this had happened to him – he got sent away while the parents kept the other kids. 

          4.  This is a reply to you below, about your neighbor…

            Maybe the choice was between sending him away and him starving in front of their eyes, because maybe there was not enough food for the entire family.  The fact that you are able to talk to that person is evidence that he made it through and is alive to tell the tale. Poverty often leads people to make absolutely faustian choices (but, hey, they are making choices, so it’s okay).

        1.  Don’t you think we can both acknowledge historical fact (young white women did often work in mills and were exploited workers) and understand white privilege, and the construction of white privilege over time?  I think the best ways to think about this stuff is to look at the trope of “the cult of true womanhood” that was common until… like now…. and see how that impacted women across the board (black and white). The cult allowed white women privileges, while simultaneously keeping them in their place. I think of Ida B. Wells, the great writer and activist, who went to sit in the all-white women’s coach and having to be throw off the train, because she refused to move and go back to the “colored” coach, because she was a woman and wished to be treated as such…  Wells was claiming true womanhood for herself, and all her life she never completely rejected the notion that she was a proper woman (she married, had 5 children, and tried to convince the world of the evils of the lynching epidemic in the south- she never changed policy, but she did bring the issue to light for many)….

          1. Don’t you think we can both acknowledge historical fact (young white women did often work in mills and were exploited workers) and understand white privilege, and the construction of white privilege over time?

            Sure, but why do white folks always want to bring up the former during a discussion of the latter? I mean, really — what’s their motivation? 

          2.  Honestly, it’s not often in the spirit of historical discussion, but in the spirit of justifying white privilege. So yeah, I think you have a point there, which I agree with.  it kind of is about the continued construction of white privilege in how we remember the past.

            That being said, not everyone talking about white (or women who became white in hindsight, maybe) women in factories are doing so in order to downplay the evils of slavery, segregation, and racism.  Some of us are interested in historical reality, and how things worked, in all their messiness. 

          3. Thank you for acknowledging my point, and I acknowledge yours that history and social reality are complicated. 

            I hope that if you’re white, and you ever get involved in another discussion of (or action against) what amounts to white abuse of non-white others, you’ll better see why hackles rise when white people decide to verbalize other topics that come to mind for them.

          4. A whole lot of things aren’t easily pounded into the square whole of race and privilege. Eugenics laws for instance were directed largely at poor whites. Wasn’t miscegenation already regulated?

            And yet it is the wingnut movement conservatives that would try to make that all about race. 

          5. Eugenics laws for instance were directed largely at poor whites.

            That’s a straw man. Thousands of black and Native American women were sterilized because they were regarded as economic dead wood.

            Moreover, you’ve hijacked this thread. Stop.

          6.  Thanks Millie.  I will certainly try to do so.  I am white, and a woman, and I try hard to acknowledge how that privileges me in this world. I’m probably not always successful, but I do try.

      2. Next we’ll be hearing about the plight of somebody’s Irish relatives. Thomas Jefferson’s treatment of his black slaves?  Well but….let me tell you about…

      3. One key difference. KEY! Being white or a girl wasn’t a sentence to slavery. Being black in most of the pre-Civil War US (see the laws, dating to Virginia’s “children follow the status of their mother” law in the 17th century) was in fact a sentence to slavery.

      1. I was just making a comment as someone who has read pretty much everything Jefferson ever wrote.

        Jeepers, I’m sorry all my comments upthread bashing white racist hypocrites wasn’t enough to get me invited into the cool kids clubhouse. 

        Anger does not prove you are a good person.

        1. bashing white racist hypocrites

          Ah, I THOUGHT that’s what you thought you were doing! 

          Thanks for finally taking off your mask. And for dismissing focused objections to racial injustice as mere angry attempts to look like a good person. (Okay, not “thanks” for the latter.)

          “White racist hypocrites.” Sheesh!

    3. Where is the worth? I don’t see it. 

      Today I am selling avocados for one dollar. 

      Yesterday I traded air conditioners for geese, Canadian, 5 geese per AC unit.

      When can we discuss the advent of displacement in relation to one person’s actions that we identify with to the actions of one which we do not?

  5. Is anyone really surprised about Jefferson? I think in the back of everyone’s mind, they know the myth of the “good” plantation owner is just that.

    In the movie “Sherman’s March,” I recall mention of the phenomenon that, when you interview a family with a slave-owning heritage, the family will invariably present these factoids regarding their plantation’s history:  Theirs, uniquely, was lenient and kind to their slaves (inasmuch they had slaves in the first place). The plantation next door– that was another story– the other plantation was well known to be quite cruel.  Taken as a whole, it’s a pretty interesting phenomenon.  Each claims to be virtuous while throwing all the blame on all the others. And, absent any evidence, aside from :cough: owning slaves in the first place, the family myths and cognitive dissonance continue.

    1. Sounds like the Lake Wobegone Effect to me.

      “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average

      “I’m a better driver than most” says >50% of the population, anywhere and everywhere you care to sample.

        1. Although, everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve been told that area had the worst drivers, by fellow residents. From Alabama to Pennsylvania, everywhere I lived was seen to have the worst drivers. Either there is some serious unconscious bias going on there, or I’ve been real unlucky. 

    2. Well, in regards to people saying “we’re not as bad as they were,” there’s obviously a bit of bias.  Now, what I do know is that we don’t really know how every single slave owner and every single plantation worked their slaves.  There very well could have been instances of people buying slaves to prevent the “worse” slave owners from buying them, making their life, if only slightly, not as bad.  What it really boils down to is a lesser of two evils.

      You do have to remember that back then, as a black person, you were almost guranteed to be a slave.  While slavery is inherently a bad thing, there were indeed varying degrees of treatment even within the same plantations.  Heck, just look at today’s prison labourers and you can see the same kind of things happening, just not to the extent that slavery went to with all the beating.

      Basically, slavery in general is a bad thing, but we can’t say that all slave owners were equally bad in how they treated their slaves without enough proof, as different people obviously have different standards and practices.  With that in mind, if you were able to go to the past knowing what we do now, would you have slaves?  Some people would probably say that’s an easy question to answer, but I say it’s not as easy as some people might think.

      1. There very well could have been instances of people buying slaves to prevent the “worse” slave owners from buying them, making their life, if only slightly, not as bad.


        1. Didn’t some abolitionists buy slaves in order to free them? While it was certainly discouraged and made difficult towards the end, AFAIK it never became actually *illegal* to manumit a slave.

      2. There very well could have been instances of people buying slaves to prevent the “worse” slave owners from buying them, making their life, if only slightly, not as bad.

        Similarly, there could well have been instances of pigs soaring skywards under their own power.

      3. You’re right.  We don’t know very much.  Actually, as non-historians, we know almost nothing. But I’m not sure that’s a good reason to give slave owners the benefit of the doubt.  We know human nature.  We know how badly bosses can treat subordinates. We know how the profit incentive makes businesses cut corners that abuse or hurt its workforce. We see how upper class people can delude themselves into thinking they are superior by virtue of being better off financially and treat the lower orders accordingly. And that’s just in our finely ordered, modern society.  How much worse might it get in a slave economy when there are literally no rules?  Well, Jefferson, the “good” owner is getting 10 year olds up at 5AM to work at the nail factory, paying them in food, and whipping them when their production lags.  Imagine what the bad owners do.

        The myth you propose of the Good Plantation Owner outbidding the Bad Owner for slaves falls apart on its face.  There are many auctions. There are many slaves. Slaves are extremely expensive. If Good Owner outbids Bad Owner on the first slave, Bad Owner just buys the second one. Good Owner buys slaves because he needs slaves, not because he’s being charitable.

        1. Oh no, by no means am I meaning to give them any benefits of a doubt, and as I said, slavery in and of itself is wrong, but we do know that some slaves were indeed treated differently to some small extent.  I’m not saying they were treated well by any means, just not as harshly.  An example would be a black woman and a black man, while they could both be slaves, the women generally had it worse off because they were much more likely to be raped.

          Also, there were indeed black slave holders, and there’s evidence pointing towards some of them buying their family members as slaves, though due to laws couldn’t release them from slavery.

          But no, all slave owners are the same and all.

      4. Now, what I do know is that we don’t really know how every single slave owner and every single plantation worked their slaves.

        But we do know they were all slaves.

    3.  Seems perfectly reasonable.  Put yourself in the situation:  “Daddy, did we beat our slaves before the war?” – what are you going to say?  Will you say “Yes, honey, we beat them bloody, because we are cruel and use our chattels unwisely and because they aren’t people anyway so you go be a marginalized lunatic racist now y’hear” or will you say “Oh, no, we only had slaves because we didn’t know any better and because we had to compete economically with other slaveholders but we were really super nice to our slaves, and you should always be as nice to other people as you can”?

      Good parents want their children to be happy and successful so they aren’t going to do anything that might encourage them to look up to racists.  You see the same phenomena in Germany where everybody’s grandpa was the one good Nazi.  It’s just people trying to do the best thing for their children.

      1. Ancestor worship is not what it once was if observing Western culture. 

        Those good parents may have that motivation in part, but there is no harm done, and a great deal more good done, in not sugar-coating past evil for the reason you give.

        By that I mean, 

        I don’t give a hoot about my relations dead 150 years. 

        I have no expectation that my child will give a hoot or does, and would be sure of it in a discussion as you described.

        If my child should enquire of my families slave owning status and/or treatment of said slaves I will default to what I do know of slavery rather than what I do not know of my families conduct to best serve my child. I would tell my child that their conduct was evil whether they realized it or not and reprehensible in any light. 

        The historian in the posting is the same kind of a fool as the parent you describe. Well-meaning yet self-serving, and a fool.

        1. My earliest direct ancestor (a contemporary of Jefferson) was an indentured servant freed at age 21, but he seems to have been treated OK. 

          Another of my direct ancestors died in a prisoner in a Confederate death camp. Nobody in my family gives that a second thought, but my neoconfederate neighbors act like the Civil War just ended. Quite the cultural difference!

        2. Do you mean that if your father told you that his father told him great-grandpappy was kind to his slaves, you’d tell your children something bdifferent?  Think about it from a less theoretical stance, and remember foolishness is a primary trait of humans.

          1. The way Jefferson’s family probably did? (does?)

            I will explain slavery to my children when they ask as slavery, without without qualifiers of kind or cruel, for neither exist in the context of any treatment between slave and they which could free the slave.

            No, I would not take the word of one 4 generations removed of the act(s) in question, especially given (as discussed elsewhere in this thread) the prominent number of slave-owning families that were “kind” to their slaves when others were “cruel”, that prominence equal to the number of families asked.

            It’s not theory, I have kids, and there are in shoots of my lineage slave-owners. There is more historical evidence that the largest portion of slaves were slaves than were not slaves, thus were their owners engaged in evil, reprehensible conduct, whether they knew it or not. No qualifiers of “kind” or “cruel” change that or serve any purpose but to relieve guilt that is needless in the face of acknowledgement of history.

        1. 20+  years after ww2 we had Henry Kissinger, but  we still have a grudge against Vietnam 40 years later.  

  6. Does anybody know anything about this  Edwin Morris Betts chap who did the hagiographic hack job while editing? His list of publications is pretty thing, from what I can find, for a historian, and definitely Jefferson-centered. Is he still alive? Do we have any idea why he would have whitewashed the report?

  7. Reading the comments, I’m surprised how little has changed. Our clothes and sneakers for example, are made by child ‘slaves’ in 19th century conditions in Asia. US prisons are filled with Afro-Americans who perform ‘slave’ labour for the profit of the prison/plantation owners. (There is a bounty for new slaves, with the state committing to, say, 90% capacity, which also explains why so many young black men are there for cannabis.) Then there’s the world’s oldest profession, sex slavery. 

    It’s peculiar, but not surprising, that our slavery market mimics the labour market, ie. much of it moved to Asia, a small amount retained. I wonder if labour and slavery are not two distinct things, but two ends of a spectrum of exploitation.

    1. It is important to note that Jefferson did not himself whip the slaves, his overseer did.  He was outsourcing cruelty.  It was surprisingly modern of him – as you note, it is in some ways the basis of the 21st century economy.

      1.  Yep, I’m not going to defend him, and I’m also not going to defend the people wearing slave-produced shoes and clothing while they loudly chastise Jefferson.

        Which would be most of you, eh?

      2. It seems like he was skilled at removing himself from having to think too much about any unpleasantness involved in the wealth and benefits he enjoyed from others free labor, right down to the dumbwaiters and such mentioned in the article for getting his wine and meals.

        Of course “liberty” was only due to white men who were property owners and adherents to acceptable religious belief. People like Jefferson have never cared for liberty to belong to anybody but themselves.

    1. The excerpt above describes the primary documentary source being used. Perhaps you could read it, and get back to us with any further questions.

      1.  I just see “note” and “another communication.” Sounds like “informed sources.” Let’s see the primary documents.

  8. Jefferson’s financial problems are a matter of record (though the docent gave me the evil eye when I mentioned them at Monticello).  Although he freed his two oldest children by Sally Hemings, the three youngest were among the slaves sold after his death to pay down debts.

    1. And that right there is ESPECIALLY something white Americans like to ignore and forget — that Great White Forefathers literally sold their own children into slavery.

      I’ve been to Monticello. Nice place, I suppose, but not by any means an objective presentation, and I certainly heard no mention of slavery, let alone its extreme pathologies. Much like other glorifying tours of slaveowners’ restored splendor, I’d guess.

      1. I’ve never been, but I’m sure it’s the nationalist, myth-supporting view of Jefferson you get there.  It is a national monument, and they tend to be known for white-washing reality.

      2. Getting better all the time. I heard a good presentation, including straight talk about slavery (including kids – nails) OUTSIDE in the garden tour this spring. However, inside the house–straight up hagiography and evil eye and sharp tongue when I brought up recent work showing the slaveholder Jefferson.

        Consider Monticello a work in progress.

  9. How many people here are posting from a device with components manufactured in near slave-like conditions? 

    I have to wonder how this will appear to future historians.

    1.  Good point.  We are all part of this, yet want to spend our days throwing blame at someone else. 

      And I’d guess it depends on the future historian and what their time is like.

    2. I am!  Does it make a difference that I got them from a dumpster?  I think not, but it was the best I could do.

    3. The only reason that’s the case is because of trade deals made by modern day Jeffersons….

      But I’m sure you’re like totally against free trade and sweat shops….

    4.  So, are the people who eat the food grown by slaves as guilty as the slave owners? Do we think the same about those who used the nails produced at Jefferson’s factory as we do about the slave owner and the overseer?  Because that’s what your analogy suggests.

    5. The difference b/t Thomas Jefferson and you is that he could have emancipated his slaves, and yet he chose not to. I hope if you had that sort of power, you would transform the american-chinese economic power dynamic, not to mention the worker-owner power dynamic in general, but I suspect you do not.

  10. It makes no sense to soften the term slave owner by implying that the person was somehow better because he was nicer or less abusive than others. He was a product of his time, if he owned slaves he believed that those slaves were not the same as his white counterparts. How else could one human being be able to “own” another? Only by thinking of those others as essentially non-human. While the founding fathers were all ahead of their time, they had not achieved enlightenment regarding everything.

    1. Interestingly, there have been many cases, like ancient Rome, where people did own others who started out as nominally their equals, and who would be so again if they were manumitted.   Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5000 Years”  has a lot of discussion of this.

    2. …if he owned slaves he believed that those slaves were not the same as his white counterparts. How else could one human being be able to “own” another? Only by thinking of those others as essentially non-human.

      Many of those slaves, Sally Hemings included, were more white than black. Her children were noted for their resemblance to Jefferson. So it seems to me that he Jefferson either:
      1. Recognized his slaves’ basic humanity and chose to deny them their freedom anyway, or
      2. Was really into bestiality.

  11. I’m not going to defend him, either, but he did do some good things with his white privilege. He set a pretty high bar.

  12. Money corrupts all men, and I know that Jefferson spent most of his life facing serious financial problems (in fact Monticello was immediately sold after his death to cover his debts.)  In this case slavery is not much different than an otherwise reputable man selling meth or heroin to save his property: destroying human lives for a profit.  I’m not defending it, it’s just the sad, animalistic, desperate side of human nature.  I’m not sure if any of our revered saints are as saintly as we make them out to be.

    1.  Is it human nature?  Or historically contingent? Are you arguing that human beings, taken out of all historical contexts, place inside some sort of ahistorical vacuum, will exploit one another, cause that is human nature? What role does context and historical reality play in people’s decision making?

      FWIW, I generally believe in limited, but very real human agency when looking at an historical time period. Not all men, not even all rich, white men at this time were slave holders. But it’s not like there weren’t critics of slaveholding at the time. So there is that.

      And saints are always human, agreed.

    2. In this case slavery is not much different than an otherwise reputable man selling meth or heroin to save his property: destroying human lives for a profit.

      If you want to use the Walter White comparison, you’d have to have Walter White not abandoning teaching to sell meth, but have always been selling meth….

  13. I could not be less surprised by such revelations regarding any slave-holder. 

    I doubt anyone else who keeps animals would be either. Even if you respect your flock and keep them well, it is to your benefit and not theirs, and you kill them while thinking well of them and benefit of their corpse, thinking well of them. If the rooster is too aggressive you kill it to the benefit of all but the rooster.

    When you see humans as chattel there is no amount of respect or kindness that will protect them from you when the purpose of your chattel is required.

  14. Sigh. Well, no more quoting Jefferson. It’s enough to make me give up political argument and lose myself in the sole faculty of making money.

  15. Here’s what it comes down to: each and every person who has ever existed is/was flawed. TJefferson, MLK Jr, JFK, Reagan… In addition to their personal failings, most also bore the failings of their times.  Some overcame one or more of these failings and are, therefore, of special interest to us as we struggle to overcome our own failings and those of our times.  Would we have been able to succeed in overcoming the failings which they overcame?  Would we be able to overcome the failings of their times, if we’d lived in their times?  Would they have overcome the failings of our times, where we have failed to?  And if we did succeed in overcoming all of these failings, would we be able to avoid becoming self-righteous jackasses who believe they are the first beings to have ever achieved the ‘enlightened karmic perfection’?

    1. Like the author argues, there were plenty of people in Jefferson’s time who did acknowledge both the immorality of slavery as an institution and of Jefferson’s personal role in that institution. He wasn’t the most evil person of his age but he was a long, long, long way from being a saint.

      At the very least I think we have to stop the practice of using Jefferson quotes in political arguments as if they fell from the tongue of an unimpeachable god.

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