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!)