Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 African-American slaves throughout his adult life. Jefferson freed two slaves while he lived, and seven more slaves after his death. Jefferson's views on slavery are complex. Jefferson consistently spoke out against the international slave trade, outlawed while he was President, while he advocated gradual emancipation and colonization of domestic slaves. Common for his times, Jefferson believed blacks were inherently inferior to whites, and thought it was best the two races remained segregated.
In 1767 at age 24, Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land and the legal ownership of 52 people by his father's will. In 1768, Jefferson began construction of his Monticello plantation. Through his marriage to Martha Wayles in 1772 and inheritance from his father-in-law John Wayles, in 1773 Jefferson inherited two plantations and the legal ownership of 135 men, women and children who were to be kept as slaves. By 1776, Jefferson was one of the largest planters in Virginia. However, the value of his property (land and slaves) was increasingly offset by his growing debts, which made it very difficult to free the people he kept forced in to slavery, and thereby lose them as assets.
In his writings on American grievances justifying the Revolution, he attacked the British for sponsoring human trafficking to the colonies. In 1778, with Jefferson's leadership, slave importation was banned in Virginia, one of the first jurisdictions worldwide to do so. Jefferson was a lifelong advocate of ending the trade and as president led the effort to criminalize the international slave trade that passed Congress and he signed in 1807, shortly before Britain passed a similar law.
In 1779, as a practical solution to end the legal enslavement of humans, Jefferson supported gradual emancipation, training, and colonization of African-American slaves rather than unconditional manumission, believing that releasing unprepared people with no place to go and no means to support themselves would only bring them misfortune. In 1784, Jefferson proposed federal legislation banning slavery in the New Territories of the North and South after 1800, which failed to pass Congress by one vote. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, Jefferson expressed the beliefs that slavery corrupted both masters and slaves alike, supported colonization of freed slaves, promoted the idea that African-Americans were inferior in intelligence, and that emancipating large numbers of slaves made slave uprisings more likely. In 1794 and 1796, Jefferson manumitted by deed two of males he had kept as slaves; they had been trained and were qualified to hold employment.
Most historians believe that after the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson had a long-term relationship with an enslaved woman who might have been Martha's half-sister, Sally Hemings. Jefferson allowed two of Sally Hemings's surviving four children to "escape", the other two he freed through his will after his death. The children were the only family to gain freedom from Monticello. In 1824, Jefferson proposed a national plan to end slavery by the federal government purchasing African-American slave children for $12.50, raising and training them in occupations of freemen, and sending them to the country of Santo Domingo. In his will, Jefferson freed three older men who had been forced to work for him for decades. In 1827, the remaining 130 people who had been kept as slaves at Monticello were sold to pay the debts of Jefferson's estate.
Thomas Jefferson was born into the planter class of a "slave society," as defined by the historian Ira Berlin, in which slavery was the main means of labor production and elite slavemasters were the ruling class. He was the son of Peter Jefferson, a prominent slaveholder and land speculator in Virginia, and Jane Randolph, granddaughter of English and Scots gentry. Peter Jefferson died suddenly in 1757, leaving the 14-year-old Thomas a large estate. When Jefferson turned 21, he inherited 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land, 52 enslaved individuals, livestock, his father's notable library, and a gristmill. In 1768, Thomas Jefferson began to use these forced laborers to construct a neoclassical mansion known as Monticello, which overlooked the hamlet of his former home in Shadwell. Both were in Albemarle County in the Piedmont area.
Starting in 1769, Jefferson served in the Virginia House of Burgesses for six years. He proposed laws that severely restricted free blacks from entering or living in Virginia: he would have banished children whose fathers were of African origin and exiled any white woman who had a child with a black man. Jefferson suggested that any free black found in violation of the laws would be in jeopardy of the lynch mob. According to the historian John Ferling, the Burgesses did not pass the laws "because they were excessively restrictive even for Jefferson's times."
As an attorney, Jefferson represented people of color as well as whites. In 1770, he defended a young mulatto male slave in a freedom suit, on the grounds that his mother was white and freeborn. By the colony's law of partus sequitur ventrum, that the child took the status of the mother, the man should never have been enslaved. He lost the suit. In 1772, Jefferson represented George Manly, the son of a free woman of color, who sued for freedom after having been held as an indentured servant three years past the expiration of his term. (The Virginia colony at the time bound illegitimate mixed-race children of free women as indentured servants: until age 31 for males, with a shorter term for females.) Once freed, Manly worked for Jefferson at Monticello for wages.
In 1773, the year after Jefferson married the young widow Martha Wayles Skelton, her father died. She and Jefferson inherited his estate, including 11,000 acres, 135 enslaved individuals, and £4,000 of debt. With this inheritance, Jefferson became deeply involved with interracial families and financial burden. As a widower, his father-in-law John Wayles had taken his mulatto slave Betty Hemings as a concubine and had six children with her during his last 12 years. The Wayles-Hemings children were three-quarters English and one-quarter African in ancestry; they were half-siblings to Martha Wayles Jefferson and her sister. Betty Hemings and her 10 mixed-race children (4 of which she had before being with Wayles) were among the enslaved people who were moved to Monticello. Betty's youngest child, Sally Hemings, was an infant in 1773. Betty Hemings' descendants were trained and assigned to domestic service and highly skilled artisan positions at Monticello; none worked in the fields. Over the years, some served Jefferson directly for decades as personal valets and butlers.
These additional forced laborers made Jefferson the second-largest slaveholder in Albermarle County. In addition, he held nearly 16,000 acres of land in Virginia. He sold some people to pay off the debt of Wayles' estate. From this time on, Jefferson took on the duties of owning and supervising his large chattel estate, primarily at Monticello, although he also developed other plantations in the colony. Slavery supported the life of the planter class in Virginia. The number of people held as slaves then at Monticello fluctuated from under to over 200.
In collaboration with Monticello, now the major public history site on Jefferson, the Smithsonian opened an exhibit, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty, (January – October 2012) at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It covered Jefferson as a slaveholder and the roughly 600 enslaved people who lived at Monticello over the decades, with a focus on six enslaved families and their descendants. It was the first national exhibit on the Mall to address these issues. In February 2012, Monticello opened a related new outdoor exhibition, Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, which "brings to life the stories of the scores of people—enslaved and free—who lived and worked on Jefferson's 5,000 acre plantation." (On the Internet at [www.slaveryatmonticello.org] )
In 1775, Thomas Jefferson joined the Continental Congress as a delegate from Virginia when he and others in Virginia began to rebel against the British governor Lord Dunmore. Trying to reassert British authority over the area, Dunmore issued a Proclamation in November 1775 that offered freedom to slaves who abandoned their rebel masters and joined the British army. Dunmore's action provoked the mass exodus of tens of thousands of forced laborers from plantations across the South during the war years; some of people Jefferson held as slaves also took off as runaways.
The colonials opposed Dunmore's action as an attempt to incite a massive slave rebellion. In 1776, when Jefferson co-authored the Declaration of Independence, he referred to the Lord Governor when he wrote, "He has excited domestic insurrections among us." In the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson condemned King George III of forcing the African slave trade on the American colonies and "inciting American Negroes to rise in arms against their masters."  The Continental Congress, however, due to Southern opposition, forced Jefferson to purge this language in the final draft of the Declaration. Jefferson did manage to make a general criticism against slavery by maintaining "all men are created equal." Jefferson did not directly condemn domestic slavery as such in the Declaration, as Jefferson himself was a slaveowner. According to Finkelman, "The colonists, for the most part, had been willing and eager purchasers of slaves."
In 1778 with Jefferson's leadership and probably authorship, the Virginia General Assembly banned importing people to be used as slaves into Virginia. It was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the slave trade, and all other states except South Carolina eventually followed prior to the Congress banning the trade in 1807.
As governor of Virginia for two years during the Revolution, Jefferson signed a bill to promote military enlistment by giving white men land, "a healthy sound Negro...or £60 in gold or silver." As was customary, he brought some of the household workers he held in slavery, including Mary Hemings, to serve in the governor's mansion in Richmond. In the face of British invasion in January 1781, Jefferson and the Assembly members fled the capital and moved the government to Charlottesville, leaving the workers enslaved by Jefferson behind. Hemings and other enslaved people were taken as British prisoners of war; they were later released in exchange for British soldiers. In 2009, the Daughters of the Revolution (DAR) honored Mary Hemings as a Patriot, making her female descendants eligible for membership in the heritage society.
In June 1781, the British arrived at Monticello. Jefferson had escaped before their arrival and gone with his family to his plantation of Poplar Forest to the southwest in Bedford County; most of those he held as slaves stayed at Monticello to help protect his valuables. The British did not loot or take prisoners there. By contrast, Lord Cornwallis and his troops occupied and destroyed another Jefferson property, Elkhill in Goochland County, Virginia, northwest of Richmond. Of the 27 enslaved people they took as prisoners, Jefferson later noted that at least 24 had died of disease in the prison camp. Similarly, more troops on both sides died of disease than of warfare in those years of poor sanitation.
While claiming since the 1770s to support gradual emancipation, as a member of the Virginia General Assembly Jefferson declined to support a law to ask that, saying the people were not ready. After the United States gained independence, in 1782 the Virginia General Assembly repealed the slave law of 1723 and made it easier for slaveholders to manumit slaves. Unlike some of his planter contemporaries, such as Robert Carter III, who freed nearly 500 people held slaves in his lifetime, or George Washington, who freed all the enslaved people he legally owned, in his will of 1799, Jefferson formally freed only two people during his life, in 1793 and 1794. Virginia did not then require freed people to leave the state. From 1782 to 1810, as numerous slaveholders freed enslaved people, the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased dramatically from less than 1% to 7.2% of blacks. Jefferson later allowed two people to "walk away" in 1822, and freed five more in his will, but 130 men, women and children were sold from Monticello in 1827 after his death.
Some historians have claimed that, as a Representative to the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson wrote an amendment or bill that would abolish slavery. But according to Finkelman, "he never did propose this plan" and "Jefferson refused to propose either a gradual emancipation scheme or a bill to allow individual masters to free their slaves." He refused to add gradual emancipation as an amendment when others asked him to; he said, "better that this should be kept back." In 1785, Jefferson wrote to one of his colleagues that black people were mentally inferior to white people, claiming the entire race was incapable of producing a single poet.
On March 1, 1784, in defiance of southern slave society, Jefferson submitted to the Continental Congress the Report of a Plan of Government for the Western Territory. "The provision would have prohibited slavery in all new states carved out of the western territories ceded to the national government established under the Articles of Confederation."  Slavery would have been prohibited extensively in both the North and South territories, including what would become Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. His 1784 Ordinance would have prohibited slavery completely by 1800 in all territories, but was rejected by the Congress by one vote due to an absent representative from New Jersey. However, on April 23 Congress accepted Jefferson's 1784 Ordinance without prohibiting slavery in all the territories. Jefferson said that southern representatives defeated his original proposal. Jefferson was only able to obtain one southern delegate to vote for the prohibition of slavery in all territories. The Library of Congress notes, "The Ordinance of 1784 marks the high point of Jefferson's opposition to slavery, which is more muted thereafter."  Jefferson's Ordinance of 1784 did influence the Ordinance of 1787, that prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory.
From the 1770s on, Jefferson wrote of supporting gradual emancipation, based on slaves being educated, freed after 18 for women and 21 for men (later he changed this to age 45, when their masters had a return on investment), and transported for resettlement to Africa. All of his life, he supported the concept of colonization of Africa by American freedmen. The historian Peter S. Onuf suggested that, after having children with his slave Sally Hemings, Jefferson may have supported colonization because of concerns for his unacknowledged "shadow family."
The historian David Brion Davis states that in the years after 1785 and Jefferson's return from Paris, the most notable thing about his position on slavery was his "immense silence." Davis believes that, in addition to having internal conflicts about slavery, Jefferson wanted to keep his personal situation private; for this reason, he chose to back away from working to end or ameliorate slavery. M. Andrew Holowchak, acknowledging that the issue of slavery for Jefferson was a states-rights' issue, maintains that Jefferson's avowed inactivity was the result of a general public unwillingness to advance the issue. In an 1814 letter to Edward Coles, Jefferson begins by asserting that his views on slavery “have long since been in possession of the public, and time has only served to give them stronger root." He adds, following his views on human progress and generational sovereignty, that he has “overlived the generation with which mutual labors & perils begat mutual confidence and influence.” Eradication of slavery is “for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation”—i.e., the young-and the young have not made the progress for which Jefferson had hoped on his return.
As US Secretary of State, Jefferson issued in 1795, with President Washington's authorization, $40,000 in emergency relief and 1,000 weapons to colonial French slave owners in Saint Domingue (Haiti) in order to suppress a slave rebellion. President Washington gave the slave owners in Saint Domingue (Haiti) $400,000 as repayment for loans the French had granted to the Americans during the American Revolutionary War.
In 1796, according to the Constitution at the time, Jefferson became vice president after John Adams won slightly more electoral votes in their competition for the presidency. Because they were from different political parties, they had difficulty working together. (Later the Constitution was amended so that candidates for these two positions had to be elected as a ticket representing the same political party.)
In 1800, Jefferson was elected as President of the United States over Adams. He won more electoral votes than Adams, aided by southern power. The Constitution provided for the counting of slaves as 3/5ths of their total population, to be added to a state's total population for purposes of apportionment and the electoral college. States with large slave populations, therefore, gained greater representation even though the number of voting citizens was smaller than that of other states. It was only due to this population advantage that Jefferson won the election. This advantage also aided southern states in their Congressional apportionment; thus, the planter class held disproportionate power nationally for decades, and southerners dominated the office of the presidency well into the 19th century.
Like other slave-owning presidents, Jefferson brought slaves to work in the White House. He offered James Hemings, his former slave freed in 1796, the position of White House chef. Hemings refused, although his kin were still held at Monticello. (Hemings later became depressed and turned to drinking. He committed suicide at age 36 perhaps in a fit of ebriection.) Jefferson's slaves worked and lived in the White House, and at least one would eventually be born there.
After Toussaint Louverture had become governor general of Saint-Domingue following a slave revolt, in 1801 Jefferson supported French plans to take back the island. He agreed to loan France $300,000 "for relief of whites on the island." Jefferson wanted to alleviate the fears of southern slave owners, who feared a similar rebellion in their territory. Prior to his election, Jefferson wrote of the revolution, "If something is not done and soon, we shall be the murderers of our own children."
By 1802, when Jefferson learned that France was planning to re-establish its empire in the western hemisphere, including taking the Louisiana territory and New Orleans from the Spanish, he declared the neutrality of the US in the Caribbean conflict. While refusing credit or other assistance to the French, he allowed contraband goods and arms to reach Haiti and, thus, indirectly supported the Haitian Revolution. This was to further US interests in Louisiana. Defeated in Saint-Domingue by late 1803, the French withdrew from their imperial ambitions in the western hemisphere, as this colony had generated the highest revenues. In 1803, Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase.
That year and once the Haitians declared independence in 1804, President Jefferson had to deal with strong hostility to the new nation by his southern-dominated Congress. He shared planters' fears that the success of Haiti would encourage similar slave rebellions and widespread violence in the South. Historian Tim Matthewson noted that Jefferson faced a Congress "hostile to Haiti", and that he "acquiesced in southern policy, the embargo of trade and nonrecognition, the defense of slavery internally and the denigration of Haiti abroad." Jefferson discouraged emigration by American free blacks to the new nation. European nations also refused to recognize Haiti when the new nation declared independence in 1804. In his short biography of Jefferson in 2005, Christopher Hitchens noted the president was "counterrevolutionary" in his treatment of Haiti and its revolution.
Jefferson expressed ambivalence about Haiti. During his presidency, he thought sending free blacks and contentious slaves to Haiti might be a solution to some of the United States' problems. He hoped that "Haiti would eventually demonstrate the viability of black self-government and the industriousness of African American work habits, thereby justifying freeing and deporting the slaves" to that island. This was one of his solutions for separating the populations. In 1824, book peddler Samuel Whitcomb, Jr. visited Jefferson in Monticello, and they happened to talk about Haiti. This was on the eve of the greatest emigration of U.S. Blacks to the island-nation. Jefferson told Whitcomb that he had never seen Blacks do well in governing themselves, and thought they would not do it without the help of Whites.
In 1806, with concern developing over the rise in the number of free blacks, the Virginia General Assembly modified the 1782 slave law to discourage free blacks from living in the state. It permitted re-enslavement of freedmen who remained in the state for more than 12 months. This forced newly freed blacks to leave enslaved kin behind. As slaveholders had to petition the legislature directly to gain permission for manumitted freedmen to stay in the state, there was a decline in manumissions after this date.
In 1806, Jefferson denounced the international slave trade and called for a law to make it a crime. He told Congress in his 1806 annual message, such a law was needed to "withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights ... which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe." Congress complied and on March 2, 1807, Jefferson signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves into law; it took effect 1 January 1808 and made it a federal crime to import or export slaves from abroad. No such legislation could have taken effect prior to January 1, 1808, on account of the provisions of Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, of the United States Constitution. By its Slave Trade Act 1807, Great Britain prohibited the slave trade in its colonies. The nations cooperated in enforcing interdiction of the slave trade on open seas.
By 1808, every state but South Carolina had followed Virginia's lead from the 1780s in banning importation of slaves. By 1808, with the growth of the domestic slave population enabling development of a large internal slave trade, slaveholders did not mount much resistance to the new law, presumably because the authority of Congress to enact such legislation was expressly authorized by the Constitution, and was fully anticipated during the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Jefferson did not lead the campaign to prohibit the importation of slaves. Historian John Chester Miller rated Jefferson's two major presidential achievements as the Louisiana Purchase and the abolition of the international slave trade.
In 1819, Jefferson strongly opposed a Missouri statehood application amendment that banned domestic slave importation and freed slaves at the age of 25 believing it would destroy or break up the union. By 1820, Jefferson, consistent with his lifelong view that slavery was an issue for each individual state to decide, objected to Northern meddling with Southern slavery policy. On April 22, Jefferson criticized the Missouri Compromise because it might lead to the breakup of the Union. Jefferson said slavery was a complex issue and needed to be solved by the next generation. Jefferson wrote that the Missouri Compromise was a "fire bell in the night" and "the knell of the Union". Jefferson said that he feared the Union would dissolve, stating that the "Missouri question aroused and filled me with alarm." In regard to whether the Union would remain for a long period of time Jefferson wrote, "I now doubt it much."
In 1798, Jefferson's friend from the Revolution, Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish nobleman and revolutionary, visited the United States to collect back pay from the government for his military service. He entrusted his assets to Jefferson with a will directing him to spend the American money and proceeds from his land in the U.S. to free and educate slaves, including Jefferson's, and at no cost to Jefferson. Kościuszko revised will states: "I hereby authorise my friend Thomas Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his own or any others and giving them Liberty in my name." Kosciuszko died in 1817, but Jefferson never carried out the terms of the will: At age 77, he pleaded an inability to act as executor due to his advanced age and the numerous legal complexities of the bequest—the will was contested by several family members and was tied up in the courts for years, long after Jefferson's death. Jefferson recommended his friend John Hartwell Cocke, who also opposed slavery, as executor, but Cocke likewise declined to execute the bequest. In 1852 the U.S. Supreme Court awarded the estate, by then worth $50,000, to Kościuszko's heirs in Poland, having ruled that the will was invalid.
Jefferson continued to struggle with debt after serving as president. He used some of his hundreds of slaves as collateral to his creditors. This debt was due to his lavish lifestyle, long construction and changes to Monticello, imported goods, art, and lifelong issues with debt, from inheriting the debt of father-in-law John Wayles to signing two 10,000 notes late in life to assist dear friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, which proved to be his coup de grace. Yet he was merely one of numerous others who suffered crippling debt around 1820. He also incurred debt in helping support his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and her large family. She had separated from her husband, who had become abusive from alcoholism and mental illness (according to different sources), and brought her family to live at Monticello. There was also Jefferson's uncritical generosity. Overseer Francis Bacon writes: “Mr. Jefferson was very liberal and kind to the poor. When he would come from Washington, the poor people all about the country would find it out immediately and would come in crowds to Monticello to beg him. He would give them notes to me directing me what to give them.” Moreover, upon retirement, he allowed, or perhaps tolerated, visitors at Monticello and fed them, their horses, and put them up for the night, or longer. Bacon says: “After Mr. Jefferson returned from Washington, he was for years crowded with visitors, and they almost ate him out of house and home. … They traveled in their own carriages and came in gangs—the whole family, with carriage and riding horses and servants; sometimes three or four such gangs at a time.” The 36 stalls for horses, 10 of which were in use by Jefferson, were “very often … full.” All the beds in Monticello were often in use, and at times Bacon would have to lend his six spare beds for use at Monticello.
In August 1814, the planter Edward Coles and Jefferson corresponded about Coles' ideas on emancipation. Jefferson urged Coles not to free his slaves, but the younger man took all his slaves to the Illinois and freed them, providing them with land for farms.
In April 1820, Jefferson wrote to John Holmes concerning slavery:
there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery] ... we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.
Jefferson may have borrowed from Suetonius, a Roman biographer, the phrase "wolf by the ears", as he held a book of his works. Jefferson characterized slavery as a dangerous animal (the wolf) that could not be contained or freed. He believed that attempts to end slavery would lead to violence.
In 1821, Jefferson wrote in his autobiography that he felt slavery would inevitably come to an end, though he also felt there was no hope for racial equality in America, stating "Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people [negros] are to be free. Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them."
Despite his debt, Jefferson, in 1822, he allowed Beverly and Harriet Hemings to "walk away", to leave Monticello and go north, a few months apart. He authorized Edmund Bacon, the overseer, to give Harriet $50 and to ensure that she was put on a stagecoach to go north. She was the only female slave he freed.
The U.S. Congress finally implemented colonization of freed African-American slaves by passing the Slave Trade Act of 1819 signed into law by President James Monroe. The law authorized funding to colonize the coast of Africa with freed African-American slaves. In 1824, Jefferson proposed an overall emancipation plan that would free slaves born after a certain date. Jefferson proposed that African-American children born in America be bought by the federal government for $12.50 and that these slaves be sent to Santo Domingo. Jefferson admitted that his plan would be liberal and may even be unconstitutional, but he suggested a constitutional amendment to allow congress to buy slaves. He also realized that separating children from slaves would have a humanitarian cost. Jefferson believed that his overall plan was worth implementing and that setting over a million slaves free was worth the financial and emotional costs.
Jefferson's will of 1826 called for the manumission of Sally Hemings' two remaining sons Madison and Eston Hemings, and three older men who had served him for decades and were from the larger Hemings family. Jefferson included a petition to the legislature to allow the five men to stay in Virginia, where their enslaved families were held. This was necessary since the legislature tried to force free blacks out of the state within 12 months of manumission.
At his death, Jefferson was greatly in debt, in part due to his continued construction program. The debts encumbered his estate, and his family sold 130 slaves, virtually all the members of every slave family, from Monticello to pay his creditors. Slave families who had been well established and stable for decades were sometimes split up. Most of the sold slaves either remained in Virginia or were relocated to Ohio.
Jefferson freed five slaves in his will, all males of the Hemings family. Those were his two natural sons, and Sally's younger half-brother John Hemings, and her nephews Joseph (Joe) Fossett and Burwell Colbert. He gave Burwell Colbert, who had served as his butler and valet, $300 for purchasing supplies used in the trade of "painter and glazier". He gave John Hemings and Joe Fossett each an acre on his land so they could build homes for their families. His will included a petition to the state legislature to allow the freedmen to remain in Virginia to be with their families, who remained enslaved under Jefferson's heirs.
Because Jefferson did not free Fossett's wife or their eight children, they were sold at auction. They were bought by four different men. Fossett worked for years to buy back his family members. While Jefferson made no provision for Sally Hemings, his daughter gave the slave "her time", enabling her to live freely with her sons in Charlottesville, where they bought a house. She lived to see a grandchild born free in the house her sons owned. Wormley Hughes was also given an informal freedom; he gained the cooperation of Thomas Jefferson Randolph in buying his wife and three sons so that some of his family could stay together at Randolph's plantation.
In 1827, the auction of 130 slaves took place at Monticello. The sale lasted for five days despite the cold weather. The slaves brought prices over 70% of their appraised value. Within three years, all of the "black" families at Monticello had been sold and dispersed. Some were bought by free relatives, such as Mary Hemings Bell, who worked to try to reconstitute her children's families.
For two centuries the claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemings, has been a matter of discussion and disagreement. In 1802, the journalist James T. Callender, after being denied a position as postmaster by Jefferson, published allegations that Jefferson had taken Hemings as a concubine and had fathered several children with her. John Wayles held her as a slave, and was also her father, as well as the father of Jefferson's wife Martha. Sally was three-quarters white and strikingly similar in looks and voice to Jefferson's late wife.
In 1998, in order to establish the male DNA line, a panel of researchers conducted a Y-DNA study of living descendants of Jefferson's uncle, Field, and of a descendant of Sally's son, Eston Hemings. The results, published in the journal Nature, showed a Y-DNA match with the male Jefferson line. In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) assembled a team of historians whose report concluded that, together with the DNA and historic evidence, there was a high probability that Jefferson was the father of Eston and likely of all Hemings' children. W. M. Wallenborn, who worked on the Monticello report, disagreed, claiming the committee had already made up their minds before evaluating the evidence, was a "rush to judgement," and that the claims of Jefferson's paternity were unsubstantiated and politically driven.
Since the DNA tests were made public, most biographers and historians have concluded that the widower Jefferson had a long-term relationship with Hemings. M. Andrew Holowchak, Robert Turner, and a team of professors associated with the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, maintain that the evidence is insufficient to conclude Thomas Jefferson's paternity, and note the possibility that other Jeffersons, including Thomas's brother Randolph Jefferson and his five sons, who often fraternized with slaves, could have fathered Hemings' children. The issue is still contested.
Jefferson allowed two of Sally's children to leave Monticello without formal manumission when they came of age; five other slaves, including the two remaining sons of Sally, were freed by his will upon his death. Although not legally freed, Sally left Monticello with her sons. They were counted as free whites in the 1830 census. Madison Hemings, in an article titled, "Life Among the Lowly," in small Ohio newspaper called Pike County Republican, claimed that Jefferson was his father. While many scholars take Hemings' claims at face value, there are reasons to be chary.
Jefferson ran every facet of the four Monticello farms and left specific instructions to his overseers when away or traveling. Slaves in the mansion, mill, and nailery reported to one general overseer appointed by Jefferson, and he hired many overseers, some of whom were considered cruel at the time. Jefferson made meticulous periodical records on his slaves, plants and animals, and weather. Jefferson, in his Farm Book journal, visually described in detail both the quality and quantity of purchased slave clothing and the names of all slaves who received the clothing. In a letter written in 1811, Jefferson described his stress and apprehension in regard to difficulties in what he felt was his "duty" to procure specific desirable blankets for "those poor creatures" – his slaves.
Some historians have noted that Jefferson maintained many slave families together on his plantations; historian Bruce Fehn says this was consistent with other slave owners at the time. There were often more than one generation of family at the plantation and families were stable. Jefferson and other slaveholders shifted the "cost of reproducing the workforce to the workers' themselves". He could increase the value of his property without having to buy additional slaves. Jefferson encouraged slaves at Monticello to marry at Monticello. He would occasionally buy and sell slaves to keep families together. In 1815, he said that his slaves were "worth a great deal more" due to their marriages. Married slaves, however, had no legal protection or recognition by the law; masters could separate slave husbands and wives any time desired.
Jefferson generally gave incentives in money or clothes to slaves for work in important positions. His slaves probably worked from dawn to dusk. Although no record exists that Jefferson organized formal instruction of slaves, several enslaved men at Monticello could read and write.
Jefferson worked slave boys ages 10 to 16 in his nail factory on Mulberry Row. After it opened in 1794, for the first three years, Jefferson recorded the productivity of each child. He selected those who were most productive to be trained as artisans: blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers. Those who performed the worst were assigned as field laborers.
Jefferson frowned against the use of physical punishment of his slaves, but it was practiced in his absence. When a 17-year-old James was sick, one overseer reportedly whipped him "three times in one day." Violence was commonplace on plantations, including Jefferson's. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation quotes Jefferson's instructions his overseers not to whip his slaves, but noted that they often ignored his wishes during his frequent absences from home. According to Stanton, no reliable document portrays Jefferson as directly using physical correction. During Jefferson's time, some other slaveholders also disagreed with the practices of flogging and jailing slaves.
Slaves had a variety of tasks: Davy Bowles was the carriage driver, including trips to take Jefferson to and from Washington D.C. or the Virginia capital. Betty Hemings, a mixed-race slave inherited from his father-in-law with her family, was the matriarch and head of the house slaves at Monticello, who were allowed limited freedom when Jefferson was away. Four of her daughters served as house slaves: Betty Brown; Nance, Critta and Sally Hemings. The latter two were half-sisters to Jefferson's wife. Another house slave was Ursula, whom he had purchased separately. The general maintenance of the mansion was under the care of Hemings family members as well: the master carpenter was Betty's son John Hemings. His nephews Joe Fossett, as blacksmith, and Burwell Colbert, as Jefferson's butler and painter, also had important roles. Wormley Hughes, a grandson of Betty Hemings and gardener, was given informal freedom after Jefferson's death. Memoirs of life at Monticello include those of Isaac Jefferson (published, 1843), Madison Hemings, and Israel Jefferson (both published, 1873). Isaac was an enslaved blacksmith who worked on Jefferson's plantation.
The last surviving recorded interview of a former slave was with Fountain Hughes, then 101, in Baltimore, Maryland in 1949. It is available online at the Library of Congress and the World Digital Library. Born in Charlottesville, Fountain was a descendant of Wormley Hughes and Ursula Granger; his grandparents were among the house slaves owned by Jefferson at Monticello.
Two major exhibitions opening in 2012 addressed slavery at Monticello: the Smithsonian collaborated with Monticello in Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty, held in Washington, D.C. It addresses Jefferson as slaveholder and traces the lives of six major slave families, including Hemings and Granger, and their descendants who worked in the household.
At Monticello, an outdoor exhibit was installed to represent slave life. The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello makes use of archeological and other research to establish the outlines of cabins for domestic slaves and other outbuildings near the mansion. Field slaves were held elsewhere. (See each online at [www.webcitation.org])
In 1780, Jefferson began answering questions on the colonies asked by French minister François de Marboias. He worked on what became a book for five years, having it printed in France while he was there as U.S. minister in 1785. The book covered subjects such as mountains, religion, climate, slavery, and race.
In Query XIV of his Notes, Jefferson analyses the nature of Blacks. He stated that Blacks lacked forethought, intelligence, tenderness, grief, imagination, and beauty; that they had poor taste, smelled bad, and were incapable of producing artistry or poetry; but conceded that they were the moral equals of all others, a concession Holowchak avers is prodigious and one that no racist would make, given Jefferson's view, consistent with moral-sense and moral-sentiment theorists of his day, that reason was a faculty inferior to and in the service of the moral sense. Jefferson believed that the bonds of love for blacks were weaker than those for whites. Jefferson never settled on whether differences were natural or nurtural, but he stated unquestionably that his views ought to be taken cum grano salis;
The opinion, that they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence. To justify a general conclusion, requires many observations, even where the subject may be submitted to the Anatomical knife, to Optical glasses, to analysis by fire or by solvents. How much more then where it is a faculty, not a substance, we are examining; where it eludes the research of all the senses; where the conditions of its existence are various and variously combined; where the effects of those which are present or absent bid defiance to calculation; let me add too, as a circumstance of great tenderness, where our conclusion would degrade a whole race of men from the rank in the scale of beings which their Creator may perhaps have given them. To our reproach it must be said, that though for a century and a half we have had under our eyes the races of black and of red men, they have never yet been viewed by us as subjects of natural history. I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind. It is not against experience to suppose that different species of the same genus, or varieties of the same species, may possess different qualifications.
In 1808, the French abolitionist and priest Henri-Baptiste Grégoire, or Abbé Grégoire, sent President Jefferson a copy of his book, An Enquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties and Literature of Negroes. In his text, he responded to and challenged Jefferson's arguments of African inferiority in Notes on Virginia by citing the advanced civilizations Africans had developed as evidence of their intellectual competence. Jefferson replied to Grégoire that the rights of African Americans should not depend on intelligence and that Africans had "respectable intelligence." Jefferson wrote of the black race,
but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family.
Dumas Malone, Jefferson's biographer, explained Jefferson's contemporary views on race as expressed in Notes were the "tentative judgements of a kindly and scientifically minded man". Merrill Peterson, another Jefferson biographer, claimed Jefferson's racial bias against African Americans was "a product of frivolous and tortuous reasoning...and bewildering confusion of principles." Peterson called Jefferson's racial views on African Americans "folk belief".
In his Notes Jefferson wrote of a plan he supported in 1779 in the Virginia legislature that would end slavery through the colonization of freed slaves. This plan was widely popular among the French people in 1785 who lauded Jefferson as a philosopher. According to Jefferson, this plan required enslaved adults to continue in slavery but their children would be taken from them and trained to have a skill in the arts or sciences. These skilled women at age 18 and men at 21 would be emancipated, given arms and supplies, and sent to colonize a foreign land. Jefferson believed that colonization was the practical alternative, while freed blacks living in a white American society would lead to a race war.
There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him. From his cradle to his grave he is learning to do what he sees others do. If a parent could find no motive either in his philanthropy or his self-love, for restraining the intemperance of passion towards his slave, it should always be a sufficient one that his child is present. But generally it is not sufficient. The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances. And with what execration should the statesman be loaded, who permitting one half the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots, and these into enemies, destroys the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.
The language is not about Blacks and Whites, but about slaves and slaveholders. Slavery is degenerative of both.
According to James W. Loewen, Jefferson's character "wrestled with slavery, even though in the end he lost." Loewen says that understanding Jefferson's relationship with slavery is significant in understanding current American social problems.
Important 20th-century Jefferson biographers including Merrill Peterson support the view that Jefferson was strongly opposed to slavery; Peterson said that Jefferson's ownership of slaves "all his adult life has placed him at odds with his moral and political principles. Yet there can be no question of his genuine hatred of slavery or, indeed, of the efforts he made to curb and eliminate it." Peter Onuf stated that Jefferson was well known for his "opposition to slavery, most famously expressed in his ... Notes on the State of Virginia." Onuf, and his collaborator Ari Helo, inferred from Jefferson's words and actions that he was against the cohabitation of free blacks and whites. This, they argued, is what made immediate emancipation so problematic in Jefferson's mind. As Onuf and Helo explained, Jefferson opposed the mixing of the races not because of his belief that blacks were inferior (although he did believe this) but because he feared that instantly freeing the slaves in white territory would trigger "genocidal violence". He could not imagine the blacks living in harmony with their former oppressors. Jefferson was sure that the two races would be in constant conflict. Onuf and Helo asserted that Jefferson was, consequently, a proponent of freeing the Africans through "expulsion", which he thought would have ensured the safety of both the whites and blacks. Biographer John Ferling said that Thomas Jefferson was "zealously committed to slavery's abolition".
Starting in the early 1960s, some academics began to challenge Jefferson's position as an anti-slavery advocate having reevaluated both his actions and his words. Paul Finkelman wrote in 1994 that earlier scholars, particularly Peterson, Dumas Malone, and Willard Randall, engaged in "exaggeration or misrepresentation" to advance their argument of Jefferson's anti-slavery position, saying "they ignore contrary evidence" and "paint a false picture" to protect Jefferson's image on slavery. Academics including William Freehling, Winthrop Jordan and David Brion Davis have criticized Jefferson for his lack of action in trying to end slavery in the United States, including not freeing his own slaves, rather than for his views. Davis noted that although Jefferson was a proponent of equality in earlier years, after 1789 and his return to the US from France (when he is believed to have started a relationship with his slave Sally Hemings), he was notable for his "immense silence" on the topic of slavery. He did support prohibition of the importing of slaves into the United States, but took no actions related to the domestic institution. At the time, the internal slave trade was growing dramatically and would move one million people in forced migrations from the East Coast and Upper South to the Deep South, breaking up numerous slave families.
In 2012, author Henry Wiencek, highly critical of Jefferson, concluded that Jefferson tried to protect his legacy as a Founding Father by hiding slavery from visitors at Monticello and through his writings to abolitionists. According to Wiencek's view Jefferson made a new frontage road to his Monticello estate to hide the overseers and slaves who worked the agriculture fields. Wiencek believed that Jefferson's "soft answers" to abolitionists were to make himself appear opposed to slavery. Wiencek stated that Jefferson held enormous political power but "did nothing to hasten slavery's end during his terms as a diplomat, secretary of state, vice president, and twice-elected president or after his presidency."
According to Greg Warnusz, Jefferson held typical 19th-century beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites in terms of "potential for citizenship", and he wanted them recolonized to independent Liberia and other colonies. His views of a democratic society were based on a homogeneity of working men which was the cultural normality throughout most of the world in those days. He claimed to be interested in helping both races in his proposal. He proposed gradually freeing slaves after the age of 45 (when they would have repaid their owner's investment) and resettling them in Africa. (This proposal did not acknowledge how difficult it would be for freedmen to be settled in another country and environment after age 45.) Jefferson's plan envisioned a whites-only society without any blacks.
Concerning Jefferson and race, author Annette Gordon-Reed stated the following:
Of all the Founding Fathers, it was Thomas Jefferson for whom the issue of race loomed largest. In the roles of slaveholder, public official and family man, the relationship between blacks and whites was something he thought about, wrote about and grappled with from his cradle to his grave.
Paul Finkelman states that Jefferson believed that Blacks lacked basic human emotions.
According to historian Jeremy J. Tewell, although Jefferson's name had been associated with the anti-slavery cause during the early 1770s in the Virginia legislature, Jefferson viewed slavery as a "Southern way of life", similar to mainstream Greek and antiquity societies. In agreement with the Southern slave society, Jefferson believed that slavery served to protect blacks, whom he viewed as inferior or incapable of taking care of themselves. Historians such as Peter Kolchin and Ira Berlin have noted that by Jefferson's time, Virginia and other southern colonies had become "slave societies," in which slavery was the main mode of labor production and the slaveholding class held the political power.
According to Joyce Appleby, Jefferson had opportunities to disassociate himself from slavery. In 1782, after the American Revolution, Virginia passed a law making manumission by the slave owner legal and more easily accomplished, and the manumission rate rose across the Upper South in other states as well. Northern states passed various emancipation plans. Jefferson's actions did not keep up with those of the antislavery advocates. On September 15, 1793, Jefferson agreed in writing to free James Hemings, his mixed-race slave who had served him as chef since their time in Paris, after the slave had trained his younger brother Peter as a replacement chef. Jefferson finally freed James Hemings in February 1796. According to one historian, Jefferson's manumission was not generous; he said the document "undermines any notion of benevolence." With freedom, Hemings worked in Philadelphia and traveled to France. About the same time, in 1794 Jefferson allowed James' older brother Robert Hemings to buy his freedom. These were the only two slaves Jefferson freed by manumission in his lifetime. (They were both brothers of Sally Hemings, believed to be Jefferson's concubine.)
M. Andrew Holowchak enjoins us to be chary of the fallacy of historical anachronism—imposition of 21st-century values on figures who lived in a past considerably different from our time. He says: "The question to be asked, which is never asked by the harshest denigrators, is this: Were Jefferson alive today, would he suffer a sea change vis-à-vis his opinions of Blacks’ physical and mental inferiority? There is no doubt that he would."
By contrast, so many other slaveholders in Virginia freed slaves in the first two decades after the Revolution that the proportion of free blacks in Virginia compared to the total black population rose from less than 1% in 1790 to 7.2% in 1810. By then, three-quarters of the slaves in Delaware had been freed, and a high proportion of slaves in Maryland.
Stating that it was his "first wish" that his slaves be "well treated," Jefferson struggled to balance humane treatment with a need for profit. He tried to minimize the then-common use of harsh physical punishment and used financial incentives rather than force to encourage his artisans. He instructed his overseers not to whip slaves, but his wishes were often ignored during his frequent absences from home.
Destroying families didn't bother Jefferson, because he believed blacks lacked basic human emotions.