The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson- page 4 | History | Smithsonian
(Illustration by Charis Tsevis)

The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson

A new portrait of the founding father challenges the long-held perception of Thomas Jefferson as a benevolent slaveholder

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(Continued from page 3)

Planting wheat required fewer workers than tobacco, leaving a pool of field laborers available for specialized training. Jefferson embarked on a comprehensive program to modernize slavery, diversify it and industrialize it. Monticello would have a nail factory, a textile factory, a short-lived tinsmithing operation, coopering and charcoal burning. He had ambitious plans for a flour mill and a canal to provide water power for it.

Training for this new organization began in childhood. Jefferson sketched out a plan in his Farm Book: “children till 10. years old to serve as nurses. from 10. to 16. the boys make nails, the girls spin. at 16. go into the ground or learn trades.”

Tobacco required child labor (the small stature of children made them ideal workers for the distasteful task of plucking and killing tobacco worms); wheat did not, so Jefferson transferred his surplus of young workers to his nail factory (boys) and spinning and weaving operations (girls).

He launched the nailery in 1794 and supervised it personally for three years. “I now employ a dozen little boys from 10. to 16. years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself.” He said he spent half the day counting and measuring nails. In the morning he weighed and distributed nail rod to each nailer; at the end of the day he weighed the finished product and noted how much rod had been wasted.

The nailery “particularly suited me,” he wrote, “because it would employ a parcel of boys who would otherwise be idle.” Equally important, it served as a training and testing ground. All the nail boys got extra food; those who did well received a new suit of clothes, and they could also expect to graduate, as it were, to training as artisans rather than going “in the ground” as common field slaves.

Some nail boys rose in the plantation hierarchy to become house servants, blacksmiths, carpenters or coopers. Wormley Hughes, a slave who became head gardener, started in the nailery, as did Burwell Colbert, who rose to become the mansion’s butler and Jefferson’s personal attendant. Isaac Granger, the son of an enslaved Monticello foreman, Great George Granger, was the most productive nailer, with a profit averaging 80 cents a day over the first six months of 1796, when he was 20; he fashioned half a ton of nails during those six months. The work was tedious in the extreme. Confined for long hours in the hot, smoky workshop, the boys hammered out 5,000 to 10,000 nails a day, producing a gross income of $2,000 in 1796. Jefferson’s competition for the nailery was the state penitentiary.

The nailers received twice the food ration of a field worker but no wages. Jefferson paid white boys (an overseer’s sons) 50 cents a day for cutting wood to feed the nailery’s fires, but this was a weekend job done “on Saturdays, when they were not in school.”

Exuberant over the success of the nailery, Jefferson wrote: “My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe.” The profit was substantial. Just months after the factory began operation, he wrote that “a nailery which I have established with my own negro boys now provides completely for the maintenance of my family.” Two months of labor by the nail boys paid the entire annual grocery bill for the white family. He wrote to a Richmond merchant, “My groceries come to between 4. and 500. Dollars a year, taken and paid for quarterly. The best resource of quarterly paiment in my power is Nails, of which I make enough every fortnight [emphasis added] to pay a quarter’s bill.”

In an 1840s memoir, Isaac Granger, by then a freedman who had taken the surname Jefferson, recalled circumstances at the nailery. Isaac, who worked there as a young man, specified the incentives that Jefferson offered to nailers: “Gave the boys in the nail factory a pound of meat a week, a dozen herrings, a quart of molasses, and peck of meal. Give them that wukked the best a suit of red or blue; encouraged them mightily.” Not all the slaves felt so mightily encouraged. It was Great George Granger’s job, as foreman, to get those people to work. Without molasses and suits to offer, he had to rely on persuasion, in all its forms. For years he had been very successful—by what methods, we don’t know. But in the winter of 1798 the system ground to a halt when Granger, perhaps for the first time, refused to whip people.

Col. Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law, reported to Jefferson, then living in Philadelphia as vice president, that “insubordination” had “greatly clogged” operations under Granger. A month later there was “progress,” but Granger was “absolutely wasting with care.” He was caught between his own people and Jefferson, who had rescued the family when they had been sold from the plantation of Jefferson’s father-in-law, given him a good job, allowed him to earn money and own property, and shown similar benevolence to Granger’s children. Now Jefferson had his eye on Granger’s output.

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