The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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(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 1)

During dinner Jefferson would open a panel in the side of the fireplace, insert an empty wine bottle and seconds later pull out a full bottle. We can imagine that he would delay explaining how this magic took place until an astonished guest put the question to him. The panel concealed a narrow dumbwaiter that descended to the basement. When Jefferson put an empty bottle in the compartment, a slave waiting in the basement pulled the dumbwaiter down, removed the empty, inserted a fresh bottle and sent it up to the master in a matter of seconds. Similarly, platters of hot food magically appeared on a revolving door fitted with shelves, and the used plates disappeared from sight on the same contrivance. Guests could not see or hear any of the activity, nor the links between the visible world and the invisible that magically produced Jefferson’s abundance.

Jefferson appeared every day at first light on Monticello’s long terrace, walking alone with his thoughts. From his terrace Jefferson looked out upon an industrious, well-organized enterprise of black coopers, smiths, nailmakers, a brewer, cooks professionally trained in French cuisine, a glazier, painters, millers and weavers. Black managers, slaves themselves, oversaw other slaves. A team of highly skilled artisans constructed Jefferson’s coach. The household staff ran what was essentially a mid-sized hotel, where some 16 slaves waited upon the needs of a daily horde of guests.

The plantation was a small town in everything but name, not just because of its size, but in its complexity. Skilled artisans and house slaves occupied cabins on Mulberry Row alongside hired white workers; a few slaves lived in rooms in the mansion’s south dependency wing; some slept where they worked. Most of Monticello’s slaves lived in clusters of cabins scattered down the mountain and on outlying farms. In his lifetime Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain; the highest slave population, in 1817, was 140.

Below the mansion there stood John Hemings’ cabinetmaking shop, called the joinery, along with a dairy, a stable, a small textile factory and a vast garden carved from the mountainside—the cluster of industries Jefferson launched to supply Monticello’s household and bring in cash. “To be independent for the comforts of life,” Jefferson said, “we must fabricate them ourselves.” He was speaking of America’s need to develop manufacturing, but he had learned that truth on a microscale on his plantation.

Jefferson looked down from his terrace onto a community of slaves he knew very well—an extended family and network of related families that had been in his ownership for two, three or four generations. Though there were several surnames among the slaves on the “mountaintop”—Fossett, Hern, Colbert, Gillette, Brown, Hughes—they were all Hemingses by blood, descendants of the matriarch Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings, or Hemings relatives by marriage. “A peculiar fact about his house servants was that we were all related to one another,” as a former slave recalled many years later. Jefferson’s grandson Jeff Randolph observed, “Mr. Js Mechanics and his entire household of servants...consisted of one family connection and their wives.”

For decades, archaeologists have been scouring Mulberry Row, finding mundane artifacts that testify to the way that life was lived in the workshops and cabins. They have found saw blades, a large drill bit, an ax head, blacksmith’s pincers, a wall bracket made in the joinery for a clock in the mansion, scissors, thimbles, locks and a key, and finished nails forged, cut and hammered by nail boys.

The archaeologists also found a bundle of raw nail rod—a lost measure of iron handed out to a nail boy one dawn. Why was this bundle found in the dirt, unworked, instead of forged, cut and hammered the way the boss had told them? 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.

Weaving slavery into a narrative about Thomas Jefferson usually presents a challenge to authors, but one writer managed to spin this vicious attack and terrible punishment of a nailery boy into a charming plantation tale. In a 1941 biography of Jefferson for “young adults” (ages 12 to 16) the author wrote: “In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master....The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.”

It might seem unfair to mock the misconceptions and sappy prose of “a simpler era,” except that this book, The Way of an Eagle, and hundreds like it, shaped the attitudes of generations of readers about slavery and African-Americans. Time magazine chose it as one of the “important books” of 1941 in the children’s literature category, and it gained a second life in America’s libraries when it was reprinted in 1961 as Thomas Jefferson: Fighter for Freedom and Human Rights.

In describing what Mulberry Row looked like, William Kelso, the archaeologist who excavated it in the 1980s, writes, “There can be little doubt that a relatively shabby Main Street stood there.” Kelso notes that “throughout Jefferson’s tenure, it seems safe to conclude that the spartan Mulberry Row buildings...made a jarring impact on the Monticello landscape.”

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