The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson- page 5 | History | Smithsonian
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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 4)

Jefferson noted curtly in a letter to Randolph that another overseer had already delivered his tobacco to the Richmond market, “where I hope George’s will soon join it.” Randolph reported back that Granger’s people had not even packed the tobacco yet, but gently urged his father-in-law to have patience with the foreman: “He is not careless...tho’ he procrastinates too much.” It seems that Randolph was trying to protect Granger from Jefferson’s wrath. George was not procrastinating; he was struggling against a workforce that resisted him. But he would not beat them, and they knew it.

At length, Randolph had to admit the truth to Jefferson. Granger, he wrote, “cannot command his force.” The only recourse was the whip. Randolph reported “instances of disobedience so gross that I am obliged to interfere and have them punished myself.” Randolph would not have administered the whip personally; they had professionals for that.

Most likely he called in William Page, the white overseer who ran Jefferson’s farms across the river, a man notorious for his cruelty. Throughout Jefferson’s plantation records there runs a thread of indicators—some direct, some oblique, some euphemistic—that the Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated brutality. Some slaves would never readily submit to bondage. Some, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.” That plain statement of his policy has been largely ignored in preference to Jefferson’s well-known self-exoneration: “I love industry and abhor severity.” Jefferson made that reassuring remark to a neighbor, but he might as well have been talking to himself. He hated conflict, disliked having to punish people and found ways to distance himself from the violence his system required.

Thus he went on record with a denunciation of overseers as “the most abject, degraded and unprincipled race,” men of “pride, insolence and spirit of domination.” Though he despised these brutes, they were hardhanded men who got things done and had no misgivings. He hired them, issuing orders to impose a vigor of discipline.

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.”

Betts decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed, omitting this document from his edition. He had an entirely different image in his head; the introduction to the book declared, “Jefferson came close to creating on his own plantations the ideal rural community.” Betts couldn’t do anything about the original letter, but no one would see it, tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The full text did not emerge in print until 2005.

Betts’ omission was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand. Relying on Betts’ editing, the historian Jack McLaughlin noted that Lilly “resorted to the whip during Jefferson’s absence, but Jefferson put a stop to it.”

“Slavery was an evil he had to live with,” historian Merrill Peterson wrote, “and he managed it with what little dosings of humanity a diabolical system permitted.” Peterson echoed Jefferson’s complaints about the work force, alluding to “the slackness of slave labor,” and emphasized Jefferson’s benevolence: “In the management of his slaves Jefferson encouraged diligence but was instinctively too lenient to demand it. By all accounts he was a kind and generous master. His conviction of the injustice of the institution strengthened his sense of obligation toward its victims.”

Joseph Ellis observed that only “on rare occasions, and as a last resort, he ordered overseers to use the lash.” Dumas Malone stated, “Jefferson was kind to his servants to the point of indulgence, and within the framework of an institution he disliked he saw that they were well provided for. His ‘people’ were devoted to him.”

As a rule, the slaves who lived at the mountaintop, including the Hemings family and the Grangers, were treated better than slaves who worked the fields farther down the mountain. But the machine was hard to restrain.

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