The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson- page 3 | 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 2)

It seems puzzling that Jefferson placed Mulberry Row, with its slave cabins and work buildings, so close to the mansion, but we are projecting the present onto the past. Today, tourists can walk freely up and down the old slave quarter. But in Jefferson’s time, guests didn’t go there, nor could they see it from the mansion or the lawn. Only one visitor left a description of Mulberry Row, and she got a glimpse of it only because she was a close friend of Jefferson’s, someone who could be counted upon to look with the right attitude. When she published her account in the Richmond Enquirer, she wrote that the cabins would appear “poor and uncomfortable” only to people of “northern feelings.”

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.”

The irony is that Jefferson sent his 4 percent formula to George Washington, who freed his slaves, precisely because slavery had made human beings into money, like “Cattle in the market,” and this disgusted him. Yet Jefferson was right, prescient, about the investment value of slaves. A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. David Brion Davis sums up their findings: “In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself. The formula Jefferson had stumbled upon became the engine not only of Monticello but of the entire slaveholding South and the Northern industries, shippers, banks, insurers and investors who weighed risk against returns and bet on slavery. The words Jefferson used—“their increase”—became magic words.

Jefferson’s 4 percent theorem threatens the comforting notion that he had no real awareness of what he was doing, that he was “stuck” with or “trapped” in slavery, an obsolete, unprofitable, burdensome legacy. The date of Jefferson’s calculation aligns with the waning of his emancipationist fervor. Jefferson began to back away from antislavery just around the time he computed the silent profit of the “peculiar institution.”

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.

By 1789, Jefferson planned to shift away from growing tobacco at Monticello, whose cultivation he described as “a culture of infinite wretchedness.” Tobacco wore out the soil so fast that new acreage constantly had to be cleared, engrossing so much land that food could not be raised to feed the workers and requiring the farmer to purchase rations for the slaves. (In a strangely modern twist, Jefferson had taken note of the measurable climate change in the region: The Chesapeake region was unmistakably cooling and becoming inhospitable to heat-loving tobacco that would soon, he thought, become the staple of South Carolina and Georgia.) He visited farms and inspected equipment, considering a new crop, wheat, and the exciting prospect it opened before him.

The cultivation of wheat revitalized the plantation economy and reshaped the South’s agricultural landscape. Planters all over the Chesapeake region had been making the shift. (George Washington had begun raising grains some 30 years earlier because his land wore out faster than Jefferson’s did.) Jefferson continued to plant some tobacco because it remained an important cash crop, but his vision for wheat farming was rapturous: “The cultivation of wheat is the reverse [of tobacco] in every circumstance. Besides cloathing the earth with herbage, and preserving its fertility, it feeds the labourers plentifully, requires from them only a moderate toil, except in the season of harvest, raises great numbers of animals for food and service, and diffuses plenty and happiness among the whole.”

Wheat farming forced changes in the relationship between planter and slave. Tobacco was raised by gangs of slaves all doing the same repetitive, backbreaking tasks under the direct, strict supervision of overseers. Wheat required a variety of skilled laborers, and Jefferson’s ambitious plans required a retrained work force of millers, mechanics, carpenters, smiths, spinners, coopers, and plowmen and plowmen.

Jefferson still needed a cohort of “labourers in the ground” to carry out the hardest tasks, so the Monticello slave community became more segmented and hierarchical. They were all slaves, but some slaves would be better than others. The majority remained laborers; above them were enslaved artisans (both male and female); above them were enslaved managers; above them was the household staff. The higher you stood in the hierarchy, the better clothes and food you got; you also lived literally on a higher plane, closer to the mountaintop. A small minority of slaves received pay, profit sharing or what Jefferson called “gratuities,” while the lowest workers received only the barest rations and clothing. Differences bred resentment, especially toward the elite household staff.

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