Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves

BOOK: Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves


Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves


Farrar, Straus and Giroux

New York

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For my mother and father, with love

Introduction: “This Steep, Savage Hill”

Thomas Jefferson's mansion stands atop his mountain like the Platonic ideal of a house: a perfect creation existing in an ethereal realm, literally above the clouds. To reach Monticello, you must ascend what a visitor called “this steep, savage hill,” through a thick forest and swirls of mist that recede at the summit, as if by command of the master of the mountain. “If it had not been called Monticello,” said another visitor, “I would call it Olympus, and Jove its occupant.” The house that presents itself at the summit seems to contain some kind of secret wisdom encoded in its form. Seeing Monticello is like reading an old American Revolutionary manifesto—the emotions still rise.
is the architecture of the New World, brought forth by its guiding spirit.

Under a churning gray sky on a ferociously hot July afternoon not long ago, a guide was telling a story about the plantation to a group of tourists. It was a story not of Jefferson but of a child slave and his impossible deliverance—an account of eleven-year-old Peter Fossett, sold here at auction. As the woman moved through Fossett's story, the wind rose and thunder erupted, crashing around the mountaintop—Nature's god attempting the
. The guide and her group were jammed together under a shelter in the slave quarter just below the summit, and she said that anyone nervous about the approaching storm could run to the old tunnel beneath the house. But having heard the beginning of Fossett's story, no one moved.

Peter Fossett was sold in 1827 and split from his family in the enormous auction of 140 Monticello slaves after Jefferson had died. His new master promised to release him if he was paid enough money, but broke that promise. Forbidden to read on pain of the whip, Fossett defied the master and practiced his reading and writing at night in the dim glow of fading embers. He did this to save himself and his fellow slaves. The son of another slave said, “Peter Fossett taught my father to read and write by lightwood knots in the late hours of night when everyone was supposed to be asleep. They would steal away to a deserted cabin, over the hill from the big house, out of sight.”
Having taught himself to read and write, Fossett did precisely what the slave masters feared he would do: he forged “free papers.” These fake emancipation documents allowed his sister and others to escape Virginia. He ran away himself and was caught and brought back to Charlottesville, but he could not be stopped: “I resolved to get free or die in the attempt.” He fled again and was caught again, and this time he was taken in handcuffs to the Richmond slave traders to be disposed of: “For the second time I was put up on the auction block and sold like a horse.”

But there was an intervention—“God raised up friends for me.”
When word of the sale reached certain people in Charlottesville, they bought Fossett and sent him to Ohio a free man. There, he became a businessman, a Baptist minister, and a smuggler of fugitives through the Underground Railroad. In his old age he had one wish, to see Monticello again, which lived in his memory as “an earthly paradise.” The members of his church collected the necessary funds, and one last time Peter Fossett ascended Jefferson's mountain, to the spot where we were standing and listening to his story, and again he saw this place where his family had lived in slavery for four generations, washed clean of slavery by war.

From where our group stood in the old slave quarter, on the slope below the summit, I could just see the upper level of Jefferson's mansion and “the high cerebral dome” atop it.
Fossett's story hinted at the obvious ironies in this place. Up there lived the author of the Declaration of Independence; down here lived Peter Fossett, forger of emancipation papers that enacted the Declaration. On any plantation, irony is thick, but this story contained reversals that plunged deeper than mere irony.

I had read Peter Fossett's story, but that afternoon, when I
it, I discovered elements in it I had missed. Told under a darkening sky and accompanied by the fortissimo booms of a looming storm, Fossett's powerful narrative of heroism, forgiveness, and transcendence shone as a victory over slavery. But in that setting his story also raised a brooding moral question. The visitors heard the lost chord: as one, they gasped when they heard that after being sold in 1827 at the age of eleven, Fossett remained a slave for another twenty-four years; it seemed impossible to them that a person like Peter Fossett could be held as a slave. In that wordless gasp, past and present, slave and free, black and white, imploded into one instant of human recognition.

The visitors had committed the sin of “presentism,” judging the past by the standards of the present, but they couldn't help themselves: Fossett's story tore at their sense of justice and humanity. More than that: his courage, perseverance, and unshakable faith revealed the true character of a people who Thomas Jefferson had once said were inferior and had no place in America. How could these people have been held in slavery? It was an abomination, a betrayal of the very ideals Jefferson stood for. How could Jefferson not see it?

Actually, he did see it.

It is no great secret that an important part of the Declaration of Independence went missing during the debates in the Continental Congress, but if you look at one section drafted by Thomas Jefferson and then deleted by the Congress, it will tell you a lot about both Jefferson and the foulness he then saw in slavery: “a market where MEN should be bought & sold,” a loathsome system, a precursor of what Walt Whitman would call “the seething materialistic and business vortices of the United States, in their present devouring relations, controlling and belittling everything else.”

Every summer, slave ships made their landings along the James River in Virginia, unloading their tragically diminished cargoes, for many slaves suffered, as Jefferson wrote, “miserable death in their transportation”; every vessel tossed overboard twenty, fifty, a hundred corpses in its passage across the sea. Jefferson most likely learned of this shrinkage of inventory from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who was one of the traders.

Jefferson might have seen other miseries with his own eyes. From the wharves, grim coffles of chained Africans were marched by the traders into the interior and offered for sale to planters and speculators who were vying for land and labor in a mad scramble of “grab, grab, grab,” a triplet written by the old-line historian Douglas Southall Freeman, a Virginian not known for his radical views.

When Jefferson courted the beautiful Martha Wayles, he spent evenings by the fire with her father, old John, who undoubtedly talked business with the young suitor, discoursing on slaves and the peaks and valleys in the market for them. The incoming tide of slaves washed up against the steps of the county courthouses. Every late summer and fall the lawyers and magistrates had their routine of land transactions and debt collections interrupted when overseers herded gangs of newly delivered African children into the courthouses for the magistrates to scrutinize, their task being to assign each child an age. When children reached sixteen, they became taxable, so the planters had an interest in low estimates. Entered on the rolls of “tithables,” the children got new names provided by the master—Bobb, Mary, Phil, Cupid, Monkey. By one estimate, about a sixth of every slave-ship cargo consisted of children.

They were Africans but they were human beings—Jefferson said so. He stood aghast at “this execrable commerce…this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties,” as he wrote in the deleted part of the Declaration of Independence.
Several years earlier, shielding his own identity, he had submitted an emancipation bill to the Virginia House of Burgesses through a cousin, whom he then heard denounced and belittled as someone who must hate America, “an enemy of his country.” Under his own name, as the Revolution approached in 1774, he floated a radical idea in his manifesto
A Summary View of the Rights of British America
: If only the country would stop the slave trade, it could proceed to “the enfranchisement of the slaves we have.” Some enslaved families had been in America for generations. Jefferson's own wife had six half siblings who were slaves. Then in his soaring, damning, fiery prose he denounced the “execrable commerce” in the Declaration; but the Continental Congress struck the passage because South Carolina and Georgia, crying out for more slaves, would not abide shutting down the market.

Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson. “One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson's liberal dreams,” writes the historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.” But in the 1790s, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson's stand on slavery is his immense silence.” And later, Davis finds, Jefferson's emancipation efforts “virtually ceased.”
In the early 1780s, Jefferson formulated theories about black inferiority, so it has seemed plausible that this brilliant, admirable Founder slid from his Olympian idealism as he was slowly overcome by racism. Yet when he was in France in 1789, years after first setting forth his racial theories, Jefferson wrote that on his return to Virginia he planned to train slaves to set them free in the certainty they would become “good citizens.”

“Citizens”…“enfranchisement of the slaves”—these are not words that a lawyer and statesman, the author of the Declaration, would use lightly. Nor are these the rash effusions of a young man; Jefferson was forty-six when he outlined his scheme to train Monticello slaves and usher them into the status of citizens. But then he changed.

We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not at all “presentist” to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country's highest ideals, appealed to him:
Give us a plan; take the lead; show the country how to end slavery
. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified; it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson's enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”

The historian Joseph Ellis advanced the intriguing counterintuitive theory that Jefferson's involvement with his slave Sally Hemings might explain the disappearance of his emancipationist fervor: “If Jefferson's relationship with Hemings began in the late 1780s, it would mean that he began to back away from a leadership position in the anti-slavery movement just around the time that his affair with Sally Hemings started.”
It is a good theory, but it cannot answer the $20,000 question.

Descendants of Monticello slaves passed down an intriguing fragment of oral history that surfaced in the 1940s. According to the oral history, Jefferson “misused large sums of money entrusted to him for the benefit of the Negroes.”
This isolated shard of evidence seemed at first glance to be palpably false, a vindictive fabrication made by embittered people. But as it happened, Jefferson's friend and fellow Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko offered him nearly $20,000 in his will to free as many Monticello slaves as that sum would buy and send them anywhere Jefferson wanted, with equipment to start life on their own. The offer seemed to satisfy Jefferson's needs and wishes: he could pay off some debts and fulfill his stated intention of sending freed slaves to Africa or the West Indies or anywhere else. But he left the money on the table. Clearly, some very powerful motive was at work to make him keep his slaves.

In seeking some clarity in his universe, we find instead a murky place, not just strange, but very nearly mad. The system deranged even language; or rather, language could not contain the reality it was compelled to describe. For instance, this utterance from Jefferson's grandson Jeff Randolph takes several readings to decode: “Having the double aspect of persons and property the feelings for the person was always impairing its value as property.” In that garbled sentence Jeff pointed toward a governing principle of this universe: the execrable commerce had taken control, devouring human relationships.

As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington in 1792, 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 people 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.”
We might not grasp a world where a man can own his wife's siblings as slaves, but investments, markets, “silent profit”—these we can recognize.

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