10 Things You Should Know About Thomas Jefferson* Before You Tour ‘Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello’

*America’s great, patriotic (slaveholding and slave-raping) third president.

Photo | Shutterstock

Photo | Shutterstock

This week, the National Constitution Center opened the doors to Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello, its six month-long exhibition about Thomas Jefferson. And to my surprise, the organizers didn’t engage in the customary American practice of sweeping slavery under the rug. In fact, they went right at it by including the word “Slavery” in their title and by addressing “the stories of six slave families who ‘lived’ and ‘worked’ at Jefferson’s plantation — the Fossett, Granger, Gillete, Hemings, Hern, and Hubbard families — and their descendants who fought for justice and helped bring to light their ancestors’ lives and values.”

Nice, huh? Well, yes. But only kinda. By that, I mean they didn’t really “live.” Instead, they actually “suffered and survived.” And they didn’t really “work.” Instead, they actually “slaved and toiled.” But let’s not quibble over semantics. Instead, let’s go the to heart of the matter by enlightening you about who — and what — Thomas Jefferson truly was.

Here are 10 things you didn’t know about him:

1.  He was a lifetime slaveholder

Thomas was the son of Peter Jefferson, a Virginia landowning slaveholder who died in 1757, leaving the 11 year old with a massive estate. Ten years later, he formally inherited 52 black human beings and 5,000 acres of land as well as livestock and other valuables. When he authored the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he held 175 black men, women, and children in bondage. By 1822, he had increased that number to 267.

 2.  He was a hypocrite

While writing “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…,” he enslaved nearly 200 human beings. In his original draft of the Declaration on June 28, 1776, he described slavery as a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended … (anyone and who were) captivat(ed) and carr(ied) … into slavery in another hemisphere, or … incure(d) miserable death in their transportation hither …” He also described it as “this execrable commerce” and “this assemblage of horrors.” And in 1781, he called it “… this great political and moral evil …” But see item one above.

3.  He was a rapist

As U.S. Envoy and Minister to France, Jefferson began living there periodically from 1784-1789. He took with him his oldest daughter, Martha, and a few of those whom he enslaved, including James Hemings. In 1787, he requested that his daughter Polly join him. This meant that Polly’s enslaved chambermaid, 14-year-old seamstress Sally Hemings (James’ younger sister), was to accompany her. Sally was described in 1787 as “quite a child” and “good natured,” in 1847 as “handsome (with) long straight hair down her back,” and in 1851 as “decidedly good looking.”

Both Sally and James were among the six mulatto offspring of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles, and his enslaved “domestic servant” Betty Hemings. Sally and James were half siblings of Thomas Jefferson’s late wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson. Thomas, after repeatedly sexually forcing himself on Sally while in Paris, impregnated her. Her first child died after she returned to America. But she had six more of Thomas’s children at Monticello.

I know what the Jefferson apologists are saying right now. They’re saying that there’s no proof that he fathered any of Sally’s children. I say there is. Actually, the prestigious Thomas Jefferson Foundation Research Committee says that he’s the father of at least six. And her son — I mean their son — Madison says Thomas is the father of all seven. Thomas’ white daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and two of her children, namely Ellen Randolph Coolidge and Thomas Jefferson Randolph, deny all of this. They contend that it was impossible on “moral and practical grounds.” Yeah. They really said that. But, colloquially speaking, science don’t lie. The 1998 DNA testing and its scholarly review in 2010 concluded that Thomas Jefferson is “most likely” the father of the six listed in the Monticello records. They include Harriet who was born in 1795 but died in infancy, Beverly born 1798, an unnamed daughter born in 1799 but who died in infancy, (another) Harriet born in 1801, Madison born in 1805, and Eston born in 1808.

4.  He was an incestuous pedophile

See item three above.

 5.  He was a “Back to Africa” proponent

This would have been a good thing if his purpose was the Afrocentric goal of reuniting blacks with their cultural roots. But it was a bad thing because, as Peter S. Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor Emeritus, notes, it was a scheme by Jefferson to conceal his own “shadow family.”

6.  He was a legislative racist

As pointed out by Joyce Oldham Appleby, professor emerita of history at UCLA and former president of the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, as well as by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., former Professor of History at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at CUNY Graduate Center, Jefferson opposed the practice of slaveholders freeing the enslaved because he claimed it would encourage rebellion.

And, as noted by John E. Ferling, professor emeritus of history at University of West Georgia, after Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1769, he attempted to introduce laws (which were considered extremist even in 18th century Southern terms) that essentially would have banned free blacks from entering or exiting the Commonwealth and would have banished children whose fathers were of African origin. He also tried to expel white women who had children by black men. (Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!)

After being elected governor in 1779, he signed a bill to encourage enlistment in the Revolutionary War by compensating white men by giving them, among other things, “a healthy sound Negro.” And to the Jefferson apologists who rewrite history when they claim that he promoted at least gradual emancipation, his own words as a representative to the Continental Congress, when asked to support an anti-slavery amendment, refute that: “(It is) better that this should be kept back.”

7.  He was an international racist

As Secretary of State in 1795, he gave $40,000 and one thousand firearms to colonial French slaveholders in Haiti in an attempt to defeat Toussaint Louverture’s successful slave rebellion. As president, he supported French plans to resume power, lent France $300,000 “for relief of whites on the island,” and in 1804 refused to recognize Haiti as a sovereign republic after its military victory. Two years later, he imposed a trade embargo.

8.  He was a blatantly ignorant racist

In his 1785 book entitled “Notes on the State of Virginia,” he wrote about “the preference of the ‘oran-outan’ (i.e., orangutan, meaning an ape-like creature) for the black women over those of … (its) own species.” He wrote that blacks stink in that they have “a very strong and disagreeable odor,” that there exists an “innate incompetence of blacks” and that they “are inferior to the white in the endowment of both body and mind.”

9.  He was a liar

His friend from the American Revolution, Polish nobleman Tadeusz Kosciuszko, came to America in 1798 to receive back pay for his military service. He then wrote a will directing Jefferson to use all of Kosciuszko’s money and land in the U.S. to “free and educate slaves.” Jefferson agreed to do so. After Kosciuszko died in 1817, Jefferson refused to free or educate any of them.

10. Black labor built Monticello

Beginning in 1768, Jefferson forced many in his enslaved population to begin the laborious task of clearing the mountaintop and then constructing his primary multi-building plantation, known as Monticello (near Charlottesville), which was highlighted by a neoclassical Italian 43-room mansion. Enslaved carpenters did the “rough structural woodwork.” In fact, John Hemmings (spelled with two m’s), an enslaved “out-carpenter”— who was ordered to lead other enslaved men in the arduous tasks of felling trees, hewing logs, building fences, and assembling the “log slave dwellings”— was pervasively instrumental in the creation of Monticello. As an aside, it should be mentioned that the imported mahogany window sashes were made in Philadelphia, which is where many of the white woodworkers were from.

Michael Coard’s radio show, “The Radio Courtroom,” airs at noon on Sundays and Wednesdays. It can be heard locally on WURD 900 AM and on the Internet at 900amwurd.com

Follow @MichaelCoard on Twitter. 


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  • Steve

    3) I can say that I continue to not know this slanderous tidbit. There is no evidence that Jefferson raped Hemmings. Of course, the existence of offspring were always suspected, and have been genetically confirmed, but to retroactively supplant late-18th century sexual-politics with modern notions is dishonest and vile.

    • Four One One

      Just so I understand, you’re saying that Sally Hemmings – a 14 year old child who was legally considered Jefferson’s property – consented to sex? And there’s NOTHING about that situation which bothers you or seems amiss?

      We have found something dishonest and vile, but it’s not the allegation that Jefferson raped Sally Hemmings.

      • Dave

        In those days, 14 years old was not a child. At that point in history, people, white and black had probably gone through more crap and done more work by the age of 14 then you’ve ever gone through or done.

    • nruttfel

      enslaved persons cannot meaningfully consent

    • the funky man

      Steve is a PEDO!!!! Look how easily he dismisses facts.

  • Roger Cohen

    He was also a coward, who high-tailed it out of town when the redcoats came. But – and this is a very big qualifier in his ultimate favor – he unquestionably got it that slavery was an irreconcilable contradiction in the new country founded on the eternal principles he enunciated in the Declaration. He knew that it would have to be brought to an end, and that the American experiment would be fundamentally flawed until it did — he just didn’t want to be inconvenienced in his own life by having it happen while he was living the good life on the labor and service of his slaves.

  • Dave

    U mad bro?

  • Eric

    Mr. Coard, while I agree with your premise around Thomas Jefferson and slavery, I cannot agree with some of your specific accusations against Jefferson. I would urge you to read both of Annette Gordon-Reed’s extensive works on the subject and perhaps gain a greater insight to the topic.

    • the funky man

      Eric….let’s not pretend as though there’s some real value to be gained from over-romanticized novels written by 20th century authors that idolize him. It’s all too easy for certain people to casually dismiss what this man and many others stood for and institutionalized in this country. Yet….all condemnation under the sun comes the minute the words Michael Vick is mentioned (and others too).

  • Dee Mann

    Thomas Jefferson is an amazing HERO who gave and gave for his country. I Just love how easy it is for some a-hole to attempt to discredit one of the genius’ behind their freedom to speak, spew and babble, damn hypocrites ! Be grateful and stop slandering the dead who GAVE you Rights you coward. All in the pathetic attempt to make a name for yourself ? You are a disgrace to yourself and all Americans. PLEASE move to another country and see how your garbage flies. I bet you couldn’t even find someone to wipe their ass with this vile attack. Try Cuba, I heard they are in need of toilet paper. May GOD have mercy on your soul. Pathetic.

    • Michelle Piacentini Kao

      Wait what? Dee, I take it youre a female? Well, just so you know, when this hero wrote the constitution, he was not writting it for you or me. It was for rich white land owners. That’s it. That is why he underlined “all men”. He was a slave owner. He would shoot the children of his slaves to keep everyone “in line”. These are the facts. He raped murdered and lied. He was also a racist and sexist. He did do a lot to help build this new country that was stolen from the natives that already lived here. But he did it only thinking about white landing owning men. This has nothing to do about being patriotic or not loving the USA or trying to slander TJ great name. He did that himself. People are no longer sheep just believing what people tell them. Now people can hear the true story about our founding fathers and this great county we live on that was stolen from people.

      • James Madison

        Oh Michelle. Jefferson didn’t write the constitution for us, because he didn’t write the constitution.

        • Michael Gillespie

          Should it be surprising that so many Americans don’t know who wrote their Constitution?

          • Yeah..so?

            Sadly not….even more surprising (well..less surprising I should say) is many think the Constitution was the first paper of the US while the Articles of the Confederation actually were.

        • Dan

          James, last I checked the bill of rights is still part of the Constitution. Jefferson had a hand in getting that done. Although, one of our two “great” parties wants to read it out, as all amendments are subordinate to the all-mighty 2nd and 10th amendments. Let’s ask Christine O’Donnell about that pesky 1st one.

          • James Madison

            If by “had a hand in” you mean inspired, then yes. But Jefferson was still not the author. I would still get credit for that.

        • Yeah..so?

          Actually many think Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independance..it’s true but not that true for he only “cast” what the committee of 5 thought (Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Sherman and Livingston) and the Congress did some modification between June 28 and 4th of July.
          That said, it’s funny Michelle thought he wrote the Constitution while Jefferson was not even in the country!!His good friend Madison did some work based on Jefferson’s readings shipped from Europe but that’s another story

  • barrygster

    Jeez this song and dance is getting old.

  • pres46

    Tell the truth and shame the devil.

  • James Madison

    Presentism at its finest.

  • John Pettimore

    Wow. Another angry, brilliant black journalist whose searing insights into our most revered cultural icons reveal that terrible moral flaws that nobody dares to talk about. Who bravely speaks truth to power, and forces the privileged to confront their own actions, calls the powerful to account, and relentlessly, brilliantly exposes the hypocrisy that lies at the root of our American so-called culture.

    That about it?


  • darlene

    So another promotion of the atrocities of America. When are we going to fight for reparations, and make the decendents of slavers pay dearly for their ancestor’s hateful and murderous ways? Enough of the stories and evidence, where is the reparation for the slave/African/Hispanic/holocaust

    • They_Call_Me_Bruce

      Or you could get a job instead of expecting a handout. You weren’t a slave, and I wasn’t a slaveholder, so what gives you the right to try and put your hand in my wallet?

      • Yeah..so?

        in 2040, many will still blame the current whites (of 2040) for what happen to black people). First minorities should stop breeding so much, one child is far enough.

  • Rita

    I don’t dispute these facts. But isn’t your last sentence a bit childish? The entire nation has a problem with racism. Have you been to all-white Carlisle, PA of late? Are you familiar with the raw racism practiced in your own Perry County, PA? What about those wealthy absentee plantation owners from Philadelphia and elsewhere in the north prior to the civil war?

  • butch

    I read some of these comments and I come away believing that people with such political and immoral blinders as these are seriously afflicted if they can only see one half of Jefferson and ignore the other. This is one of the KEY sources of our collective failures as a democracy. The dichotomy between Blacks and Whites is EVERYTHING when talking about our social bearing throughout history.

  • peter43

    Disturbing details. While not defending any of the actions, it is wrong to judge them by 2014 standards. It does not appear Jefferson intended any harm to his slaves and from my observations of housing and shops at Monticello, they had good lives in that environment. They probably enjoyed as much freedom as many employees in today’s factories.

    • Laura Lynn

      Ok then. Let’s judge by 18th century standards. Would it have been acceptable for Mr. Jefferson’s hypothetical 14 year old white daughter to have been relieved of her virginity and become a man’s baby baring mistress, or would the suitor have had to operate within the correct protocols of the time and MARRY HER?

  • kite07run
  • Anonymous CausethisisCrazy

    Hey, was Jefferson Bill Clinton’s father? Seems like the same actions.

  • Yeah..so?

    Although I have a great respect and grew a liking of Thomas Jefferson, I remain realistic and know he was not as great as statues or quotes makes him. That said, Jefferson had candid views on slavery very much in touch with his era. For instance, Jefferson wanted to free the slaves but knew or at least was convinced that such move would be dangerous for the US and relocating free slaves elsewhere should be on the table. Like he said, “we hold the wolf by the hears and we can’t keep him or releasing him”.

    So he was in favor of emancipation but not now and without free blacks in the slaves. He did sponsored a few bills in favor of blacks..some lead to nothing but at least he showed his will, in an political manner, to do something about it. However, as years went by..his will to provide blacks with freedom decreased, he did more for blacks in the 1780s or around than while being President (he did sign a law stopping the slave trade in 1807).

    I kind of disliked points 1,2 but agree with 5.
    The embargo in point 7 is mostly a very international one and such embargo can’t be linked that much to Haiti like the author did. As for the rebellion, Jefferson didn’t want some domino effect on the US. His move towards the rebellion is logic, in phase with the era and can’t be a point on its own like the author wrote.

    Point 8 is, indeed, a very shocking part of Notes on the State of Viginia…that said, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong and Jefferson used facts to write his books. Such facts were limited to Virginia and not applied to more urban areas like in Boston for instance which is a shame.

    Such article is always good to read but a few points could be gathered in one while others only state the obvious such as point 10.

    Michael Coard touches on great aspects but it’s more an angry article than everything else (even he’s right in a few aspects)