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.
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