The Dark Side Of Thomas Jefferson

by Daniel Russ on October 1, 2012

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrant Peale


Thomas Jefferson by Rembrant Peale


Thomas Jefferson is once quoted as describing slavery as an “execrable commerce …this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.

Yet the new book by John Chester Miller, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson” reveals that Jefferson was a businessman first. Indeed, he calculated that by allowing his slaves to have more slaves, he could make a 4% profit year over year. Jefferson’s plantation was run like a tight business with hundreds of men and women, mainly slaves, who were cobblers, coopers, cooks, administrators who kept guests put up in well appointed accommodations.  From a 1941 about Jefferson that was approved from young readers, the idyllic scenery of enslavement was rendered benign for Americans: “In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master….The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.”

Perhaps the real disappointment is the fact that many of the folks who were curating Jefferson’s property were in fact hiding some of the worst portions of the Jefferson Legacy. From the Review in Smithsonian Magazine:


“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.”


 We put people on pedestals because we want to believe that they are good through and through. The facts sometimes belie the stories. We have to remember that Jefferson is likely the father of all of the children of his slave Sally Hemmings.


Source: Smithsonian Magazine.


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Louis September 19, 2017 at 8:43 am

So he was a child of his time. At least he chose to speak out against (more) slavery. A lot of the other Founding Fathers didn’t even do that.
And there is always the possibility of a redeeming gesture, or thought, even in the most hardened of bigots or criminals, just as much as there are strands of hate and bigotry in the most saintly persons.

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