I finally got around to reading the Smithsonian article, The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson. I'm guilty of too much scanning of material, enough to catch the drift, without taking time to get mired in details that I will forget anyway. But this time I printed it out, some ten or so pages, and took time to let it sink in and it was a sad and disturbing experience.
I already knew, as any good Liberal knows, that Jefferson was by no means the Godly Christian that Evangelical and Tea Party types like to paint. He had a personal copy of the Koran and was a student of scripture of all kinds. His intellect was mammoth. One commenter at the end of the article recalled John Kennedy's quip to a group of notables at a White House dinner that "there has never been a greater concentration of intellectual power here at the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined alone." I also knew of the Jefferson Bible, his revision of the New Testament which not only attempted to reconcile the contradictions among the synoptic Gospels but meticulously removed the miracles as fables which he felt were invented by the original scribes, products of their superstitious imaginations. And of course the history and recent stories of Sally Hemmings are by now well-known to most readers.
I knew he owned slaves. And with the comfortable ease with which we all excuse the shortcomings of others my compartmentalized thinking had overlooked that side of his history, excusing it (in the same way that I had to excuse the racial bigotry and uncorrectable ignorance of some in my own family) as part of the fabric of the time in which he lived.
But I was wrong. Many of his contemporaries were well ahead of him in their anti-slavery positions. Among them was none other than George Washington himself. Here is the sad ending to the article.
In 1817, Jefferson’s old friend, the Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, died in Switzerland. The Polish nobleman, who had arrived from Europe in 1776 to aid the Americans, left a substantial fortune to Jefferson. Kosciuszko bequeathed funds to free Jefferson’s slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own. In the spring of 1819, Jefferson pondered what to do with the legacy. Kosciuszko had made him executor of the will, so Jefferson had a legal duty, as well as a personal obligation to his deceased friend, to carry out the terms of the document.
The terms came as no surprise to Jefferson. He had helped Kosciuszko draft the will, which states, “I hereby authorize my friend, Thomas Jefferson, to employ the whole [bequest] in purchasing Negroes from his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name.” Kosciuszko’s estate was nearly $20,000, the equivalent today of roughly $280,000. But Jefferson refused the gift, even though it would have reduced the debt hanging over Monticello, while also relieving him, in part at least, of what he himself had described in 1814 as the “moral reproach” of slavery. If Jefferson had accepted the legacy, as much as half of it would have gone not to Jefferson but, in effect, to his slaves—to the purchase price for land, livestock, equipment and transportation to establish them in a place such as Illinois or Ohio. Moreover, the slaves most suited for immediate emancipation—smiths, coopers, carpenters, the most skilled farmers—were the very ones whom Jefferson most valued. He also shrank from any public identification with the cause of emancipation. It had long been accepted that slaves were assets that could be seized for debt, but Jefferson turned this around when he used slaves as collateral for a very large loan he had taken out in 1796 from a Dutch banking house in order to rebuild Monticello. He pioneered the monetizing of slaves, just as he pioneered the industrialization and diversification of slavery.
Before his refusal of Kosciuszko’s legacy, as Jefferson mulled over whether to accept the bequest, he had written to one of his plantation managers: “A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly.... [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”
In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will. He proved that emancipation was not only possible, but practical, and he overturned all the Jeffersonian rationalizations. Jefferson insisted that a multiracial society with free black people was impossible, but Washington did not think so. Never did Washington suggest that blacks were inferior or that they should be exiled. It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them. After Jefferson’s death in 1826, the families of Jefferson’s most devoted servants were split apart. Onto the auction block went Caroline Hughes, the 9-year-old daughter of Jefferson’s gardener Wormley Hughes. One family was divided up among eight different buyers, another family among seven buyers.
Joseph Fossett, a Monticello blacksmith, was among the handful of slaves freed in Jefferson’s will, but Jefferson left Fossett’s family enslaved. In the six months between Jefferson’s death and the auction of his property, Fossett tried to strike bargains with families in Charlottesville to purchase his wife and six of his seven children. His oldest child (born, ironically, in the White House itself) had already been given to Jefferson’s grandson. Fossett found sympathetic buyers for his wife, his son Peter and two other children, but he watched the auction of three young daughters to different buyers. One of them, 17-year-old Patsy, immediately escaped from her new master, a University of Virginia official.
Joseph Fossett spent ten years at his anvil and forge earning the money to buy back his wife and children. By the late 1830s he had cash in hand to reclaim Peter, then about 21, but the owner reneged on the deal. Compelled to leave Peter in slavery and having lost three daughters, Joseph and Edith Fossett departed Charlottesville for Ohio around 1840. Years later, speaking as a free man in Ohio in 1898, Peter, who was 83, would recount that he had never forgotten the moment when he was “put up on the auction block and sold like a horse.”