The S Word

by wjw on May 24, 2012

Here we see a view of one of the most famous back porches in America, that of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

I spent a couple days traveling through Virginia before the Nebula Weekend, and one day— while Kathy was visiting a school chum in Charlottesville— I decided to go off in search of history.

I started with Monticello, and I tried to program my smartphone to give me directions.  I thumbed in “Monticello Charlottesville Va.,” and was then asked, “Do you mean 1201 Monticello Lane, 1202 Monticello Lane, 1203 Monticello Lane,” etc. etc.  No matter what I told the phone to find, it kept coming back to 1201 Monticello Lane, and all of the very many local streets named after Monticello.

Which Monticello, I screamed, do most people actually ask directions for?  But no good.  After turning the air in the car blue with my curses, I decided to depend on directions in a guidebook, which promptly got me lost. But I found the place eventually.

Monticello is ingeniously designed to look smaller than it actually is— as you can tell from the figures on the lawn, it’s actually a  very large house, particularly for Virginia at the time, and it’s even larger than that, because the kitchens, storerooms, washrooms, etc, are cleverly placed underground. (Mr. Jefferson didn’t want anything spoiling his vistas.)  But even so the place was overrun with family and visitors— Jefferson’s daughter and her eleven children lived there, for starters— and Mr. J was famously hospitable, with his expensive wines and his French-trained chef (a bondsman, brother of his mistress).  The most famous statesmen of the land came to pay their respects, and because of the crowding ended up sleeping on the floor.  (There was one proper bedroom reserved for James and Dolley Madison, however.)

Monticello shows you what a half-deranged dreamer Jefferson actually was.  It’s as if Walt Disney had decided to level a mountain and build Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  Mr. J was a brilliant political theorist and a glorious rhetorician, but less successful when it actually came to running things like plantations, states, and nations.  His estate was a monument to comfort, style, and deranged finances.  His presidency is thought of as a success on account of the Louisiana Purchase— a no-brainer, really— but the Embargo Acts and other disasters are forgotten.

After Monticello I went to Ashlawn, the residence of James Monroe.  The two places are in a kind of dialog with each other, made more interesting by the fact that Jefferson chose Monroe’s land and planted his orchard before Monroe even showed up.  There is a vista from which Monroe could view Monticello looming over his life.

Ashlawn is much smaller, maybe eight rooms in all.  (It’s hard to say for certain, because half the house burned down in the 19th Century and was reconstructed on a different plan.)  Like Monticello, the place was often overcrowded with visitors, a situation made more complicated by the fact that Mrs. Monroe— who was 4’8″ and opinionated— really didn’t like people very much, and their elder daughter Eliza had been raised in a feminist school in revolutionary France, had received a man’s education, and was known as the “social disaster.”  (A retiring Southron belle she was not.)

A few days later we went to Mt. Vernon, on the “mansion farm” of General Washington.  The house seemed smaller than I expected, though comparison of photographs indicates that it may in fact be a little larger than Monticello.  Since it was built rather higgledy-piggledy, perhaps it lacks Jefferson’s unifying vision and sense of proportion.  There is only one grand room, used for formal dining.  The view of the Potomac from the bluffs is wonderful.

All three presidential homes, by the way, owe their preservation not to the state, but to private individuals.  Monticello was in a state of disrepair when it was purchased in the 1830s by Uriah Phillips Levy, the firebreathing commodore (and the first American Jewish naval officer) who succeeded in abolishing flogging in the Navy (and also fought six duels).  He was a huge admirer of Jefferson, largely on account of Mr. J’s views on church-state separation, and the house remained in the Levy family until it was donated to the private trust that owns it now.  Ashlawn was in private hands until the 1970s, when it was bequeathed to the College of William & Mary, who now operate it.  And Mt Vernon was nearly ruined when it was purchased, in 1858, by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, the formidably-titled association that still owns it.

What I found most intriguing on these visits was the subject that, a few decades ago, would not have been mentioned at all.  Which is to say, slavery.

Of these places I’d visited only Monticello in the past, some thirty years ago, and other than a few oblique references to “the servants,” the subject did not arise.  Yet Jefferson owned something like 250 human beings, including somewhere between two and five of his own children.  Enormous numbers of slaves (as well as free laborers and artisans) were required to level the top of a mountain and build the house along with its outbuildings.  500o acres were tended by his bondspeople.

Since I last saw Monticello, archaeology has been performed on slave dwellings and workshops.  The slave burial ground has been found.  Jefferson’s DNA has been discovered in the descendants of Sally Hemings.  The guides discuss Jefferson’s rather conflicted views on slavery.  There is even a Slavery Tour— “History with an African-American slant” —which kicks off every hour.  (Time considerations made it impossible for me to attend, unfortunately.)   Yet there is still a strange remnant of that earlier reticence.  The word “slave” is not encountered.  Instead there is reference to “enslaved persons.”  (While I’m glad they have achieved the personhood that so many tried to deny them, I regret extremely the clumsy locution.)

And in any case, the only black visitors to Monticello I saw were children in school groups.  The descendants of slaves seem to have pretty well made up their minds about Mr. Jefferson.

When Jefferson died, his estate was $100 million in debt, in modern terms.  The dreamer was very good at passing over any unpleasant thoughts, and as a result visited the unpleasantness on his extended family.  He freed eleven slaves, all in the Hemings family, and the rest were sold to pay his debts.

Monroe had something like 30-50 slaves at Ashlawn, and like Jefferson was unable to make the system pay.  (He earned his money as a lawyer, not a farmer.)  He supported the efforts to repatriate black people to Africa and the foundation of Liberia, whose capital is named after him.  The last of the Revolutionary presidents, he died on the Fourth of July, like Jefferson and Adams.

Washington was the richest man in the United States, had 500 slaves, and couldn’t make slavery work either.  He freed all the slaves he owned personally, which was rather startling for someone born in a period when no one— by which I mean no one— thought slavery was bad.  (Presumably slaves thought slavery was bad for them, but no one condemned the institution as a whole.)  Yet Washington was the Man Who Saw Things Through, and had the moral (and physical) courage that Jefferson lacked.

(One reason why these gents couldn’t make slavery pay is that they were humane masters, as slaveholders went.  They were always urging their overseers not to treat the slaves brutally, and Washington wouldn’t even sell a slave without the slave’s permission.  Yet the way to make slavery truly profitable, as Cato the Elder wrote in De Agri Cultura, is to work the slaves to death and then replace them.)

At Mt. Vernon, there are now exhibits of slave life, slave work, and slave dwellings.  (These were not present when Kathy last visited,  a school trip in the fifth grade.)  There are two monuments to the slaves, both set on the old slave burial ground (just a short walk from Washington’s tomb), and which form an picture of changing attitudes toward the institution.  The oldest, from 1929, is dedicated to the “many faithful colored servants of the Washington family.”  The more recent, dating from the 1980s, refers directly to “the Afro Americans who served as slaves.”

So some kind of dialog, however discreet, is now going on in the shadow of these monuments.  Once history was all about Great Men and their deeds, but now we have somewhat enlarged horizons.  Indeed we visit these places because of the Great Men who lived there, but now we have a clearer picture of the people who surrounded them— who labored in their fields, built and maintained their homes, cooked their food, raised their children, warmed their beds, and boiled their laundry.

Does this diminish the Great Men?  Maybe a little.  But it’s not as if Jefferson’s words are going to be scrubbed off his monument just because he was a flawed human being.  In my view, he was diminished by being treated all those years as a marble statue, not as the complex individual that he in fact was.

And George Washington, at least, grew to understand that he was supported by a system that was immoral and unworkable, and unlike the others he acted on that knowledge.

Great Men, it must be admitted, are sometimes truly Great.

TJIC May 24, 2012 at 11:46 am

Great post.

While I think it likely that Jefferson slept with Sally Hemmings, my understanding is that this is unproven. The DNA testing of her descendants does not necessarily show that they have Thomas Jefferson’s DNA, but that they have DNA consistent with the Jefferson clan. A theory I’ve heard advanced somewhere reputable (I confess I can’t provide a cite) is that Jefferson’s cousins are also suspects.

Also, re

> He freed all the slaves he owned personally, which was rather startling for someone born in a period when no one— by which I mean no one— thought slavery was bad

I disagree.

I note that in Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration on Independence he included this line:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce:[11] and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die…

PrivateIron May 24, 2012 at 11:59 am

I have seen some interesting work has been done on the institution of slavery. For instance, its adoption was often a split hair decision by new state legislatures, but once adopted, the slave owners’ money bought political clout to expand the “consensus” to support it. The same historian claimed slavery in the Deep South dovetailed with or necessitated unsustainable agricultural methods.

Cato’s methods were popular in the 17th century in the West Indies and certain parts of the South (like the indigo and rice paddies of SC and GA.) The economics of the slave trade in North America did not normally go with the death camp approach to slave labor and the North also managed to stop the importation of new slaves early in the Republic, so that method became a non-starter after that.

Ken Thomas May 24, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Well put, Dubjay. I visited the national park at Appomattox Court House a few years ago, saw some similar things, and thought some similar thoughts:

Foxessa May 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm

You should have asked directions to Charlottesville!

Love, C.

Jenny May 24, 2012 at 6:55 pm

Monticello has gone through at least one full revolution already. For the longest time – as you mention, slavery was hardly discussed. When the original Hemmings DNA tests came out, from what I’m told the tours became “all Sally Hemmings, all the time.” After those tests were shown to be far less conclusive than the initial hype – and with pushback from the visitors I suspect – the balance shifted yet again. Now the lives of slaves are still on display and mentioned, but no longer take center stage.

“which was rather startling for someone born in a period when no one— by which I mean no one— thought slavery was bad. “
As TJIC notes, this is untrue.

In the north that’s an easy case to make – witness Franklin’s abolitionist society and the pressure from the northern delegates in the Constitutional Convention that led to the infamous 3/5 compromise.

In the south abolitionist fervor was much less, but even there it’s typically referred to in the late 18th c. as a necessary evil – the sense of slavery as a positive good doesn’t really begin to gel until the 19th century.

The descendants of slaves seem to have pretty well made up their minds about Mr. Jefferson.
… which is sad, for Mr. Jefferson’s words and legacy is nothing if not one of human liberty and emancipation. Over the last two centuries, his words have inspired millions to reach for their own Liberty.

Jefferson was born into the ownership of other human beings – he didn’t seek it out any more than you or I chose to be born in America instead of Zimbabwe. And yes, while he worked throughout his life for human liberty, he never made the necessary sacrifices to his lifestyle to be out of debt enough to liberate even all he could under the law of Virgina in his time. He put his own well being above the servitude of those who worked Monticello.

However – there is not a one of us who buys our clothes from Malaysia or our consumer goods from China who have not made exactly the same decision.

We just don’t have to look our slaves in the eye.

wjw May 24, 2012 at 8:53 pm

Good, thoughtful posts. Thank you.

I will, however, stand by my statement that George Washington was born in an era when no one questioned slavery. Washington was born in 1732. In 1732, there were no antislavery societies, there was no antislavery movement, and slavery was lawful in all of the Americas, and largely unquestioned (except by Quakers, who pretty much questioned everything).

The modern antislavery movement can be dated to 1785, with Thomas Clarkson’s famous essay =Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare=, which inspired both he and William Wilberforce to devote their lives to the cause. Though of course this was preceded by Lord Mansfield’s ruling in Somersett’s Case (1772), which made slavery illegal in England.

But yes, during that time some young fellows like Jefferson had recognized slavery’s moral evil and spoken about it. But no one was really doing that in 1732, and that was my point.

As for Franklin, he was proposed as a member of the antislavery society by his enthusiastic friends. He must have accepted this honor with some embarrassment, as he owned at least one slave at the time, a valet named Peter, who served him until one or the other of them died. (I’ve been unable to find out when Peter died— Franklin’s biographers are not particularly happy to deal with his early attitudes toward slavery.)

Franklin was also the only Founding Father to have been enslaved himself— he came to Philadelphia a runaway indentured servant.

wjw May 24, 2012 at 9:08 pm

As for the Hemings Controversy, well, it gets pretty silly. Madison Hemings himself wrote that he and his siblings were all fathered by Jefferson. Research has shown that Jefferson, who was often away, was always present at periods when Sally conceived, and that she never conceived when he was not in the house.

Desperate historians have offered Jefferson’s brother as the possible father, but no one ever suggested this until the DNA evidence came in, and panicked historians started looking for other Jeffersons to blame.

PrivateIron May 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Strangely enough, racist attitudes towards miscegenation were motivators for abolition. Chew on the perversity of the human race with that one.

RobZ May 28, 2012 at 8:15 pm

According to,, “Numerous unresolved contradictions block certainty about who fathered Eston, the only Hemings child known to be connected to Jefferson DNA. But two letters show that Thomas sent Randolph money and instructions for buying and delivering grass seed to Monticello about when Eston was conceived. ”

And “Eston’s descendants passed down the story that he was not the president’s child, but the son of an “uncle.” Randolph was widely known at Monticello as “Uncle Randolph.” The DNA points equally to Randolph (or his five sons) as to the president. But Randolph is the only suspect reported to have fathered children by other slaves, documented to have spent his nights at Monticello socializing with his brother’s slaves, and known at Monticello as “Uncle.”

Assuming that’s all true, then I don’t think the case for Thomas as father has been proved.

S.M. Stirling May 28, 2012 at 11:29 pm

Actually, you’d go broke if you worked slaves to death in Jefferson’s Virginia — as opposed to, say, Jamaica (or late Republican Rome).

Most slaves in Virginia by that time were native-born and relatively valuable. The secret to making money out of plantation agriculture in that setting was -organization-. Washington did relatively well, but then he -was- a good organizer; but he was away a lot, which made it hard to run Mount Vernon well.

Most planters made a good return on their capital, allowing for fluctuations in prices, crop yields and weather, which always lie in wait for agriculturalists.

The real reason Jefferson lost money is that Jefferson was an incompetent dreamer — he failed drastically at virtually every practical, non-verbal task he was ever set. It’s a miracle he didn’t get caught by Banastare Tarleton and dragged into Cornwallis camp with his hands lashed to a stirrup.

I’ve never liked him. And it’s obvious from the controversies of the early National period that neither he nor Monroe understood government finances. They didn’t just oppose Hamilton’s measures, they didn’t -comprehend- them. They were financial ignoramuses. Jefferson thought he was rich because he had a lot of (inherited) lands and slaves. He kept compulsive notes on everything and never, once, knew from year to year whether he was making a profit.

Alexander Hamilton, though, was a brilliant and in a fundamental sense better man.

He was one of the very few Founding Fathers who was born poor — a penniless orphan in the West Indies — and who made a fortune by his own efforts. He single-handedly put the finances of the US on a sound foundation, later partly wrecked by Andy Jackson’s jihad against the Bank of the United States.

He was also a very early abolitionist; he just hated slavery.

S.M. Stirling May 28, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Yeah, and “enslaved person” is a grotesque bit of bullshit revisionism.

In English, a taxed person is a taxpayer; a conscripted person is a conscript; an imprisoned person is a prisoner; and an enslaved person is a slave. QED.

I might point out that everyone is the descendant of slaves. Not only does DNA analysis show that about 45% of all “white” Americans have a recent West African ancestor (almost certainly a black slave from the pre-1865 period) but slavery was a ubiquitous institution until historically quite recently.

Eg., my maternal grandmother’s ancestors were farmers in Wiltshire from a period back beyond Domesday Book in 1085, according to my father’s genological research — they were named “Uphill” when surnames came in, because they lived on a farm that was “uphill” of the parrish church.

At the time Domesday Book was compiled, 25% of the population in that area were chattel slaves, whose descendants now include everyone of English (or British) descent.

So nobody has any particular victim-mojo in that regard. It just proves some of your ancestors were weak, slow, stupid, unlucky, or some combination of the above.

S.M. Stirling May 28, 2012 at 11:41 pm

Strangely enough, racist attitudes towards miscegenation were motivators for abolition. Chew on the perversity of the human race with that one.

— no, it’s perfectly logical. Slavery equaled black people. People who were “exclusionary” racists didn’t want black people around, and so were hostile to slavery.

They didn’t want -abolition- either, of course, because that would let blacks move around as they pleased; what they wanted was “free soil”.

“Free Soil” in the 1840-1860 context meant reserving the West for white people by excluding slavery, and hence slaves, and hence blacks.

Many of the Northern states at the time had laws forbidding -free- blacks from entering or taking up residence. (Oregon did, and IIRC Indiana.)

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