Plantation Society: Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello



Complex and competing interests defined life on antebellum plantations. Planters, overseers, and enslaved persons met and negotiated power. Planters, no matter how compassionate they may have claimed to be, sought profit foremost. Overseers’ livelihoods depended on extracting a certain amount of labor from enslaved persons. The enslaved fought for their dignity and autonomy in an oppressive system, wholly cognizant that their lives, or families, might be the cost of any transgression. Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, was no different. Completed in 1772, the Virginia estate saw the daily struggles between the competing interests of plantation society.
Thomas Jefferson expressed a paradoxical understanding of freedom and slavery. The man who wrote the most famous words in American history, “all men are created equal,” did not see a way to reconcile slavery with morality. Instead, he argued that African Americans’ inability to care for themselves, because of what he saw as a childlike mindset, justified the need for slavery. Jefferson believed that following the abolition of slavery blacks would not be able to fully participate in American society. At the end of the eighteenth century, he described slavery as an “abomination” that “must have an end,” but, not long after that, he realized that every time an enslaved woman bore a child, his estate saw a four-percent profit. From this point on, he addressed the issue of slavery’s abolition less frequently. Writing to William A. Burwell, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates, in early 1805, Jefferson said, “I have long since given up the expectation of any early provision for the extinguishment of slavery among us.”
Regardless of any moral concerns, Jefferson kept as many as 140 enslaved persons at Monticello. Among those who oversaw their labor was Captain Edmund Bacon. Sought out for an interview in the early 1860s, Bacon acknowledged that Jefferson was “always very kind and indulgent to his servants,” and “he would hardly ever allow one of them to be whipped.” If an enslaved man or woman “could not be got along with,” Jefferson’s orders were to “dispose of” them, presumably selling them. So, though Jefferson “hardly ever” allowed his overseer to resort to outright brutality, he preferred to use the threat of sale to placate noncompliant slaves. As historian Eugene Genovese notes, overseers stood in the middle of a complex power relationship. Though slaveholders sometimes fired overseers for cruelty, they expected overseers to drive enslaved men and women to produce great yields. Bacon may have employed whatever means necessary to reach a day’s quota of labor. With Jefferson absent because of duties to the state, Bacon would have little to keep him in check.
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, near Charlottesville, VA.
Though they operated under the weight of a planter’s and an overseer’s supervision, enslaved persons were able, at times, to subvert the oppressive system of slavery. Enslaved men and women might feign illness, break tools, or collectively slow the pace of work, well aware of the impact their subtle resistance had on their master’s fortunes. If an overseer were particularly cruel, slaves may even, in a powerful show of bravery, inform the plantation owner. In an 1898 newspaper interview, Peter Fossett, born a slave at Monticello in 1815, recalled Jefferson as “a democrat in practice as well as theory” and “an ideal master.” He further notes that “slaves were seldom punished, except for stealing and fighting.” Though he paints a rosy portrait of Jefferson, Fossett would have been unwise to speak ill of Jefferson, a founding father and national hero, at the end of the twentieth century, when segregation and violence increasingly came to define race relations. Another enslaved man Israel Jefferson, born in 1800 at Monticello, considered Jefferson “esteemed by both whites and blacks as a very great man.” From the indications provided, Jefferson was a comparatively lenient master. His restraint no doubt resulted in part from his intellectual concern about the nature of slavery, but he may also have benefited from his good relations with the enslaved laborers of Monticello. In a world where bodies were the source of material wealth, treating the enslaved with a shred of dignity may have spared Jefferson from some of the difficulties more abusive masters had with resistant slaves.
Nonetheless, Jefferson owned and found his prosperity in human beings. He expressed contradictory views about freedom, profit, and slavery. Because he drew criticism from friends like the Marquis de Lafayette, Jefferson engineered his home to minimize the visibility of enslaved persons.

The imposing facade of Jefferson's Monticello bespeaks the
authority of its owner, no matter how committed to
democracy he may have been.
Though his overseer and a few of his slaves recount him as a benevolent master, his status as a founding father made him nearly sacrosanct for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Undoubtedly, a drama played out every day between Jefferson, his overseers, and the enslaved population of Monticello. Each competed: Jefferson seeking a profit, the overseers safeguarding their employment, and the enslaved working to maintain their humanity in a system where death, violence, or the breaking apart of families were a constant possibility.

For more information on the dynamics of plantation society, see Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1976). To learn more about Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, and slavery, see Ari Helo and Peter Onuf, “Jefferson, Morality, and the Problem of Slavery,” The William and Mary Quarterly 60, no. 3 (July 2003);  Stephen E. Ambrose, “Founding Fathers and Slaveholders,” Smithsonian November 2002; and Henry Wiencek, “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Smithsonian October 2012. Jefferson’s writings on slavery, and a number of other topics, are available through the Library of Congress. The interviews with Edmund Bacon, Israel Jefferson, and Peter Fossett can be found at pbs.org.

Daniel Manuel

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