Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 and died in 1826 at his beautiful plantation estate and home, Monticello. He lived to be eighty-three years old. He was the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809. Before becoming president, he had served as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, and then as Vice President in 1796. During his presidency he supervised the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Jefferson had inherited the land that became Monticello in Virginia when his parents died, and at age twenty-six began building his plantation. He soon married Martha Wayles Skelton, and the couple had six children -- only two of whom would live to adulthood. Martha died ten years into their marriage.

Jefferson lived a life entrenched in slavery; he owned roughly 200 slaves, most given to him when his father and Martha's father died. We talked about in class how he wrote how bad slavery was, but of course his actions said something totally different. Jefferson wrote in 1787 to Edward Rutledge "This abomination[slavery] must have an end." I think Jefferson felt that since he was only one man that he could not change the way people think so he was smart enough to write his feelings down instead and went with the status quo of the slave society.

According to the Monticello site today, Jefferson was a constant opponent of slavery. Jefferson understood that slavery was a crucial part of life so he suggested that slavery would end by gradual process because it would be to much of a drastic change on the southern planters. He also did not feel that slaves and whites could live together equally and should be sent back to their homeland. Slavery would have to be a issue that was voted on. There is also the fact of master/slave relationships.

With these people all living together, perhaps it comes as no surprise that some sort of twisted attraction began with Jefferson -- a widow and slave owner who was able to do what he pleased -- and Sally Hemings, who was his enslaved mistress and concubine. It is now believed, even by those at Monticello, that Sally Hemings bore Jefferson six children over a twenty year period. (Sally Hemings was also, by blood at least, Jefferson's sister-in-law.) Clearly, it was not just a master/slave relationship. If Jefferson really believed that slavery was wrong he would have been a little nicer to his slaves hoping that one day he could free them, or at least that is the assumption in my head. I also want to believe that Jefferson was in love with Sally Hemings, after all he did father six of her children. He may have slept with many different slaves, but there is only one account and that is with Sally Hemings. Since Sally Hemings was a beautiful light-skinned enslaved woman it may have made it easier for Jefferson to love her because she looked more like him. There are no pictures of Sally Hemings; there are also very few written accounts of what she looked like.

The only slaves that Thomas Jefferson himself freed were members of the Hemings family, all of whom had impressive skilled occupations. In his will, Jefferson wrote: "I give also to John Hemings the service of his two apprentices Madison and Eston Hemings until their respective ages of twenty one years at which period respectively I give them their freedom..." This says a lot about Jefferson. I believe it says that Jefferson considered the Hemings clan part of his family and family are people whom you love. All this shows that no one is perfect including our founding fathers.

The tour guides at the Monticello were very good at handling the interpretation of Jefferson and Sally Hemings. When history can be told fully people understand it as American History not black history or white history. For more references please go to or for electronically scanned original Virginia documents

-Precious Jackson

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