Did Thomas Jefferson own Slaves? #204

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Thomas JeffersonThird President of the United States

Series on Presidential Slavery

Thomas Jefferson was born at the family home in Shadwell in the Colony of Virginia. His father Peter Jefferson was a planter and surveyor.  Peter Jefferson moved his family to Tuckahoe Plantation in 1745 upon the death of William Randolph, the plantation’s owner the Jefferson’s returned to Shadwell, where Peter died in 1757; his estate was divided between his sons Thomas and Randolph. Thomas inherited approximately 5,000 acres of land, including Monticello. He assumed full authority over his property at age 21.

In 1768, Jefferson began constructing his primary residence Monticello (Italian for “Little Mountain”) on a hilltop overlooking his 5,000-acre plantation.  He spent most of his adult life designing Monticello as architect and was quoted as saying, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”  

Construction was done mostly by local masons and carpenters, assisted by Jefferson’s slaves.  He moved into the South Pavilion in 1770. Turning Monticello into a masterpiece it was his continuing project.

On January 1, 1772, Jefferson married his third cousin,  Martha Wayles Skelton, the 23-year-old widow of Bathurst Skelton, and she moved into the South Pavilion.  During their ten years of marriage, Martha bore six children.

Martha’s father John Wayles died in 1773 and the couple inherited 135 people of color who were legally enslaved, and 11,000 acres.   Martha later suffered from ill health, a few months after the birth of her last child, she died.  Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, owned more than 600 African-American slaves throughout his adult life.  

Jefferson consistently spoke out against the international slave trade, outlawed while he was President, while he advocated gradual emancipation and colonization of domestic slaves. He believed black people were inherently inferior to white people and thought it was best the two races remained segregated.

Jefferson was a lifelong advocate of ending the slave trade and as president led the effort to criminalize the international slave trade that passed Congress and he signed in 1807, shortly before Britain passed a similar law.  This type of individual is a “fence rider”; they have slaves while trying to free them?

Jefferson supported gradual emancipation, training, and colonization of African-American slaves, believing that releasing unprepared people with no place to go and no means to support themselves would only bring them misfortune. In 1784, Jefferson proposed federal legislation banning slavery in the New Territories of the North and South after 1800, which failed to pass Congress by one vote.  

Jefferson expressed the beliefs that slavery corrupted both masters and slaves alike, supported colonization of freed slaves, promoted the idea that African-Americans were inferior in intelligence, and that emancipating large numbers of slaves made slave uprisings more likely.

After the death of his wife Martha, Jefferson had a long-term relationship with her half-sister, Sally Heming’s, a slave at Monticello.  Jefferson allowed two of Sally Heming’s surviving four children to “escape”; the other two he freed through his will after his death.  The children were the only family to gain freedom from Monticello.

In 1824, Jefferson proposed a national plan to end slavery by the federal government purchasing African-American slave children for $12.50, raising and training them in occupations of freemen, and sending them to the country of Santo Domingo.   

In his will, Jefferson freed three older men who had been forced to work for him for decades.  In 1827, the remaining 130 people who had been kept as slaves at Monticello were sold to pay the debts of Jefferson’s estate.

Although Jefferson is regarded as a leading spokesman for democracy, some modern scholarships has been critical of him, finding a contradiction between his ownership and trading of many slaves that worked his plantations, and his famous declaration that “all men are created equal.”

Yet, Jefferson continues to ranked high among U.S. presidents.


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8 thoughts on “Did Thomas Jefferson own Slaves? #204

  1. Jefferson certainly was a walking contradiction on slavery. His thoughts that African slaves were inferior was nothing to be proud of. His statement “All men are created equal” was a distorted thought in his mind. Very interesting piece, never realized he had so many slaves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. With the research on these Presidents who owned slaves, I am trying to help people understand that “the destruction” of statues and monuments, the defacing needs to be given more thought. Once we start the “offensive” list, it could actually destroy the history of this country. I have been a history “case” all my life, and I so want all of this to stop and try to create ways of keeping history while telling its story. As my great-grandmother said, “how can we know where we are going if we do not know where we have been?” She was a full-blood Chickasaw, another race that has been destroyed, but I do not blame anyone living today, the blame goes when we do not change how we handle the race situations in this county, with respect and dignity. Thanks E.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The confederate statues here in Arkansas are being moved to a confederate cemetery – rather than being destroyed. Your great-grandmother was right. My husband’s grandmother was a full blooded Cherokee. Lived on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona for 18 years. I understand how they feel about losing their lands. The Hopi Reservation is in the middle of the Navajo Reservation and this causes much friction between these two tribes of Indians.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. This certainly will cause some type of disturbance. I know the men of Arkansas do not like giving up their rebel flags – they are proud of their heritage. I am not an Arkie so I truly am neutral on the rebel flag.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Peggy, I was born and raised in Alabama, moving to Wisconsin when I was 26 YO, have been here many years. My mother was an over the top racist, raised by my daddy and great-great grandmother (Chickasaw) I viewed life differently. I have been discriminated against because I am southern. I understand the problem well. I believe instead of destroying history embrace it and never let the bad happen again if possible. I respect your husbands right to be proud of his heritage, I know I am, it is the act upon violence that needs to stop. I love talking with you on comments, you are a breath of fresh air. Take care. E.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, this violence needs to stop. All lives matter. I have never been a racist – my mother instilled in us that everyone was equal. I was raised out West – yet I have watched the hate in this world from the time I was a small child. I am white, but I have had many black friends in my lifetime. This world certainly is in turmoil right now and it seems almost impossible to change people’s attitudes for the better. So sad.

        Liked by 1 person

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