Was Jefferson an Enlightened Slaveowner?

Published:January 27, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

The exhibit Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty opens today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This has been a huge undertaking by the historians at Monticello, and the New York Times has pronounced their efforts to be good:

The contradictions in notions of liberty could not be more graphically presented. The intention is not to turn a great man into a villain but rather to examine just how those contradictions expressed themselves. Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime,” we are told, but also felt unable to extricate himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”

Far from turning Jefferson into a villain, the exhibit suggests that Jefferson did what he could to promote family among his enslaved laborers. Even though marriage was technically illegal, among his slaves “enduring unions were the norm.” If there was cruelty, it was the “overseers who overstepped,” not Jefferson. And there’s even the argument that Jefferson may be to thank for the admirable qualities of his slaves’ descendants. An oral history project begun in 1993 found that many of them became community leaders.

This suggests that there was something distinctive about this community, but also that Jefferson’s own ideals must have had an impact, surviving even the debilitating and humiliating institution of slavery.

There is room, I think, for pushback on these claims. Were the overseers really the only source of cruelty at Monticello? Did Jefferson really find it impossible to free his slaves? Were all the slaves at Monticello treated as well as those who were, quite literally, his family (e.g., the Hemingses)? See this lecture by the historian Henry Wiencek, who has a book on this very subject due later in the year.

Wherever you stand, all of this makes for a fascinating discussion, and Monticello is to be congratulated for initiating it.

IMAGES: Top: Watercolor painting of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello by artist Lin Frye; bottom: Isaac Granger Jefferson, 1847 (University of Virginia Special Collections); a newspaper ad announcing the sale of the late Thomas Jefferson’s property, including “130 valuable negroes” (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello)