Life and Labor at Monticello

Published:August 6, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

The new issue of American History magazine features a cover story by Encyclopedia Virginia contributor Henry Wiencek, whose latest book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, will be released in October. In the magazine piece, Wiencek previews what promises to be a controversial take on Mr. Jefferson as slaveholder. For instance, he turns on its head the conventional wisdom that Jefferson would have freed his slaves if only he could have afforded it:

Jefferson, his children and his grandchildren forever referred to slaves at Monticello as a burden, and historians have sympathetically echoed that complaint, writing that Jefferson was “trapped” or “entangled” in a system he hated. But again and again the sale, the hiring or the mortgaging of black souls rescued the Jeffersons from a bad harvest, bought time from the bill collectors and kept the family afloat while a new and grander version of Monticello took shape.

Wiencek points out  that two months of labor in the Monticello nailery provided enough profits to pay for a year’s groceries in the mansion. The boys who worked there, were between the ages of 10 and 16, and in a letter dated January 31, 1801, Jefferson’s son-in-law notes that all was going smoothly because “the small ones” were being whipped.

Wiencek also remarks on the “complexity and sophistication of Monticello’s culinary operations,” where every day, the kitchen slaves prepared French-inspired meals for as few as 14 or as many as 57 people, including three to four meats per dinner, four vegetables with sauces, and four desserts. This took technology, elaborate preparation, and very precise timing—and yet, Wiencek reminds us, Jefferson wrote in 1814 that slaves lived “without necessity for thought or forecast” and were “as incapable as children of taking care of themselves.” It was “a pronouncement,” Wiencek observes, “that historians have endlessly repeated.”

Contrast Wiencek’s take with an online exhibit about Jefferson at the Library of Congress. In addition to featuring the idyllic watercolor of Monticello above, the section titled “Life and Labor at Monticello” includes reference to “Jefferson’s larger family at work”:

In addition to their general labor, slaves contributed to Monticello by selling fowl and vegetables from their own flocks and gardens to the plantation masters. The plantation mistress or her daughters made these purchases and maintained the household records […]

It’s not clear which “larger family” is referred to here—enslaved or free—but the overall impression is not a system that relies on whipping young boys, but one in which everyone “contributes to Monticello.”

We expect that Wiencek’s book will provide for lively discussion among Jefferson and slavery scholars.

IMAGE: Monticello and Garden by Jane Pitford Braddick Peticolas, 1825 (Thomas Jefferson Foundation)