Thomas Jefferson, his Slaves, and Cal Thomas


There was an interesting confluence in the local paper the other day. One writer commented on Cal Thomas’s (the conservative columnist) racial attitudes in the Trayvon Martin case right next to a column by Thomas fulminating about how Ho Chi Minh wasn’t comparable to Thomas Jefferson because of his record on human rights and his having established a one-party Communist government in Vietnam.
It’s true that Ho didn’t greatly resemble Jefferson, except in being instrumental in expelling unwanted foreign powers from his country. One might have expected Thomas to sympathize with him THAT far, but apparently not.
The third element in the confluence was a book by Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain, which I am currently reading, and which deals with Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves. Jefferson is well known for his uneasy feelings about the institution of slavery–and for having never freed his slaves. The reason for the latter seems to be that he was deeply conflicted about race.
When he was growing up Jefferson was often taken care of by black people, and loved and trusted them. As a young man he denounced slavery, and was given a rude reception, after which he was quieter about it. As a somewhat older man, with a family and a large inherited debt, he apparently changed his mind, though perhaps not entirely. Wiencek says the crucial decade was approximately between 1780 and 1790, when Jefferson realized that slaves were financial assets, and because they reproduced their worth appreciated.
The value of some of his slaves also appreciated because he trained them in a wide variety of skills. He switched from growing tobacco to growing wheat, and wheat demanded more skills than tobacco. He needed to have a smith on the plantation to make plows and metal tools, he needed draft animals with suitable shelters, to grow suitable foods to sustain the animals, to manure and rotate crops on the fields. He needed slaves with sufficient skills to do all these things, and he managed to train a number of them, who took responsibility for many things, and were sometimes rewarded with money (though not as well as their white counterparts) for doing their jobs so responsibly.
Those highly trained slaves were a minority, though. Most of the slaves worked in the fields, where less skill, but much industry was needed. Jefferson didn’t like punishing slaves himself, but that was an essential part of making sure his plantation ran as he intended. For that he used overseers, who whipped not only adult slaves, but also the relatively young boys who worked in the nail factory Jefferson had establishes, and which brought him a good profit.
A number of his slaves seemed to be happy, some of them testifying to that long after his death, but not all were. During the Revolutionary War one of his slave families ran away to the British, who were promising to set slave free. Unfortunately for them, they died of disease, as many of the soldiers were doing at the same time. Running away from a plantation that was fairly secure to follow an army seems something only desperate people would do.
Another, later slave was the child of one of Jefferson’s favorites, and was generally well-treated. He started working in the nail factory Jefferson had on his plantation, which produced enough nails to make a good profit. The slave didn’t do well at first, but eventually became extremely skilled at the job. But though he had a relatively high status he repeatedly ran away, once being gone for a year before being captured and returned. He vowed to seek religion then, but ran away again. We don’t know what happened to him ultimately, but may surmise that it wasn’t pleasant.
The Marquis de Rochefoucault-Liancourt, a friend of Jefferson’s from when he was ambassador to France, visited the plantation, and observing how skilled many of the best slaves were, inquired as to whether these hadn’t developed far enough to be freed. Jefferson denied that they were, but said nothing very germane. Once he had begun to retreat from advocating freeing the slaves he came up with a variety of excuses and comments: Slavery would soon end. Ending slavery had to wait until whites could be mentally prepared to accept it. Slaves were childish and too incompetent to be free. Slaves couldn’t be freed until they could be exiled to some other country or countries because they would cause too much disharmony here. Slaves had been freed, but the experiment hadn’t worked. This last was untrue: it had worked so well in Virginia, where Quakers had instigated manumission of slaves (then illegal) that the manumissions were legalized retroactively.
With all Jefferson’s ideals, intelligence and inventiveness, he was stuck in the reality of owning slaves, and didn’t really want to abolish that, since it was convenient and profitable for him. As in many other things, he was an innovator in finding more efficient ways to run his estate. After switching crops from tobacco to wheat, for example, he had men in a wagon follow the harvesters, sharpening the scythes and sickles that were being used, so the harvesters need not pause.
He also built a large and efficient kitchen for that time, especially because he was ending his term as President and expected large numbers of visitors thereafter. Most plantations had cooking done in shacks with rudimentary equipment. Jefferson’s cooks learned to produce the French cooking he loved.
Another notable aspect of the plantation was that the slave cultivated their own gardens and sold a large amount of the produce to Jefferson. At first glance this seems like a benign arrangement, except that there was a huge disparity between the rations Jefferson allowed his slaves and those he provided for his overseers. Without the gardens his slaves would have rapidly starved, especially the elderly, no longer able to work. Their rations were cut in half at that point.
So Jefferson, for all his good qualities, and he was a very talented and energetic man, wasn’t quite the role model for civil rights that Cal Thomas implies. He was unusual for his mileau in even questioning the institution of slavery, but refused to take the next step and free his slaves. George Washington, on the other hand, did free his. When elected the first President of the United States, he at first took very few slaves with him to Philadelphia (then the nation’s capitol) for fear they would escape to freedom. But later he deliberately brought slaves with him and freed them. He didn’t publicize this, and I only found out about it in the past few years, but on this subject Washington was action, while Jefferson was talk.
In my opinion, the other commentator in the local paper was right to question what a young Cal Thomas would have done had he been stalked by someone bigger than him who had a gun. It’s already been pointed out that if Trayvon Martin had been the stalker and killer there would have been very little question of his conviction. As the commentator points out, Thomas, like many other conservatives, prefers to ignore the evidence of racism, and seems not to have enough imagination to understand what it might be like to actually be persecuted himself.
As little as he likes Ho Chi Minh, and as much as he reveres Thomas Jefferson, it would be nice if he would realize that Jefferson, for all his talents, abilities and contributions to the founding of this nation, was also infected with the pathogenic idea of racism, which continues to cause monstrous suffering in this country.


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