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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