Lucia Stanton | Historian

Lucia Stanton is the senior research historian at Monticello. Much of her work has been devoted to expanding understanding of the slave life at Monticello. She wrote Slavery at Monticello, and co-edited Thomas Jefferson’s Memorandum Books 1767(1826.

“He's someone carrying a torchlight, lighting up all these different corners....”

  What draws you to Thomas Jefferson?
I initially was not drawn to Jefferson at all. I studied Jefferson and Adams in college and much preferred John Adams—spontaneous, real; Jefferson—elusive, slippery. But, having worked with him basically for over 20 years, he illuminates so many different subjects for me. He takes me down many different byways and avenues and at the same time, he's puzzling to me. He's someone carrying a torchlight, lighting up all these different corners, but themselves being in the shadows.

  Why is he so enigmatic?
Well, he draws you on into inquiry, but you never get to end of the trail exactly. He was extremely private. Privacy was almost a religion for Jefferson: his stoical philosophy, always putting a good face on things, his belief in social harmony, for instance. He really tried to avoid conflict of all kinds, taking life "by the smooth handle," which makes him seem to many people a hypocrite in a way. But that was how he behaved and it is very hard to find out what's behind all of that.

  How do you reconcile the man who wrote "all men are created equal" but never freed his slaves?
I think it's very difficult to reconcile this contradiction. And I haven't successfully done it myself but I'm trying to work my way back to Jefferson's time, to the context for his behavior and look at it in that way. I think he was very good at dissembling for himself as well as the rest of the world. And he convinced himself over the course of his life that his slaves were better off in his care, what one historian, William Freeling, has described as a kind of "enlightened trusteeship" and he seems to have talked himself into believing that his paternal care was better for them than freedom.

First Plan of Monticello

  Tell us about his slaves. Make them human. Who were they?
There were a number of very interesting families among the African-American population at Monticello. We know about George and Ursula, for instance. This was an unusual family because Jefferson purchased this family. Most of his slaves came to him through inheritance. And George, or Great George, as he was known, rose to be overseer of Monticello. That was the top position in the hierarchy. His wife, Ursula, was in charge of the domestic dependencies. And we know a great deal about their son, Isaac, who later took the name Jefferson because his recollections were taken down. He was trained as a blacksmith and a tinsmith. He tells us a lot about Jefferson and Monticello, and not as much as we would like to know about his own feelings and life.

  What does he tell us about Jefferson and Monticello?
Isaac Jefferson's memoirs give us a real sense of immediacy. We learn some things that we don't learn anywhere else: that Jefferson took his slave, Isaac, to Philadelphia to be apprenticed to a tinsmith. He talks about Jefferson sharing his own metalworking trade. Jefferson made locks and other things out of metal and Isaac remembers that, seeing him at work. We also learn about the courtship of one of Jefferson's daughters, an aspect of her life that we'd known nothing about. She rejected one of her suitors, and Isaac Jefferson was observing this from his working station in the nailery at Monticello.

  Was he a good master?
The issue of Jefferson as a master—was he a good master? — is almost like a contradiction in terms, of course, but so many of the voices that have come down to us that do speak on that issue talk about him as a good master, "an ideal master" even, one slave recalled. And it's very hard for us to interpret these statements. You know, what was the context of their commentary really? But, from what we can judge from the records, the conditions of slavery at Monticello were mitigated in comparison to those around. I think that Jefferson strongly believed that physical punishment should be used only as a last resort, and I think probably there was less of that than on other comparable plantations.

  Could you drink in Monticello for me? Put me there, around Mulberry Row. What am I seeing?
Mulberry Row doesn't bear any resemblance to the sights and sounds of Mulberry Row in Jefferson's day. If one were to walk down Mulberry Row in Jefferson's time, there would be the smell of smoke coming out of the chimney, of the nailery, the sound of hammers ringing on anvils. In the nailery, for instance, there were up to 14 young teenage boys hammering on anvils. There would be wagons driving up and down the road, bringing firewood to Monticello all year round. The kitchen used a cord of wood every five days, so you would hear the rolling of wheels and all kinds of sounds of work.

  And how did the slaves live?
The slaves lived in many different parts of Monticello. The Mulberry Row itself had at least five slave dwellings at one time. And we think there lived mainly the house servants and artisans. Then, further down the mountain would be the wagoners and carters, between artisans and farm laborers. And the quarters where the farm laborers lived were at least a mile away from the Monticello house. So there were many different locations for slave dwellings.

  Did he ever sell his slaves and break up a family?
Jefferson wrote that he had scruples against selling slaves except in the case of uniting a spouse. This he did occasionally to keep spouses together. Or in the case of delinquency, by which he meant failure to abide by the law of the plantation. But he also sold a number of slaves for financial reasons. He was saddled by a huge debt after the death of his father-in-law and spent most of the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to pay this off. And he would make periodic sales of slaves to that end.

  What interests you most about Monticello and the man?
Well, I'm fascinated by the diversity and complexity of the whole operation, everything that was going on, the lives at many different levels, the many different ethnic groups, really. As well as the African-Americans, there were Germans and Italians and Irish workers living, living and working at Monticello.

  Wage workers?
Yes, they were paid resident workers. They had dwellings also along Mulberry Row and other places on the mountain.

“You get the sense of almost like a closing of the imagination to their full humanity in some cases....”

  What's his relationship to his slaves?
Jefferson was on a one-to-one basis with his slaves. I think he was very sympathetic to their wishes. But when he acted in his role as a plantation manager, he could be very blind to their needs and their culture as well. So you get a mixture.

You get the sense of almost like a closing of the imagination to their full humanity in some cases because you have this terrible compound of human being and property. Jefferson dealt with it in various ways, and when he had to think about the profitability of his plantation, the inheritance of his daughters, he could write, please sell 30 slaves from the Poplar Forest plantation. And we don't know what he was feeling at that time, of course, but on the other hand, there are many cases where he interceded on behalf of certain slaves who had run away perhaps from his plantation and asked that they not be punished, wrote his overseers not to punish them. So when he was confronted on a one-to-one basis, he was very human and sympathetic.

  Who is Sally Hemings?
Sally Hemings was the daughter of Betty Hemings, a slave Jefferson inherited from his father-in-law, and she spent two years in Paris with Jefferson and his daughters, was trained as a lady's maid, we believe, and attended on Jefferson's daughters when the family returned to Monticello. She had a number of children, one of whom has left his recollections of his life and of his mother and that tells us most of what we know about Sally Hemings. We're also talking to descendants of her children.

  Did they occupy a special place within the household of Monticello?
The Hemings family is really remarkable. They occupied most of the household and even most of the artisan positions at Monticello. And this apparently was considered quite unusual. One member of the family says it was unusual, we were all of one family living on the mountaintop. And nobody knows quite why that is. Jefferson's grandson said it was because they were very able and intelligent and the best people for the positions basically. But you have house servants, carpenters, blacksmiths, a brewer. And these were virtually all members of one family.

“...the slaves, of course were involved at all levels....”

  Robert Cooley said the slaves at Monticello had given Jefferson the opportunity to write the Declaration of Independence and thus shared a kind of authorship. What's your response to that?
In the way that Jefferson was involved in all levels of the creation of Monticello—designing the curtains, going in and weighing the nails that were made in the nailery every day—the slaves, of course, were involved at all levels as well: in raising and sometimes superintending the raising of the crops, making of the cloth, raising of his children and grandchildren. And it was integral to everything that went on at Monticello.

  Can you tell us about the end, the debt, the lottery?
I think Jefferson was able to hide his true financial picture from himself for most of the days of his life. He would have occasional moments when he would go back over his accounts and there would be this anguished outcry about being under a load of debt or owing somebody $10,000. But he was so optimistic most of the time, I think he put his financial troubles in a little corner that he protected himself from. So, at the end of his life, I think it was more difficult to do that—by then he couldn't tell himself that well, if he sold a bit of land here, a few slaves there, he would be able to rescue his property. And the failure of the lottery was, I'm sure, a terrible disappointment to him. I still can't imagine that he foresaw the catastrophe that swept away all the families at Monticello, both black and white, [with] the sale of all his personal property after his death and of his slaves as well. I don't think he ever foresaw that moment.

Sale of Monticello Notice

  And what happened to Monticello after his death?
Well, first the furnishings were sold about six months after his death. His books were sold at various times after his death. His paintings as well. The slaves in several lots were put up at auction. And the house itself was not sold until about five years after his death. The family tried living there for awhile. They thought of making it a school, some way to keep it, but were not able to.

  Why is it that we are still struggling to understand him? Is it the words he's written or the ambiguity of the life?
I think Jefferson gives us a sense of transcendent possibilities in so many different ways, both as American citizens, the possibilities for the nation, and also as individuals. People who come to Monticello see that vegetable garden a thousand feet long and they know they can't have a garden a thousand feet long, but they could make a beautiful vegetable garden. Or the house itself, even with its eccentricities, gives the sense of the possible. I think Jefferson inspires people with the sense of the possible.

  So what moment would you like to have witnessed?
There are so many moments of Jefferson's life that I would like to revisit. I feel I've visited them in a certain sense in a way, but I don't really know and so I can only think of just very trivial moments. One I remember enjoying was reading an account of someone who came to Jefferson's house in Paris and he found him, quote "under the hairdresser." Now I'd never really thought of Jefferson in the act of getting his hair dressed. This just didn't seem to accord with, you know, the Jefferson being very careful about every moment of his life. So, I enjoyed that moment and also Jefferson complaining to Abigail Adams that he had to get dressed up to go to court once a week and he thought he would lose a year of his life in hairdressing. So he didn't enjoy those moments under his hairdresser.

  Did Jefferson have a sense of humor?
There is humor in Jefferson—not a spontaneous humor, however. It was a clever kind of humor. And one enjoys the humor in his correspondence with his daughters and granddaughters—a playful kind of humor.

  Is Monticello a big family? Is he the paternalistic father of this clan?
Jefferson used the word "family" in different ways. And at one point in his Farm Book, he talks about "my family of 132 souls." And he's talking about not just himself and his blood family but the white overseers and their families living on the plantation, the slaves and their families living on the plantation. And actually, that's sort of an archaic meaning of the word "family," the head of a household. In his case, the head of a plantation. But this gets blurred over time. In one case, he actually talks about the family inside and outside, and he's referring to the white family inside the house and the black families outside. So it's an interesting use of the term that we don't really have anymore.

“He was a pragmatist. He was an Enlightenment figure and there is a dark side to the Enlightenment.”

  Do you forgive Thomas Jefferson for being a slave owner?
I think I'm beginning to understand it, but Jefferson has created such great expectations in us today that he disappoints them in that line. We want him to be a hero and he was not a hero in relation to slavery at all. He was a pragmatist. He was an Enlightenment figure and there is a dark side to the Enlightenment. He believed so strongly in the progress of the human condition that it, in some ways, forestalled his efforts to end the institution. He was so confident that things were gradually improving and that it was only a matter of time before this terribly unjust institution would be eradicated.

  But he made no active moves himself in his practical life to do that.
He didn't act boldly in terms of leading the country toward emancipation. He made some early efforts, was discouraged by the results of those, and then seems to have turned his attention more to his own plantation, to reforming the institution at Monticello; in a way making it a more benign system in his own household and just waiting for a better moment when the public mind was ready to accept things.

Declaration of Independence, Signed by Congress

  What's the thing about him that we don't remember that you would like us to take away?
Well, there are many different areas. I think the Declaration gets so much attention that one forgets the 30 years that follow that Jefferson gave to the country to try to keep it in line with the principles that he had expressed in the Declaration. When he came back from France, he really thought he was the only thing standing between the principles of the Declaration and the country going in the direction of a monarchy. We forget how fragile the republic was in that period. And he was not at all confident that it could last and so he really gave himself to that public service and I think that's forgotten, that aspect of it, all the things he did to keep the Declaration alive.

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