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Unearthing Secret America

Thos. Jefferson, Slavemaster  
Photo of  Alan in front of Monticello
  Alan in front of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's majestic home. It's architecture reveals Jefferson's discomfort with slavery.

Thomas Jefferson's famous Monticello estate encompassed 5,000 acres. To work the estate, Jefferson owned about 120 slaves--men, women and children, living close to the house and at four farms.

The author of the Declaration of Independence, which asserted that "all men are created equal," Jefferson designed Monticello to benefit from slavery while keeping the uncomfortable reality hidden from plain view.

In "Thos. Jefferson, Slavemaster", Fraser Neiman, Director of Archeology for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, takes Alan on a tour of underground passageways, revolving cupboards and a wine elevator, all methods Jefferson devised to keep his slaves hidden from view.

Jefferson called slavery an "abominable crime," but he nevertheless sought to maximize the productivity of his slaves. An insurance plan drawn by Jefferson in 1796 has been the basis for archeology along Mulberry Row. Close to the mansion, Mulberry Row row was the focus of many of Jefferson's slave-based enterprises, including a nail factory, a carpenter's shop, and a blacksmith.

Neiman believes he's identified a revealing pattern in the sub-floor pits slaves used to store personal belongings. Many have been excavated on Mulberry Row. Between about 1770 and 1800, slave houses got smaller, and fewer pits were dug. Eventually there were no pits. According to Neiman, the absence of sub floor pits is evidence of a move to smaller, family-based living arrangements for slaves.

Photo of  Buttons found in sub-floor pits
Personal items, like these buttons, found in sub-floor pits beneath slave quarters reveal some surprising things about the daily lives of slaves.  

Neiman thinks the key to these changes in slave living is tobacco. Since Jamestown it had created wealth and demanded slave labor, organized in gangs. But in the 1790s the market collapsed. Jefferson, along with many other slave owners, switched to wheat, a more complicated plant requiring crop rotation and diversification, plows, draft animals and, above all, skilled laborers.

The result, says Neiman, was a profound change. There was less coercion, more trust, more rewards -- rewards that included the chance to live in your own family house. Slaves, he believes, quickly grasped the opportunity to pry a better life from their masters.

For more on this topic, see the web feature:
These American Lives
Slave Housing at Monticello

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