How central was slavery in Jefferson's life?
He is Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and author of
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, winner of the 1997
National Book Award. He was one of the many Jefferson historians who considered the
Jefferson-Hemings relationship unlikely.
His whole life was lived in the midst of slaves over the course of his
lifetime. He owned approximately 600 slave persons. At any one time, he owned
about 200. And his lifestyle, his standard of living itself at Monticello,
were all dependent upon the institution of slavery.
He was born as a member of the Virginia planter class, into an institution that
was rooted in his world and his country--he called Virginia his country. And
he grew up with that as a kind of fait accompli.
How thorough was this dependence? Did Jefferson have other means of income
In an economic sense, he was almost completely dependent on the institution of
slavery. The bulk of his life was spent in public service and as a white
planter in Monticello, growing tobacco. It was an ironic form of dependence,
because he went bankrupt, as did a significant percentage of the planter class
in Virginia, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slavery in
Virginia was not working as an economic institution.
So he was economically dependent on slavery. Monticello was built on slaves.
Tobacco was raised and harvested by slaves. The wheat was, too. Jefferson has
these great hymns to the American farmer--the pastoral ideal--but he didn't get
out in the fields and farm. He very seldom went to the fields. He went there
occasionally during harvests. And he didn't really see the slave population
very often that was out there living beyond the house of Monticello.
But in response to your initial question, in some sense slavery is what
sustained his life. On the other hand, slavery was also the institution that
made it certain that he would die bankrupt, because it was not economically
You talk in the book about Jefferson's concept of family--that it seemed to
be larger than just his immediate family, and, in some cases, it seemed to
I think that's tricky. In verbal terms, he does refer to his family on
occasion as the entire residence of people in Monticello, which includes the
African-American population. He talked about "my slave family." There was a
very paternalistic attitude that he had towards them, which was familial.
On the other hand, I think that Jefferson regarded as his core family, the
white descendants--his two daughters and their children--the real core of the
family in Monticello. And the more you look at the African-American population
at Monticello, the more you realize that there were real racial divisions
within the slave population.
Jefferson thought of most of members of the Hemings family, and a few other
household slaves, as longstanding members of his larger family--as people who
were part of his household--and, in some sense of the term, part of his family.
I think the other slaves, who tended to be darker slaves, fieldhands, were
regarded as beyond the pale. They were in a somewhat different position.
So it's not simple. The best way to think about it is read "Absolom, Absolom."
It's a complicated context in which the whites and blacks are bound together.
But the black slaves, especially in the field, are not treated as anything
other than slaves.
Can you talk about the special relations that he had with the Hemings
family? How did they come to be a part of his life?
The Hemings family becomes a large portion of Jefferson's slave population.
It's a family that is related to him through his father-in-law. Jefferson's
father-in-law fathered several of the Hemings children--John Wales, by Betty
Hemings. The Hemings family and a few other of the most trusted slaves in
Monticello are inherited by Jefferson when he marries Martha Skelton Jefferson.
Those become the core of the household slaves, and then they themselves have
children. Sally Hemings is one of such children. They become the slaves that
are the front and center slaves at Monticello. If you come to Monticello to
visit Jefferson, those will tend to be the slaves you see. They're the ones
tending to the household and they're the ones around the house. They are the
more light-skinned slaves.
Sally herself is three-quarters white. All of her children would be
seven-eighths white. So there's a kind of racial layering at Monticello. And
Sally Hemings, or the Hemings family, is present for a lot of the important
moments in Jefferson's life, for example, when his wife dies. So they've built
up a residue of genuine emotional affinity.
You mention also that there was a self-conscious attempt on Jefferson's part
to buffer himself from the harsher realities of field slavery. Did he
self-consciously create a sort of radius around himself?
I don't know how self-conscious it was. This is my interpretation of Jefferson
after spending five or six years trying to understand the fellow--that
Jefferson, at some level, is very uncomfortable with slavery. He is on record
as believing that it's a fundamental moral travesty, and that the institution
of slavery violates the core principles of the American Revolution--that it, in
fact, violates the words that he himself wrote in the Declaration of
Independence. He says this over and over again. He's therefore on record as
believing that this is, if not a sin, at least a moral wrong, and that it needs
to end. Yet he's living right in the middle of it.
So my own interpretation of Jefferson is that he constructs a way to shield
himself from some of the most unattractive facets of slavery. His identity is
that of a man who's leading a family. He's a planter with a paternalistic
identity and thinks of these black slaves as his children. That's one such
way, and a great many other planters in Virginia and North Carolina did the
In addition to that, visually construct Monticello. The slaves that live
around Monticello are thought to be the light-skinned slaves. He doesn't see
much of the slaves who are in the fields. And there's his other major
plantation in Bedford, about 90 miles away--he doesn't see much of them at all.
This is a psychological way to create some distance, and to show himself only
the most attractive side of slavery, if in fact it can have an attractive
And the ones in his immediate world, the Hemingses, were more privileged?
The Hemings family tended to have more privileges. They were given a good deal
more freedom. All descendants of the Hemings family were among the slaves that
Jefferson eventually freed or allowed to run away without pursuing them.
What were some of Jefferson's earlier views about race when he was still a
young man, and up to the time that he arrived in Paris?
During Jefferson's early years, prior to the time that he becomes a major
public figure, he tends to be one of the more progressive members of the
Virginia planter elite. He tends to take positions that are, in modern terms,
to the left and more liberal within that context. He tends to favor the end of
the slave trade, though a great many planters come around to that position. He
tends to talk about the right to free slaves in the colony of Virginia; and
also to see to it that, if accused of crimes, they would receive the same kind
of justice as whites.
However, in Virginia in the 1760s, he witnesses that some of his colleagues who
take similar positions are very severely punished and ostracized. And he
recognizes that any kind of proto-emancipation position, anything that looks
like it's leading to that, is out of bounds. . . and politically suicidal.
When he comes to Philadelphia in 1775 at the Continental Congress, he's one of
the lesser members of the Virginia delegation. He's not yet a major figure.
But in the draft of the Declaration that he writes, he inserts a paragraph
essentially calling for the end of the slave trade. He blames the slave trade
and, in some sense, slavery itself, on George III. It's a rather preposterous
propagandistic position. But one can imagine that maybe he's trying to say,
"This is the opportunity to end slavery, and we can, in this great
revolutionary transformational moment, end it all."
It's more likely that he was only calling for the end of the slave trade.
Within Virginia, ending the slave trade was a popular position. They already
had enough slaves, and it was actually in their economic advantage to end the
slave trade. Nevertheless, that section was deleted by the Continental
Congress, and he always called attention to that. He said that this was one of
his earliest efforts to try to make a statement against slavery at the birth of
In the Continental Congress before he goes to Paris, he proposed legislation
that would call for the abolition of any extension of slavery into any of the
territories--not just the northwest territories--but to any of the western
territories. It failed to pass by one vote. That was perhaps the most
significant thing he tried, and failed, to do.
If that had passed, the entire history of the United States would have been
quite different. That's the high-water mark of his progressive position on
slavery. After that time, you begin to see a gradual decline into a position
that becomes more paralyzed.
Did he advertise himself as being progressive on slavery? Was it a part of
his identity, a quality that made him special in the eyes of others?
He was selective in that regard. He didn't do that in Virginia. In Virginia,
he did not feature that side of his own identity or his own political
perspective. However, in Philadelphia, he did feature it, in a Quaker city
hostile to slavery. By the time he goes to Paris, he features it in a quite
pronounced way. He celebrates the imminent end of slavery in Paris to
Jefferson begins to develop the capacity to be all things to all people in his
own lifetime, by projecting in his letters and in his comments different facets
of his own personality and his own political perspective.
Does this suggest that, even in this earlier, more progressive period, he
was not entirely heartfelt--that it was not sincere?
No, Jefferson is almost always sincere, even when he contradicts himself.
You and other historians have cited the Paris years as being some of
Jefferson's happiest and most fulfilling. Regarding his aesthetic, cultural
side, what did Paris mean to Jefferson?
That side of him was vitalized and immersed in the luxuries and the sort of
ravishing and rhapsodic beauties of late eighteenth-century Paris, which was
perhaps the most beautiful city in the world at that time. His five years
there were culturally, in terms of the architecture, the wine, the salon set,
and the sheer density of social life, a great, great experience for him. He
was the American minister to Paris, and therefore part of the court. That's a
real side of Jefferson, an important side. It's an odd set of loves and
emotional affinities, because at another level, he is saying that what Paris
represents, what urban life represents, what this kind of consolidation of
social, political, economic power represents, is everything that he is opposed
This is a monarchical society, an aristocratic society. This is a society that
closes off access to power for the vast majority of the people. The society
lives by inherited wealth, and presumes a level of class distinction that he
proclaims to oppose. This is a European urban society, the epitome of Europe,
with all of its traps and snares and deprivations. In some sense, this is what
Jefferson calls "the dead hand of the past." This is feudalism. This is the
medieval world that the United States is being founded to speak against.
And yet he found himself.
And yet he loves it, he loves it. On the one hand he genuinely loves it, and
talks in ravishing terms about the architecture. He takes trips down to
southern France, and crosses over somewhat illegally into northern Italy, to
see the sights and the ruins there. But when writing to young men who ask for
his advice, he says, "Don't come," or "Be very careful. Your life will be
caught up in sinfulness." So what's good for him is sometimes not something he
would recommend to others.
In Paris at this time, the intellectual climate offered ideas of democracy
and political liberation. These ideas were beginning to be entertained in a
serious way. What role did he play in that?
The French Revolution is beginning to become a possibility during Jefferson's
time there, especially during the last two to three years of his time there.
He is in conversation with some of the major figures who will become figures in
the French Revolution, such as Condurset, and Lafayette especially. There are,
in fact, meetings among people who are involved in reforming the French
monarchy, and they hope to create a constitutional monarchy in a peaceful way.
. . .
Some of the very documents from the early days of the French Revolution are
drafted with Jefferson--he didn't write them--but they're drafted with
He has what turns out to be a somewhat innocent and naïve notion as to how
the French Revolution will proceed. In fact, most of the people who become his
friends and associates are themselves eventually guillotined in the French
Revolution. He thinks it will be a bloodless affair.
But the French Revolution, for Jefferson, represents "The Spirit of '76," the
American Revolution in the European context. He sees the French Revolution as
a projection of the very revolutionary energies that he had helped launch in
the United States in the previous decade. Other Americans, John Adams and many
others, think that's a somewhat loony idea, and that the French Revolution and
the American Revolution have almost nothing in common. But Jefferson's core
conviction is that this is the same movement that we're all part of.
If that is so, Jefferson almost seems to have been in advance of his new
French friends with regard to some of these ideas. But there's also the fact
of slavery lurking in the background. And in many ways, the French seemed to
have been more progressive than he is. . . .
That's one of the reasons why, when Jefferson talks about slavery in France, he
talks about it as an anachronism that's soon to die. If any of his Virginia
friends saw what he was saying to his French friends, they would be aghast. Of
course, slavery was not on the road to extinction in Virginia--nowhere near
And French society is a place where, for example, if you brought a slave with
you into France, upon arriving in France, that person--man or woman--was free.
Jefferson was asked by some of his Virginia and South Carolina friends who were
bringing slaves with them over to France, "What do you do about it?" And
Jefferson said, "Well, you just don't tell them about it."
So even as he was projecting himself as the libertarian and the democrat,
he was in a sense facilitating slavery among his American friends.
He was saying that "It's possible for you to come and over here, bring your
slaves and you won't lose them, because they won't find out about it if you
don't tell them." I don't know whether you want to call it hypocrisy, or a
kind of psychological agility, but Jefferson is comfortable as the American in
Paris in the 1780s, the successor to Franklin, and as the emblem of the
American Revolution, which in French terms, also means an end to slavery.
The French thought that the American Revolution of course, must lead to the
end of slavery. That's what the republican principles allegedly lead to. And
Jefferson went along with that.
Jefferson hated controversy. Jefferson heard harmonies inside himself. And
whenever there was dissonance outside, that must be wrong. There's something
wrong. We have to get back to the harmonies. And so he didn't like to argue.
He liked to tell people what they wanted to hear. The French wanted to hear
that slavery was ending. The Virginians, if they had heard that, would have
While Jefferson was in Paris, his Notes on Virginia was published
back home in America. . . .
It was originally published in England in translation. . . . It was published
first in England and France and then it was sent back to the United States in
translated form. He didn't want it to be published.
Jefferson didn't like to project out into the world a single expression of his
opinions. He liked to tailor his views to different constituencies. It's one
of the reasons it's the only book he ever published in his whole life.
So it imposed accountability.
That's right. And it did have some things to say in it about slavery that he
knew would upset certain people back in the United States. Therefore, he was
not himself involved in the move to publish it. Once it was published, he then
said, "Okay, now it's out there, and I want to make sure it's a good English
translation," and was involved in that.
In the arena of race, it seems to be a somewhat divided book. There are
certain passages that are explicitly racist. And there are other passages that
we would think of as very progressive with regards to slavery.
Yes. On the one hand, in Notes on Virginia, he seems to be taking the position
that slavery itself is an immoral institution, that we need to establish some
sort of gradual emancipation plan to put it on the road to extinction. And he
suggests a plan.
On the other hand, he also has some of the most racist remarks imaginable in
the book. He suggests that blacks are biologically inferior. . . . that the
racial differences between blacks and whites are not a function of nurture, but
nature, and that blacks and whites can never hope to live together in the same
society in any harmony.
In fact, those are his honest convictions, and ones that he pretty much holds
to for the remainder of his life--that slavery should end, but the blacks and
whites cannot live together in this society.
Does he suggest, though, in Notes on Virginia . . . that even though blacks are
by his likes inferior, that this inferiority should not preclude, or does not
necessarily preclude their right to freedom.
That's right. The fact that blacks are inferior human beings, in Jefferson's
view, doesn't mean that it's right to enslave them. They are human, and in
Jeffersonian terms, they possess within them a core of humanity in a moral
sense, which is violated when they are enslaved. Therefore, slavery by any
measure is a moral wrong and a statement against mankind. So blacks, even
though inferior, should not be enslaved.
Is it fair to interpret that as a very radical definition of freedom--that even
a human inferiority should not preclude one's political freedom?
I wouldn't call it a radical position. It's more of a liberal position.
Within the context of the late eighteenth century, it's a core humanistic idea.
It comes out of the Renaissance and out of the humanistic tradition.
Jefferson gets some of his philosophical foundation for this out of the Scotch
common sense philosophy, and what's called the moral sense--that every human
being has a conscience--can tell right from wrong--and that's the
distinguishing feature of our humanness, or our humanity. Blacks and Indians
have that, too. For that reason, to restrain them in an institution of slavery
is to prevent them from being human. That said, the biological differences
between the races will lead to warfare and bloodshed, and weeping and gnashing
of teeth, and the best thing that one can do, if one wishes to end slavery, is
to find a way to send the freed African-Americans out of the country.
What are his views on racial mixing--mixing of the bloods?
All bad, according to his written work, and that it represents a contamination
of both races. But most especially, white Anglo-Saxon Americans take a fatal
blow to the purity of the Anglo-Saxon race, which is destined to sweep across
the North American continent.
Jefferson is a thinking man's racist, but he's a racist. He has a letter in
the early nineteenth century, in which he talks in very specific terms about
the ratio of black and white blood inside different people. He's talking about
them as if they were animals that you're breeding, like Merino sheep. . . .
On the one hand, his Notes on Virginia has many sections that are racist, that
clearly argue against the mixing of the bloods, and so forth. And even as that
book is becoming known to the world, he seems to be embarking on a
relationship involving precisely that.
Right, right. We don't know for sure when Jefferson's relationship with Sally
Hemings started. The DNA testing that has been done was done on the Eston
Hemings line. Eston was born in 1805. It does seem that Jefferson had a
long-term relationship with Sally Hemings. It's impossible for us to know with
precision when it began. The DNA testing done on the one progeny that would
have come out of the Paris years was a non-match. That's the Woodson line.
Sally Hemings's son Madison Hemings said that that's when the relationship
started--when his mother Sally and Jefferson were together in Paris and that,
in fact, she wanted to stay in Paris, and that Jefferson persuaded her to come
back, promising that he would eventually free all of her children.
That's according to Madison Hemings in a testimony in 1873. My own personal
opinion is that the Paris years is the time that a sexual relationship with
Sally Hemings began. She was young, about 14 or 15 years old at that time. We
know very little about her, and what we do know comes from testimony of other
slaves, who described her as "mighty 'nar white." She was three-fourths white.
She had straight black hair, and was very attractive.
You can certainly say that, by initiating a relationship with Sally Hemings in
the late 1780s in Paris--if that, in fact, occurred, and I think it probably
did--he is acting in a way that's at odds with his own statements about
biological inferiority. You can explain that by suggesting this as just
another one of the Jeffersonian contradictions.
It's one of the pieces of evidence that led folks astray for many years,
because it wasn't that Jefferson was such a gallant wonderful fellow that
caused many people to doubt that he had a relationship with Sally Hemings. It
was that he really was a racist. The other way to potentially explain it is to
say that he didn't think of Sally as black. Sally Hemings was seven-eighths
white, and by his own definition, seven-eighths white is white. So the
children he would have had by Sally Hemings were themselves no longer black, in
Jefferson's own highly mathematical definition of what the fundamental
difference between black and white is.
I want to come back to precisely that point a little later. Is it fair to say
that, at this point--either in Paris, or at some point not too far after his
Paris years--Jefferson began to live a double life? That he began to live a
life with Sally that, from then on, really was at odds, not only with his
racist views, but also with his democratic views--his views as the father of
Well, yes. I wouldn't quite put it that way myself. But I wouldn't shout down
that way of describing it. Once the relationship with Sally Hemings begins, he
is living a lie. And because he's a public figure and has aspirations to
become a major figure in American history, he needs to conceal this. He needs
to keep this a secret.
It's also rather interesting that it is at this same moment that the
relationship with Sally begins, he begins to back away from a leadership
position on the slavery issue. It's at this time that Jefferson begins to talk
about slavery as something that he cannot do anything about, and that needs to
be postponed for the next generation.
So are you saying then that it is very likely that his entering into a
relationship with Sally transformed the nature of Jefferson's leadership as an
American political figure? Because certainly one of the things that has been
interesting about Jefferson up to this point is that there seemed to have been
a certain moral courage--a moral daring to come forward, and say that all men
are created equal, as he did.
Jefferson doesn't lose the moral tone. No, Jefferson becomes the most
out-front, strident leader opposing the Federalist Party in the 1790s, seen as
a hostile takeover of the American Revolution . . . within the United States.
And is the most shrill and outspoken believer in those same revolutionary
So I don't think that the relationship with Sally Hemings can be called
something that transforms him and fundamentally changes his own political
Except in the area of slavery?
Except in the area of slavery, which is a big area, to be sure. It draws upon
skills and abilities that he has already developed--abilities to speak in
different ways to different constituencies--to be agile inside himself. He's a
person who can project fundamentally different impressions and images to
He already possessed that. But he's going to need to have that in order to
sustain this relationship with Sally Hemings. We really can't know, or don't
know, what the character of that relationship is--whether it was a love
relationship--although we can be sure that people will be telling us what it
I do think it had an effect on Jefferson's life, most especially in the way in
which he backs off a position of leadership on the slavery issue. And that's
From our own perspective, and through what you call "presentism," Jefferson
clearly seems to be living an outrageous double life. But were there customs
in play in his time that made this not quite so outrageous, that made it, maybe
even in many ways, normal?
Yes. Within the white planter class of the Chesapeake region--Virginia,
Maryland and maybe North Carolina --the existence of interracial sex within the
plantation between master and slave was not uncommon. I choose those words
with some care. We don't know how frequent it was --whether it was the
exception or the rule.
John Adams first heard the story of Sally Hemings when it was first published
in 1802 by Calender, the notorious libeler of Jefferson, and of Adams too.
Adams didn't really believe it, saying that he knows what kind of guy this
Calender is. On the other hand, Jefferson is eminently vulnerable to the
charge, because every planter in the South is involved in some way sexually
with his black charges.
Now, every planter in the South was not involved. But a lot was going on, and
a lot was being done in this way, where everybody knew it, but no one could or
would talk about it. . . .
So what was Jefferson was doing was hardly unprecedented. What made it more
dangerous was that he was a major public figure. Therefore, the possibility of
this affecting his own public career was much more of a real threat.
So had he not been a public figure . . .
Then it would have been okay. People would have talked, and people would have
known about it. I find most interesting . . . in reading her correspondence .
. . that Jefferson's eldest daughter, Martha who lived with him for most of his
adult life and who had 12 children at Monticello, is convinced there's no
relationship. She's not covering up for her father.
Try to explain that to me. Is there any indication that anyone in his family
or in his white circle are aware of . . . It's difficult to believe that they
didn't . . .
This is the problem. Here is a person living in a plantation mansion, but one
in which people are seeing each other in a face-to-face basis and moving
around. It's impossible to imagine that the relationship between Jefferson and
Sally Hemings was unknown to members of the family, or was unknown to other
members of the slave community--the extended family, if you will--especially
within the inner circle of the Hemingses.
But the written record that remains suggests that they all denied that it was
true, that they didn't talk about it until it was made public in the Calender
accusations of 1802. Once it's made public, they devote a great deal of time
saying that it's obviously not true, that that's not the Mr. Jefferson that
they know, etc.
There were rumors within the slave community at Monticello, and within the
world of Charlottesville around it, that something like this was going on, and
that's what Calender heard. Calender was thrown in jail, imprisoned in the
Sedition Act, and he hears these rumors while he's in jail in Richmond.
So that there is an oral tradition that this is happening. But it leaves no
footsteps in the written record.
That's very interesting, because certainly, there clearly were situations where
the two sets of children would have spoken to each other, or had dealings of
some kind or another. . . .
The only thing we know is in the testimony of Madison Hemings in 1873, and
Madison Hemings says that "Mr. Jefferson took my mother as his concubine," that
he treated all of his slaves well but that he did not treat him, Madison
Hemings or his other children by Sally Hemings, as his children, and that he,
Madison Hemings, was resentful about that.
One of the old archetypal images of Jefferson would be him crafting the magic
words in American history with his quill pen in Philadelphia in 1776. In the
wake of the DNA revelations, we need to think of Jefferson also sitting at
dinner surrounded by his white family--his daughter and her children, and maybe
a few guests--being served by a mulatto slave, a house servant, named Madison
Hemings, who is mostly a carpenter but periodically helped out in the
household. There is this blurry sense that Madison Hemings is related to
Jefferson, but there's no acknowledgement of it. In Jefferson's own mind . . .
he cannot acknowledge that Madison Hemings is his own son.
The skills of a novelist are almost necessary to get at the psychological
layers that are operating there. We need to start reading--we need Faulkner
and Tennessee Williams--and stop all the sentimental stuff about the interiors
You write very interestingly about his capacity for what modern psychological
language would call denial. In order to achieve the denial, one has to repress
many of one's own natural feelings and impulses . . . such as a repression of
fatherly affection or of paternal love. Does anything indicate particularly
that, as Jefferson ages, he's increasingly in this double life, increasingly
cutting him off from himself, and alienating him from his own?
What you're saying about denial is true. In the wake of the DNA revelations,
an already-clear pattern of denial in Jefferson's life is deepened and
darkened. In my own book about Jefferson, I really stayed away from using the
word hypocrite or hypocrisy. I talked about him as a man who is self-deceived,
and whose denial mechanisms worked in such a way that he could sincerely say
somewhat different things to different groups.
I'm not sure it's possible to sustain that anymore in the wake of the
revelations on Sally Hemings. Jefferson was always capable, in effect, of
lying, and then passing a lie detector test about what he had just said. He
hires Calender to libel John Adams in the election of 1800. And Abigail and
John Adams ask him if he did it and he says, "No, I didn't do it."
He does the same thing against George Washington in an earlier moment in
politics in 1796, and then denies to Washington that he did it. And he seems
to believe himself as he says these things.
As he gets older, what happens politically is that he clings even more
tenaciously to his original principles, and those original principles really
are principles that he believes are at risk of being overwhelmed by the
He sees the Missouri crisis as a potential threat to the Union. But most
important, he sees any degree of federal power as a threat to what he calls
consolidation. As he gets older, he becomes increasingly isolated, and will
deny evidence that doesn't fit his particular view of the world and of what he
wants America to become.
Life for Jefferson is always black and white. And in some sense, the most
interesting thing about the whole Hemings family and Sally is that they don't
fit. They're not either black or white. But Jefferson sees the world in terms
of the forces of darkness and the forces of light, and he's on the side of the
forces of light.
He wants everything to fit into that paradigm, and when it doesn't, he forces
it in, then denies whatever doesn't fit.
This is clearly speculative. But does he pay a price for this denial in terms
of his character, and in terms of the nature of his leadership? As he talks
about slavery in his later years, he almost tries to work it out in very
mathematical terms, and discusses how many years it would take to get blacks
back to Africa. But the problem is that then they continue to reproduce, and
he's dealing now with race and with slavery on this very abstract and very
As he ages, he's constantly pressured by the more progressive elements in
Southern society, especially Virginia society, to assume leadership. So he's
always under pressure and he's got nothing to lose now. He's no longer in
public office. This can be a real testimony to his contribution to American
And he resists it. He keeps going back and developing theoretical plans that
would allow for emancipation, and then demonstrating that they are either
economically or racially impossible. Once it's mathematically demonstrated
that it's impossible, then it's not our problem anymore--it's not my problem
He does a kind of Pontius Pilate and says, "It's obviously something that has
got to be taken care of in the future, and I worry that it will only occur
violently." His latter-day discussions of this are almost always in response
to somebody's questioning of him. And they almost always conclude that, while
theoretically he's in favor of emancipation, realistically it's economically
and racially impossible.
It makes me think that this somehow is central maybe to the character of the
South, that there's something deeply southern in this. In that sense, is
Jefferson maybe typical . . .
Jefferson is not typical, though. Many, many people in the South are much more
willing to discuss slavery as an institution that they're not going to condemn,
that is an integral part of their lives, and eventually they're going to
describe it not just as a necessary evil, but as a positive good.
People taking the same racist values that Jefferson does within, say, ten or 20
years, are going to make the case that slavery's the best thing that could
possibly have happened to the African-American population. William Fitzhugh
and John C. Calhoun both make that case. That grows right out of Jefferson's
racism. Jefferson doesn't do that. Jefferson acknowledges the humanity of the
African-Americans and the wrongness of slavery. I don't think he's that
He's more typical of the Virginia planter elite in its most patriarchal and
Are you saying that, in the South, there never was that sort of affection for
the principles of democracy or the passion for them in the same way that
Jefferson . . .
The form of slavery that exists in Virginia in the late eighteenth century is
not what develops in South Carolina and in the deep South in the antebellum
period. It's less of a highly organized, almost-factory system as it develops
in the later period. And there are more small farms and more interactions with
slaves in the late eighteenth century.
As I said earlier, Jefferson didn't go out in the fields and be with his
slaves. But he's got a book. He knows them in a personal way. At least he
knows enough to record their births and their children. The form of slavery
that develops in the nineteenth century is pretty different.
Is it fair to say . . . that there was prescience in him? That he foresaw, for
example, the deepening conflict between the North and the South that ultimately
. . .
He does. John Adams and he correspond about this, and both of them are worried
about the future. Again, though, Jefferson's position in the Missouri crisis
is to call for the expansion of slavery. Jefferson's position leads directly
to the position of the Confederacy in 1860. Adams's position leads directly to
the position of Lincoln in 1860. Adams says that slavery is a moral wrong,
that "We hoped that it would die a natural death. We had looked to Virginia
to assume leadership to put it on the road to extinction. That hasn't
happened, and we have to take decisive action."
Jefferson doesn't agree with that. Jefferson says that any federal government
empowered to end slavery is a violation of the principles of the American
Revolution. He's unwilling to see federal power used in that way.
The other thing that you must understand about him is that, towards the end,
everything needs to be seen through the prism of debt. He is in debt. He is
the modern equivalent of several million, maybe $10 million in debt. One of
the reasons that he can't free his slaves is that he doesn't really own them
anymore. His creditors own them. In effect, he has made a promise to them
that he cannot keep--that he will take care of them. When he dies, Monticello
is going to be sold and they're going to be sold, the vast majority of them.
Most of them remain in Virginia, but some of them are sold down the river.
In that sense, the debt issue and his inability to control his own economic
situation and his fate, is a great, great tragedy. We think of Jefferson in
such positive ways, in such affirmative ways. But the end of his life is
tragic in the extreme.
So the debt simply ties him to slavery in an inextricable way.
There's no way of saying for sure that he would have freed them anyway. In
fact, by his own words, he would not have freed them . . . he would not have
been able to allow them to live in Virginia. By law, they couldn't stay in
Virginia after freedom. Virginia passed a law that precluded freeing slaves
and then allowing them to remain inside the Commonwealth. So I don't think he
would have freed them anyway. He didn't even have the luxury of considering
it. He was economically not in control of them anymore.
So here's a man who is economically tied inextricably to slavery and who, on a
man-to-woman level, is also bound up in this institution. He's obviously a man
who is very compromised.
If the Madison Hemings recollections are correct, Jefferson keeps his promise
to Sally Hemings. He does free her children. And the last two are freed after
he dies and by his will, though he never frees Sally herself.
Is there speculation as to why he does not free her himself?
It's all speculation. . . . One obvious reason is that, if she's free, he
can't control her, and she might effectively speak out and expose their
relationship. Another is they have a relationship. He wants her close to him.
I'd expect to see conversations and debates, both at the popular level and at
the scholarly level about this, ranging from a discussion of their relationship
as a kind of love relationship to a discussion of their relationship as
essentially prolonged rape.
It could go either way at this point?
I don't think it's possible to ignore the fact that this woman is a slave. He
has total power over her. To talk about this as a love relationship in the
most glowing terms is wrong, because it ignores that control.
On the other hand, because it was so prolonged, I don't think it's possible to
imagine it as rape in any meaningful or traditional sense of that term. I
think it was a mutual understanding in which both sides got something. She got
privileges and the freedom of her children. He got physical satisfaction. And
whether there was any emotional content to it beyond that, there are some
things you can never know. . . .
Jefferson, in the Declaration of Independence, makes this really incomparable
articulation of democratic promise. . . .
The word that he would use is republican. In the eighteenth century, if you
said someone was a democrat, that was a bad thing. The federalists accused
Jefferson of being a democrat or a democratic person. A democratic person is a
person who panders to popular opinion. So what you're talking about is, he
would say "republican."
In contemporary terms, his term of "republican" would come out as "American
Democracy comes to mean certain things in the nineteenth century in Jacksonian
and Tocquevillian America that Jefferson didn't like. Jefferson never believed
that ordinary people should hold public office at the national level. Until
very late in his day, Jefferson didn't believe that you should vote if you
didn't have property or educational qualifications.
He didn't make that distinction by class, necessarily?
No, but what I'm saying is that the term democracy has come to have a gestalt
of meanings, and then we breathe those meanings back on Jefferson, and many of
them don't work for him. Jefferson didn't conceive of himself as founding a
democracy--in part, because a democracy carries with it a sense of a commitment
to a materialistic culture, to a full-blooded capitalistic system in which
people's own worth was mostly identified with what they owned. And Jefferson
didn't like that. He thought that was a contamination. When Andrew Jackson
was elected president of the United States, he thought it was the end of the
American Revolution as he knew it. It was a repudiation of what he believed
So, for Jefferson, the core spirit of 1776 is a liberation movement in which we
destroy and blow to smithereens the last vestiges of the Old World, the ancien
regime, feudalism, medieval ways.
And once that's blown away, the individual energies of ordinary Americans can
express themselves in full form and pursue their happiness. It's that
liberationist philosophy--in contemporary terms, it's pretty close to a
liberationist political position. That's really at the center of what
Jefferson thought America is about.
He did make this articulation of a liberationist sort of idea about the
individual as the seat of rights and opportunities.
Jefferson is truly distinctive within the revolutionary generation. There,
most everybody else talks about the collective. Jefferson doesn't talk much
about the collective. Everybody else talks about the public. Jefferson will
talk about the people. And Jefferson does have, in the end, an individualistic
ethos, a real belief that the individual is the sovereign unit in society. And
The individual as the sovereign unit. Civil rights leaders in the 1960s, most
notably Dr. King, used precisely that notion--the individual as a sovereign
unit in a democracy--to gain the civil rights victories of the 1960s, such as
the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Is there any indication anywhere that Jefferson
applied these ideas to the problem of race? Did he ever see the set of ideas
as having any relevance at all?
. . . Jefferson is the most eloquent lyrical spokesperson for the most
inspiring values that will lead to both the emancipation of women and the
emancipation of slaves, and then to the civil rights movement. Martin Luther
King, in the "I Have a Dream" speech, talks about the promissory note that
Jefferson issued in 1776.
But there's a reason that Martin Luther King gave the "I Have a Dream" speech
on the Lincoln memorial steps, rather than the Jefferson memorial steps. It is
Lincoln's interpretation of Jefferson's language that is appropriate for an
expansion to civil rights.
Jefferson himself never made that expansion. In fact, he set up a wall between
the liberal and liberationist values that he was so articulate about, and any
presumption that they could be shared with African-Americans. He felt that
they were another people, and they needed to go and have their own place. In
some sense, Jefferson wouldn't have been able to participate in Martin Luther
King's march, but maybe he could in the Million Man march.
Is it fair to say that Jefferson felt that his brand of individualistic,
liberationist branch of republicanism or democratic thought was not strong
enough to breach this problem of racial difference?
It's an interesting point. There was never a moment when he didn't say that
what he most believed in wasn't strong and powerful. It was so strong that it
was going to blow away the European monarchies of the nineteenth century, and
it did. It was so strong that it was going to blow away any challenges in the
twentieth century in the form of Nazism and fascism and totalitarianism. And
So the notion that it wasn't strong, no. It's that he couldn't think of black
people as people in the same sense as white people.
Does that fact in itself suggest that there is something too idealistic about
democracy--that Jefferson's own failings in this regard suggest that democracy
is too idealistic? Is it not really possible in its fullest sense?
There are many, many things central to the democratic tradition that you and I
now believe in, which nobody in the late eighteenth century would have been
able to comprehend--in gender equity, racial equality, the multicultural
agenda, and diversity.
Nobody, including Jefferson, would have understood that. Jefferson's the most
articulate spokesman for the core of values that grow in meaning to cover those
groups and to have those modern, contemporary, inspirational meanings. But he
himself, is back there in the eighteenth century, and there's a chasm between
him and us. I don't think that means that he's a hypocrite. It means that we
can't expect him to think and behave along late twentieth-century lines.
Can we say that Jefferson was flawed, in that, even though he could envision
this individualistic ideal, he was unable to see its relevance to race? We now
know what we know about Thomas Jefferson and the DNA and this sort of thing.
Is this reason to believe that this flaw of Jefferson's remains a threat to
democracy? Is it really something that may still threaten to undermine this
great individualistic, liberationist vision?
No. I don't think so. We have evolved as a society to a level of commitment,
especially in terms of racial justice, that will never surrender. It's one of
the reasons that we're fighting in Kosovo. We're fighting against the kind of
society that separates people on the basis of race and ethnicity and ethnically
cleanses or kills them. And we're never going back.
You can go back to Jefferson and discover in him the inspirational values that
allowed us to reach this moment, and you'd be right. But you can also go back
and see that he himself remains embedded in the late eighteenth century as a
man who cannot fathom the relationship between the races being equal and
In some sense, it's a real sign of how far we've come, and how truly
revolutionary the principle of a racially integrated society is. And we
shouldn't take that for granted. It's an unusual achievement, and the rest of
the world is still trying to catch up.
Especially in the context of Jefferson's autobiography, how much was
Jefferson's intimacy with slaves a part of his life? What was recorded?
When he was about two years old and carried as a child from Tuckahoe, the
original place of his birth right near Monticello, he remembers being carried
on a pillow. He was told he was carried on a pillow by a slave.
His last conscious thought, or semi-conscious thought, occurs on the evening of
July 3, 1826. As he's dying, he's making noises and they don't know what it
is. He's talking about being back in the Revolution, and then he makes a
gurgling sound, and he's trying to say something, he wants something. The only
person in the room who understands what he's asking for is his trusted slave
Burwell, and Burwell steps forward and adjusts the pillows. That's the last
sound Jefferson makes.
So both his first conscious thought and his last sound, at least, are directly
related to a slave.
Who's in the room with him at his deathbed?
When he is dying, there's a fairly sizeable gathering of people and physicians
as well. But Burwell is his trusted manservant who accompanies him everywhere,
and who fans him, keeps the flies off of him--it's very hot. Burwell is there
throughout the vigil at the bedside, and responds to Jefferson's request to
adjust the pillows.
What family is Burwell a part of?
Burwell is part of the extended Hemings family and is one of the slaves freed
in Jefferson's will.
That's a pretty vivid image. In the traditional sense of the word "family,"
that is, his immediate white family, how important is family to Jefferson?
Jefferson talks about family in the most glowing terms. Jefferson describes
family as the single most meaningful unit in his life. This is the place where
real happiness happens. Public life is a place where trials and tribulations
and horrors happen and people behave badly, and you retreat back to your family
as this preserve. It's a sort of tabernacular place, where you can be who you
really are, and can interact in ways that are emotional and intimate and
affectionate and towards other people.
For Jefferson, that is the real place where, if you're going to pursue
happiness, you're going to find it.
That's not just idle rhetoric. There are elements of rhetoric, which you
pointed out. . . . Talk a little bit about how the importance of family, as
he actually acts on it.
Jefferson wants to gather together as many of his immediate family and friends
as close to him as possible. He puts enormous pressure on his eldest daughter
Martha to live with him and to raise her children at Monticello.
She does that, and in some sense, her own husband, Jefferson's son-in-law,
essentially is odd man out. His daughter's main relationship is with her
father rather than with her husband, in many respects.
He wants his younger daughter, Maria, to do the same thing. She resists,
because she knows if she comes under the spell of Jefferson, she will not have
the kind of autonomous life she wants to have. Jefferson also writes to many
of his friends, like Monroe and Madison and William Short, his personal
secretary, and talks them into buying up land right around here and all living
together in a kind of family unit. In fact, Monroe's place is not far away,
and Madison's is not that far away either.
I want to bring you back to the scene that you evoked very powerfully, of the
sitting around the table. His daughter is there, his grandchildren are there.
As informed speculation, what do you imagine is the dynamic around that table,
first of all, among the white people? How does it feel to be the daughter or
the grandchildren in what would have been almost a daily event?
Picture Jefferson sitting at a table with his children and grandchildren and a
few guests. They're being served by say Madison Hemings, who is a young
mulatto slave (though most of the time Madison Hemings would have been working
outside as a carpenter). The feelings in the room are extraordinarily
complicated and difficult for us to fathom.
At some level, because they see Madison Hemings a lot on a day-by-day basis,
there's nothing that novel about the situation. They have learned, in effect,
how to see him and not see him at the same time. They have learned how to talk
to him and about him in ways that are familiar, but don't expose his real
Jefferson himself, inside his own mind, is capable of setting these borders,
essentially playing hide-and-seek within himself. He imposes that same kind of
order on his family at Monticello, and they're all extraordinarily deft at
But you can talk to members of southern white families in the South now, they
say, "Oh, we always knew about so-and-so," and so on. It's just that there are
certain things that you don't talk about.
In the Jefferson sense, those things that you don't talk about are really
solemn things that you don't talk about. You don't talk about the fact that
your relative is an alcoholic. That wouldn't be polite. You don't talk about
the fact that some of your children probably murdered somebody down in
Kentucky. That would disturb the atmospherics that are essential for the kind
of family unit that Jefferson wants to survive. But the psychological agility
required to enforce that is extraordinary.
For Jefferson, was race a double issue, in a sense? On one level, when he
wanted to enjoy or be with Sally as a woman, he could see her as white, and
fully human. But when he wanted to deny her human entitlements, he could see
her as black. Was there a double convenience involved there?
Yes, Jefferson's racial views do give him an ability to have his cake and eat
it, too. On the one hand, he can control Sally Hemings, and doesn't have to
worry about a relationship that's a truly equitable relationship, back and
forth. And yet he can get his physical gratification and satisfactions at the
Jefferson is excellent at "having your cake and eating it, too." And he's
excellent at then denying inside himself what he's doing. What's impossible to
know is what Sally thinks and feels on her side of this relationship at this
Madison does give some indication . . . about his experience serving in the
house. . . .
Madison Hemings said that he felt that he was treated as one of the Hemings
slaves, and that they were treated in more privileged ways than the other
slaves. But he was treated as a slave. He was not treated as a member of
Jefferson's family, or in the same way that Jefferson's own grandchildren were
treated. And he resented that. He was the age of Jefferson's grandchildren.
He's implicitly suggesting that, within the family, Jefferson never
acknowledged his paternity.
Monticello was important to Jefferson, more than just a place to lay your head.
You talked about the architecture and the place of Monticello in his mind.
Give us the sense of that importance.
Jefferson began to build Monticello in the early 1770s, and it was a lifelong
project. It's constantly being built and rebuilt, although in some sense, it
never looks the way it looks now, when tourists come to visit. It is what
Jefferson wanted it to look like. It was always a kind of construction site
throughout most of his years. It's on top of a mountain. By the way, that's
one of the reasons that he's not a very good farmer, because the soil on
mountains is not very good, and it has lots of inconveniences. But it gives
him an incredible panoramic view of the region, and it puts him in a place
where he feels separated from other people--where he's got a kind of
So it's both a haven and a fortress--a haven in a heartless world, if you will.
But it's also a place where he's safe, and where he can gather around him the
affectionate folk that will allow the kind of idyllic world that Jefferson
believes in, that can exist without human interference.
Monticello is that for him. The other reality is that it only works both as a
plantation and as a mansion because African-Americans built the mansion and
African-Americans are out there, running the plantation.
Talk about this constant construction, and the environment that Jefferson sees
himself building. What about Jefferson, the designer?
Jefferson liked to design whatever environment he lived in, even when he moved
into temporary quarters in Paris or in Philadelphia. He would have the owner
give him permission to redesign it, to tear things down and construct it. He
was really obsessed with living in spaces that he himself controlled and
Monticello is the ultimate Jeffersonian space. He designs in the 1770s and
then redesigns in the 1780s and 1790s, and is in the process of constructing it
according to his larger scheme. The larger scheme was necessary in order to
contain the larger family that he had produced, and that he wanted to have live
At any one time, it required 100 or 200 workmen to construct that--some of them
Irish workmen, but others mostly African-American slaves.
Did he also design the racial environment--the layers of unpleasantness and
where they were relegated?
Just as Jefferson designed the physical thing called Monticello, the mansion,
it seems to me that he also was extraordinarily committed to designing the
social and racial arrangements at Monticello.
The fieldhands, who tended to be the darker African-Americans, were far away
and were out of view. They were seldom seen even by Jefferson, and certainly
not by visitors. The . . . slaves that were seen when visitors came and were
in interactions with the Jefferson family on a day-by-day basis were almost all
Hemingses. They were all light-skinned slaves. They didn't look like
full-blooded Africans because, in some sense, they weren't.
Jefferson liked that kind of arrangement because it muted and ameliorated his
understanding of what slavery really was. These weren't really slaves. These
were people who were here living with his family. These people really weren't
black. These were people who were sort of white.
I think that that's what he himself designed, and several visitors to
Monticello commented on the light-skinned character of the slaves that they saw
Of course, slavery can't function without unpleasantness. So when there is
unpleasantness, whether it's whippings or the sales or the auctions, how is
that absorbed in the environment?
Jefferson himself never whipped any slave that we know of. He did, on
occasion, allow a whipping to occur, not in his presence, by an overseer. And
when he was going to sell slaves, he would see to it that they would be sold
down to other plantations far away. In fact, he said, "I do not like to see my
name in the newspapers associated with these transactions." So he wanted to
divorce himself, disassociate himself, from the most unattractive dimensions of
slavery whenever possible.
Can you talk about his gloom in 1820? There's a real sense of despair, which
is part political and part personal.
In 1820, at the public and political level, Jefferson believes that the world
that he wanted America to become is on the verge of destruction. The federal
government is assuming or claiming the power to control slavery. And slavery
itself as an institution is threatening the Union in ways that he thinks is
going to possibly lead to civil war.
Jefferson's answer to that is to allow slavery to expand into the West, not to
try to stop it. But he sees this as a contagion, and he sees that the
sectional argument beginning there is very, very divisive. He talks in
apocalyptic terms about what the future of the United States is, and that he
does not wish to live it.
At the personal level, he's in debt, and becoming even more in debt. The
opportunity to envision his family and Monticello ever getting out from
underneath that debt is closing--the opportunity no longer exists. Here's a
man who says that every generation should be sovereign--and he's going to
bequeath to his heirs a huge debt. He's not going to be able to keep the
promise that he's made to his slaves, to take care of them. They're going to
be sold down the river or sold anyway. His surviving daughter, Martha,
actually becomes a ward of the state.
You had talked about his bold position on slavery in 1784. Contrast that
position with his position as an older man.
Jefferson's position in 1819-1822 on the Missouri Compromise is that the
federal government does not have the power to regulate slavery in the western
territories--that the people in the territories have a right to do what they
want to do. It becomes the position of Stephen Douglass in the 1850s--popular
sovereignty. But Jefferson then says that the diffusion of slavery into the
West will ameliorate slaves' conditions. John Adams says, "How can a cancer,
when it spreads, make things better? This is a cancer."
The thing that's really discouraging is that Jefferson's position at that point
is a direct contradiction of the more liberal and progressive position he had
taken as a young man. In 1784, he had effectively said that there should be no
slavery allowed to expand into the West at all. And that particular motion
failed by only one vote in the Confederation Congress in 1784.
So the young man is taking a much more liberal position, a much more
abolitionist position, than the elderly man. It's not a modest modification of
This is not a modest modification--this is a 180-degree switch.
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