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Jefferson's Family by Lucia Cinder Stanton
Lucia Cinder Stanton is Shannon Senior Research Historian at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in Monticello. She is the author of Slavery at Monticello, a rich synthesis of primary materials, and is one of the co-directors of the "Getting Word" oral history project.

Excerpted from Jeffersonian Legacies by Peter S. Onuf, Ed.; Charlottesville, Virginia, 1993, pp. 395-401. Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Virginia.

In 1776 Jefferson made a census of the "Number of souls in my family." His Albemarle County "family" numbered 117, including, besides his wife and daughter, sixteen free men (his overseers and hired workmen), their wives and children, and eighty-three slaves. Throughout his life Jefferson used the word "family" for both a group of people connected by blood and--according to more ancient usage--all those under a head of household, or, in his case, plantation owner. In 1801 he vaccinated "70 or 80 of my own family" against smallpox; in 1819 he spoke of the voracious appetite for pork of "our enormously large family." At times this usage required the addition of qualifying adjectives. Jefferson wrote that his son-in-law's "white family" had recovered from a prevailing illness in 1806, and, in 1815, he noted the surprising number of sick "in our family, both in doors and out"--making a neat spatial distinction between the Jefferson-Randolph family inside the Monticello house and the black men, women, and children living in cabins on the mountaintop and adjacent farms.

Joseph Fossett joined this family in November 1780, born to Mary Hemings (b. 1753) and an unknown father. Mary was the oldest child of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings (c. 1735-1807), who, with her ten children, became Jefferson's property on January 14, 1774, on the division of the estate of his father-in-law John Wayles. On that date Jefferson acquired 135 slaves who, added to the fifty-two slaves derived from his inheritance from his father, made him the second largest slaveholder in Albemarle County. Thereafter, the number of slaves he owned fluctuated above and below the figure of two hundred--with increases through births offset by periodic sales that were part of an attempt to pay off the almost 4,000 lira debt that accompanied the Wayles inheritance. Between 1784 and 1794 he disposed of 161 people by sale or gift.

Unlike his father-in-law, Jefferson never engaged in the commercial buying and selling of humans. His infrequent purchases were usually made to fulfill needs of the moment and selling was primarily a reluctant reaction to financial demands. As Jefferson wrote in 1820 he had "scruples about selling negroes but for delinquency, or on their own request." Several known transactions were intended to unite families. The purchase of Ursula in 1773 involved buying her husband Great George from a second owner. In 1805, Jefferson "reluctantly" sold Brown, a twenty-year-old nailer, to unite him with his wife, the slave of a brickmason about to leave Monticello. On this occasion Jefferson declared himself "always willing to indulge connections seriously formed by those people, where it can be done reasonably. "

In 1807 Jefferson bought the wife of his blacksmith Moses when her owner emigrated to Kentucky. "Nobody feels more strongly than I do," he wrote at the time, "the desire to make all practicable sacrifices to keep man and wife together who have imprudently married out of their respective families." This final phrase, a telling indication of the dual nature of Jefferson's recognition of the importance of the black family, reveals his hope that his slaves would seek spouses only within their master's domain. "There is nothing I desire so much as that all the young people in the estate should intermarry with one another and stay at home," Jefferson wrote his Poplar Forest overseer. "They are worth a great deal more in that case than when they have husbands and wives abroad." His methods for discouraging romance beyond the plantation boundaries are not known, but he did use rewards to encourage "prudent" courtship. To the slave women, for instance, he promised an extra pot and crocus bed "when they take husbands at home."

Jefferson realized the potency of family bonds for the African-American members of his extended household. In 1814, there is even a note of envy in his comparison of the lot of English laborers and American slaves. Slaves "have the comfort, too, of numerous families, in the midst of whom they live without want, or fear of it." This "comfort" was not always possible for whites. Jefferson all his life sought to draw to the neighborhood of Monticello both kin and kindred spirits, but with only limited success. The mobility of white Virginians separated parent from child and sibling from sibling. His sister emigrated with her husband to Kentucky, and his younger daughter's husband could not be persuaded to leave his Tidewater plantation. Jefferson's fatherly tenacity kept his elder daughter Martha always at or near Monticello, at considerable jeopardy to her marriage. His rosy picture of the "comfort of numerous families" was drawn at a time when Virginian society was progressively destabilized by westward migration. He must, therefore, have witnessed how frequently the ties within extended slave families were severed, and he would have heard constant expression of the "dread of separation" that Frederick Douglass called the "most painful to the majority of slaves."

Jefferson's awareness of the slave's attachment to a particular spot on earth and the extended network of relations that lived on it played a significant part in his actions as a slaveholder. He could foster family ties through benevolent intercession, he could exploit them to control behavior, or ignore them in the interests of efficient management. These ties could even inhibit his actions toward improving the lot of his slaves through emancipation or removal to cotton country, where conditions were considered more favorable to their well-being. Even freedom was not, in Jefferson's mind, sufficient justification for uprooting whole families. In 1814, he wrote that "the laws do not permit us to turn them loose," evidently referring to the 1806 act declaring that freed slaves must leave the state within a year. When his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph launched a scheme in 1802 to take his slaves to "a mild climate and gentle labor" in Georgia, Jefferson did consider sending "such of my negroes as could be persuaded to it." But in 1822, Martha Randolph knew her father "would never listen . . . for a moment" to the family's latest plan to try their fortunes further south--"although moving {his slaves} in a body would occasion little or no distress to them.''

Slaves were both humans and property, and as the protector of a large household and the manager of a working plantation, Jefferson always had to play two roles. He was gratified when "moral as well as interested considerations" were in accord, as when prescribing lighter labors for women with infant children in 1819: "I consider the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every 2. years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man. In this, as in all other cases, providence has made our interest and our duties coincide perfectly." But he must have had daily reminders of the frequent contradiction between "interest" and duty

In his role as plantation manager, Jefferson's efforts to maximize the utility of each man, woman, and child led to regular interference in the family lives of his slaves. The demands of productivity limited his respect for the integrity of the black family. Like many other enlightened Virginians, Jefferson always specified that slaves be sold in family units: husbands were not separated from wives, nor parents from young children. But once black boys or girls reached the age of ten or twelve and their working lives began, they lost their status as children and with it, the guarantee of family stability. Teenagers were often separated from their families through sale or transfer to other plantations. Four boys from Poplar Forest, aged ten to twelve, were sent to Monticello to work in the nailery in the 1790s, and in 1813 two fourteen-year-old girls left Bedford County to learn weaving and spinning in the Albemarle County textile factory. The privileged household servants were particularly vulnerable to teenage separation as their young masters or mistresses grew up and married. Betty Brown left her family to attend the newly married Martha Jefferson at age thirteen, and her niece, Betsy Hemings, was fourteen when she was given to Jefferson's daughter Maria on her marriage in 1797.

Dinah was sold in 1792 with "her younger children" to accomplish the double objective of paying off a debt and uniting her with her husband. When Jefferson purchased the weaver Nance Hemings from his sister, he listened to a mother's plea. Nance "wishes me to buy her children," he wrote, "but I would not purchase the boy; as to the youngest child, if she insists on it, and my sister desires it, I would take it." Fifteen-year-old Billy was left in Louisa County and twelve-year-old Critta only came to Albemarle because she was bought by Jefferson's son-in- law.

Joe Fossett was also separated from his mother by sale. During Jefferson's five-year absence in France, Mary Hemings was hired out to Thomas Bell, a respected Charlottesville merchant. In 1792 she asked to be sold to Bell, the father of her two youngest children, Robert Washington and Sally Jefferson. Jefferson asked his superintendent to "dispose of Mary according to her desire, with such of her younger children as she chose." Bob and Sally remained with their mother and became Bells, and eleven-year-old Joe and nine-year-old Betsy were now on their own at Monticello.

Joe spent his days in and around the Monticello house, one of nine house servants. He and three of his cousins were the fetchers and carriers, the fire builders, the table setters and waiters; they met guests at the east portico and ventured forth on errands. They were the "boys" that Martha Jefferson Randolph finally got "in tolerable order" during Jefferson's absence, after some accidents to the household china.

In the house Joe was surrounded by members of his own family, all Hemingses. The household staff included his uncles James and Peter; his aunts Sally and Critta; his cousins Wormley, Burwell, and Brown; and his sister Betsy. From their arrival at Monticello as part of the Wayles estate in 1774, the children of Betty Hemings assumed the primary roles in the Monticello household. Robert Hemings (1762-1819) replaced Jupiter as Jefferson's valet and traveling attendant; Martin Hemings (b. 1755) became the butler; Betty Hemings and her daughters were employed in cleaning, sewing, and in personal attendance on Martha Jefferson and her children. In the period of Jefferson's retirement to Monticello from 1794 to 1797, visitors who did not wander over to Mulberry Row or down to the cellar dependencies would have seen only Hemingses.

Jefferson's grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph recalled a slightly later period, when the "entire household of servants with the exception of an under cook and carriage driver consisted of one family connection and their wives.... It was a source of bitter jealousy to the other slaves, who liked to account for it with other reasons than the true one; viz. superior intelligence, capacity and fidelity to trusts." Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon spoke of the women of the household: "They were old family servants and great favorites.... I was instructed to take no control of them." And more than one visitor would have noted, as did the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt in 1796, that the slaves visible at Monticello were remarkably light-skinned. "I have even seen," he wrote at a time when Sally Hemings's children were not yet on the scene, "and particularly at Mr. Jefferson's, slaves who have neither in their color nor features a single trace of their origin, but they are sons of slave mothers and consequently slaves."

Betty Hemings was the daughter of an African slave and an English sea captain. At least seven of her children had white fathers. Isaac Jefferson (1775-C. 1850), former Monticello slave whose reminiscences were recorded in 1847, recalled that Betty's children Robert and James Hemings were "bright mulattoes" and Sally was "mighty near white." Many of the third generation of Hemingses were even lighter. Without reviving the debate over the paternity of Sally Hemings's children, it is sufficient to note here that several and perhaps all of Betty Hemings's daughters formed relationships with white men. In at least one case, that of Sally Hemings, the children had seven-eighths white ancestry and thus were white by Virginia law, which declared that a person "who shall have one fourth part or more of negro blood, shall . . . be deemed a mulatto."

Jefferson looked up this statute in 1815 and, after demonstrating its effects in a series of algebraic formulas, stated that "our Canon considers 2. crosses with the pure white, and a 3d. with any degree of mixture, however small, as clearing the issue of the negro blood.... But observe," he continued, "that this does not reestablish freedom, which depends on the condition of the mother." If the issue of the third cross were emancipated, "he becomes a free white man, and a citizen of the US. to all intents and purposes." Thus, future citizens of the United States were being held in bondage at Monticello.

Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings's children. He allowed Harriet and Beverly to "run away," providing Harriet money and stage fare to Philadelphia, and gave Madison and Eston Hemings their freedom in his will. Overseer Edmund Bacon remembered Harriet's departure, when "people said he freed her because she was his own daughter" (Bacon's own candidate for paternity was deleted in the published version of his reminiscences), but the reasons given by Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge accord with his racial formulas. In 1858 she stated that it was her grandfather's principle to "allow such of his slaves as were sufficiently white to pass for white men, to withdraw from the plantation; it was called running away, but they were never reclaimed."

"It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage," wrote former slave Henry Bibb in 1849. The fathers of Betty Hemings's children and grandchildren can never be positively identified. The only certainty is that some of them were white men, and those implicated by their contemporaries ranged from overseers and hired artisans to sprigs of the local aristocracy, family kinsmen, and even the master himself. Jefferson, thus, who often stated his "aversion" to racial mixture lived surrounded by its examples.

Little is known about miscegenation at Monticello beyond the Hemings family. The presence of two mulattoes in the legacy of Peter Jefferson suggests that the crossing of racial lines was nothing new on the mountain. Nevertheless, the Hemings family--as Thomas Jefferson Randolph's statement indicated--seems to have been a caste apart.

All the slaves freed by Jefferson in his lifetime or in his will were members of this family. Two, Robert and Martin, were allowed a measure of mobility no other slave had--they often hired themselves out to other masters during Jefferson's long absences in public service. Only Betty Hemings and her daughters were spared the grueling weeks of the wheat harvest, when every healthy slave was drafted to bring in the crop. None of her twelve children, and only two of her more than twenty grandchildren, found spouses "at home." Known husbands were drawn from the local community, both free black and white, and wives from the household staffs of neighboring plantations. Only Joe Fossett and Wormley, who married a niece of Isaac Jefferson, found wives at Monticello.

At the boundary between the black and white worlds at Monticello, the Hemings family has occupied the foreground of all accounts of the slave community there because we know more about them. Their domination of the documentary record derives from the positions they occupied in the household and Mulberry Row shops, under perpetual observation by their master and his family.



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