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The Jefferson Project: Multi-Racial Essays on an American Icon
Saturday, 9 September 2023


Welcome to The Jefferson Project. Those of you coming from The Naked Historian will already be familiar with the writing of Michael Aubrecht. This blog invites writers and historians of all disciplines to contribute their own thoughts on one of history’s most complex and complicated figures. Posts here will both praise and criticize Jefferson as the goal is to present a complete portrait of the man. Visitors will agree or disagree with our posts and we invite them to leave their responses in the Comments section. If you are interested in contributing to “The Jefferson Project,” please email the site administrator, Michael Aubrecht at ma@pinstripepress.net.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2023 1:09 PM EDT
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Monticello during the Civil War


There are few records about the condition of the house while it was held by the Confederates. Neither of the standbys of local history, Woods, Albemarle County, nor James Alexander, Early Charlottesville, allude to Monticello at this time. Only Edward C. Mead in his Historic Homes of the Southwest Mountains makes a brief and unsupported statement: "During the Civil War it was confiscated by the Confederate Government and fell into rapid decay; at one time being used as a hospital . . ."

The only account of any length is found in the suspect volume, G. A. Townsend, Monticello and its Preservation, published, and probably written, by Jefferson M. Levy, Uriah's nephew: "But finally the Commodore's slaves were sold, and the dismantling of the furniture began, the losses were amounting to several hundred thousand dollars. Soldiers broke off the carved sculpture of many mantels. Other people peddled the bust of Voltaire by Houdon and several similar treasures to rich men In New York. Captain Jonas P. Levy, when he visited the place to save it from confiscation, was held as a hostage . . ."

Miss Sarah Stickler, a young visitor late in the summer of 1864 has left her impressions: "The place was once very pretty, but it has gone to ruin now. It is the property of Commodore Levi I believe. There is a large clock in the hall, you get up to wind it by means of a ladder. The parlour retains but little of its former elegance, the ball room is on the second floor, and has a thousand names scratched over its walls . . . There are some roses in the yard that have turned wild, and those are the only flowers. . . The family burying ground shows the same want of attention that the house and grounds do . . ."

Another interesting and untold episode of this time is the disposition of the furnishings after the seizure by the Confederate government. Which pieces, if any, were removed by Confederate soldiers, as claimed by Townsend, which went under Deputy Pattie's hammer at the November 17 sale, and which remained unsold are unanswered questions and are likely to remain so.

Townsend believes there was a substantial amount of furniture in the house in 1862, much of it Jefferson's. Unfortunately, the only item specifically mentioned is a "Bust of Voltaire and similar treasures." Probably three of the "similar treasures" were the pier mirrors attached to the walls of the parlour, the folding ladder in the hall, and the Great Clock above the entrance door. There is no evidence to suggest that Uriah Levy owned other Jefferson furnishings.

The oft-repeated story that Confederate soldiers (who were as capable as any others in such matters) looted the house and carried away thousands of dollars’ worth of furniture has no basis in fact. A Union army detachment of around 20 soldiers under General Sheridan did conduct a raid on Monticello on March 4, 1865. According to an official claim by Joel Wheeler, the men took two horses, bacon, and flour (Claim Number 168, June 1877. Southern Claims Commission Papers, Record Group 56, National Archives: RG 217, Box 332, Entry 732, Settled case files for Claims Approved by the SCC, 1871-1880)

Source: Monticello & The Civil War; Thomas Jefferson Foundation

Michael Aubrecht

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 26 October 2023 11:32 AM EDT
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Friday, 8 September 2023
Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was and astronomer, mathematician and almanac author as well as the first African American to challenge Thomas Jefferson on what he thought a black man could accomplish.

Banneker sent a copy of his almanac to Jefferson who replied “proofs as you exhibit.” He was so impressed he sent a copy of the almanac to the Secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Paris. Jefferson also appointed Banneker to be part of the surveying team that was tasked with establishing the original boundaries of the District of Columbia and laying out the streets of Washington DC. Banneker’s intelligence and ingenuity showed Jefferson that a black man’s knowledge far surpassed his expectations.

On August 19, 1791, after departing the federal capital area, Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson. Quoting language in the Declaration, the letter expressed a plea for justice for African Americans. In his letter, Banneker accused Jefferson of criminally using fraud and violence to oppress his slaves by stating:

…. Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to your Selves. And now Sir, I Shall conclude and Subscribe my Self with the most profound respect,

Your most Obedient humble Servant
Benjamin Banneker

Jefferson’s reply did not directly respond to Banneker’s accusations, but instead expressed his support for the advancement of his “black brethren.”

Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.

I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir,

Your most obedt. humble servt.
Th: Jefferson

- Michael Aubrecht

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 19 September 2023 1:22 PM EDT
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Monday, 10 April 2023
Race and Remembrance at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello


Thomas Jefferson is remembered as perhaps the most exceptional charter member of the Founding Fathers. His contributions to the birth of our nation are second-to-none and his words have inspired generations of Americans to covet their freedom and liberty. At the same time, the author of the Declaration of Independence is criticized as the most hypocritical affiliate of that revolutionary generation. The largest point of contention in this Virginia planter's legacy is his lifelong practice of slavery and how it benefited him socially, politically, and personally. It is an emerging blemish on an otherwise brilliant existence.

Jefferson experienced the so-called "peculiar institution" of bondage directly, as Monticello's slave population was one of the largest in Virginia. His community of human property resided just over the hill from the main house, on what was referred to as "Mulberry Row." Often Master Jefferson would walk along the path tracing the 150-plus slave workforce community which included family dwellings, wood and ironwork shops, a smokehouse, a dairy, and a wash house and stable. "Mulberry Row" was the center of plantation activity from the 1770s to Jefferson's death in 1826. Five log cabin dwellings were also built near the site for additional household servants who did not fit in the basement-level dependency wings of the estate. Today, visitors can trace Jefferson's footsteps on the grounds of Monticello. Although many of the outbuildings are no longer standing on the property, several slave cabins have been recreated. The dependency wings are open to the public and the adjoining kitchen and sleeping quarters appear much the same as they did in Jefferson's time. Despite the initial appearance of a bustling plantation community, one cannot forget that it was populated by slaves. And regardless of the quality of life that Jefferson's servants appear to have shared over other Africans held in bondage, they were still held as property.

Like their proprietor, Monticello slaves maintained an arduous schedule. Most servants worked from dawn to dusk, six days of the week. Only on Sundays and holidays could they pursue their own affairs. These included prayer meetings and worship, spiritual singing, and night excursions, when wild honey would be gathered for their personal consumption. The supplementing of rations was also practiced as farm hands grew acres of vegetables, fished the river, and trapped game. Unlike many masters, Jefferson actually paid his slaves a monetary share for extra vegetables, chickens, and fish for the main house, as well as for special tasks performed outside their normal working hours. He also encouraged some of his enslaved artisans by offering them a percentage of what they produced in their shops. An extremely diversified man himself, Jefferson was most likely impressed by the skills that were cultivated by his slaves. In this respect, his treatment of them imitates a mutual respect for hard working individuals who cared about contributing to Monticello's well-being. Jefferson's very good friend James Madison also appreciated the vocations exhibited on Mulberry Row and purchased all of the nails used to enlarge his neighboring estate of Montpelier from Jefferson's nail foundry.

The conflict that existed between Jefferson, the slaveholder and Jefferson, the proponent of liberty is still being debated and examined to this very day. According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, who is tasked with preserving and presenting the storied legacy of its namesake, Jefferson's words and deeds are contradictory on the issue of slavery. Although he drafted the words "all men are created equal," and worked to limit the stranglehold of slavery on the new country, he personally found no political or economic remedies for the problem, and trusted that future generations would find a solution. "But as it is," Jefferson wrote, "we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

For his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by the practice of slavery. In 1764, he inherited 20 slaves from his father. Ten years later, he inherited 135 more from his father-in-law, John Wayles, who was involved in the importation of enslaved Africans into Virginia. By 1796, Jefferson owned approximately 170 slaves with 50 living on his property in Bedford County and 120 residing in Albemarle. Each residence was completely dependent on the use of forced labor, from the planting of fields to the daily operations of the house. Slave labor was also the economic force behind many of Jefferson's enterprises. It seems that his lifestyle demanded the practice, regardless of his prejudices against it.

Ironically, throughout his career, both politically and personally, Jefferson repeatedly voiced displeasure with the institution of slavery. He often referred to it as an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity," a "hideous blot," and a "fatal stain that deformed what nature had bestowed on us of her fairest gifts." He was successful in outlawing international slave trade in the Old Dominion, but continued to keep slaves on all of his farms in Virginia. This blatant contradiction illustrates the complexity that was Thomas Jefferson. One conclusion is that he believed that a practicable solution to this moral dilemma could not be found in his lifetime. He still continued, however, to advocate privately his own emancipation plan, which included a provision for colonizing slaves outside the boundaries of the United States.

Without a doubt, the most controversial issue, with regard to slavery and the legacy of Thomas Jefferson, is his relationship with Sally Hemings. Several books have been published that specifically deal with the subject, including the Pulitzer Prize winning book entitled "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" by Annette Gordon-Reed and the counter-argument entitled "In Defense of Thomas Jefferson: The Sally Hemings Sex Scandal" by William G. Hyland Jr. A house slave, Sally was the half-sister of Jefferson's deceased wife, Martha. Not merely a modern scandal, rumors that Jefferson had fathered multiple children with Sally Hemings entered the public arena during his first term as president. It continued to hang over Jefferson's memory for many years. In 1998, Dr. Eugene Foster and a team of geneticists revealed that they had "established that an individual carrying the male Jefferson Y chromosome fathered Eston Hemings (born 1808), the last-known child born to Sally Hemings. There were approximately 25 adult male Jeffersons who carried this chromosome living in Virginia at that time, and a few of them are known to have visited Monticello." The study's authors, however, said, "the simplest and most probable conclusion was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered Eston Hemings."

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation's official statement on the matter declares, "Although the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been for many years, and will surely continue to be, a subject of intense interest to historians and the public, the evidence is not definitive, and the complete story may never be known. The Foundation encourages its visitors and patrons, based on what evidence does exist, to make up their own minds as to the true nature of the relationship." This adds an entirely new layer to the complexity of Thomas Jefferson's views, not only on slavery, but also on race in general.

To this day, the "Hemings Affair" remains a hotly contested topic among Jefferson experts and enthusiasts alike. It is inevitably a mark on the life of a man who ultimately helped to establish a nation built on the foundation of freedom. Ironically, the division over the matter is often rooted in conflicting racial perspectives. This has been expressed in a variety of ways over the years. Regardless of the color of their skin, some individuals do not feel comfortable with the idea of an interracial or intimate relationship between a master and his slave. Others are bothered by either the notion of an older white man taking advantage of a younger black woman, or the hypocritical practice of owning some African-Americans while simultaneously bedding another. Perhaps there is no clear conclusion to the mystery surrounding this relationship. Still it speaks to the idea that different people of different races look upon the matter in different ways.

Beyond the bounds of his estate, Jefferson, like many powerful Southerners, benefited greatly in the political spectrum through the ownership of African-Americans. Many experts have argued that Jefferson's election, as the third President of the United States, came solely due to the South's augmented representation in the Electoral College, which included a 60% census of slaves who were counted as 3/5 of a vote. At the time, detractors of his election referred to Jefferson as "the negro president" and criticized the clause in the Constitution that they believed enabled him to achieve victory. This factor was part of a compromise put in place to maintain a balance of voting power between the northern and southern states. As metropolitan communities in the north were more densely populated, Southern representatives demanded to have a portion of their slaves counted in the overall census. This would enable them to close the so-called "voter's gap" at the ballot box by increasing their numerical representation. The result was a more aggressive importation of Africans that ultimately secured more power for the slave states.

In his book entitled "Negro President" Jefferson and the Slave Power historian Gary Wills explains the monumental affects of the slave-clause: "In the sixty-two years between Washington's election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty-years, the speaker's chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means Committee [the most important committee] for forty-two years. The only men to be re-elected president - Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson - were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the speaker's chair the longest - Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon - were slaveholders. Eighteen out of thirty-one Supreme Court justices were slaveholders."


Today, the largest monument to the memory of Thomas Jefferson can be found at his beloved plantation. There stands one of the most celebrated and recognizable houses in all of America. It is the only private residence to be featured on U.S. currency and is heralded as a masterpiece of both form and function. Each year, millions of visitors traverse the rolling hills of Virginia to walk in the footsteps of a man who accomplished more in his lifetime than most. Upon arriving at Jefferson's estate, many feel a sense of awe at the magnificent architecture, beautiful gardens and the breath-taking view of the valley that surrounds Monticello Mountain. Inside the main house, they remain in astonishment of Jefferson's boundless creativity, ingenuity and practicality. Every room and every item appears to have a distinct purpose. Beneath the dependency wings, visitors can also appreciate the daily contributions of the house staff, from the baking of bread in the kitchen to the ingenious preservation of perishable goods in the icehouse. A visit to the nearby museum reinforces the notion that few men were as intelligent or as creative as Jefferson and that few households in the Commonwealth were as productive as Monticello.

One of the most welcome and recognizable additions to the site can be found in the vastly improved interpretation of slavery and the inclusion of more African-American perspectives. As the subject of slavery is certainly an uncomfortable one, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation should be applauded for its renewed commitment to expanding the stories of those who experienced slavery firsthand. Five major parts of the Monticello experience now recall the institution. These include the newly expanded visitor's center and gallery, the house tour, Mulberry Row, the visitor's guidebook and the slave cemetery.


This year marked the grand opening of the Thomas Jefferson Visitors Center and Smith Education Center at Monticello. There are two main galleries at this location (along with a theater, café, gift shop, and research library). Both exhibit halls feature specific displays dealing with slavery and the labor force at Monticello. Both sections appear dedicated to recognizing the contributions of the African-American community. In the upstairs gallery there is a biography card on Issac Jefferson who had served as a blacksmith, tinsmith, and nailer. Issac's memoirs were recorded by an interviewer and remain among the most insightful narratives about the day-to-day lives of Monticello's inhabitants. Isaac held a sincere affection for his owner and was reported as saying, "Old Master was very kind to servants."

Next to Issac's display are matching bios of John Hemings, a tremendously skilled woodworker who crafted much of the interior woodwork of Jefferson's house at Poplar Forest, as well the most famous of all Monticello's slaves, Sally Hemings. In addition to these bio cards, artifacts that include some of the black artisans' handiwork are on display. The craftsmanship that these men demonstrated is even more impressive when considering the lack of technology that exists today. In many instances, slave labor equaled skilled labor.

In the downstairs gallery, a large display titled "Those Who Built Monticello" presents the tradesmen, free and enslaved, as well as the tools they used to construct Jefferson's magnificent estate. According to the plaque, "Jefferson required highly-skilled workmen to realize his vision for Monticello. In Philadelphia in 1798 he engaged James Dinsmore, an Irish house joiner, to take charge of the ongoing construction in his absences. Dinsmore worked closely with enslaved joiner John Hemings to create much of Monticello's fine woodwork. The team of joiners also included James Oldham (1801-04) and John Neilson (1805-09), and another enslaved man, Lewis..."

It continues, "John Hemings, the son of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, apprenticed under Dinsmore and hired joiners. He became an accomplished craftsman, succeeded Dinsmore as head joiner in 1809, and trained other slaves in his trade, including his nephews Madison and Eston Hemings. A Monticello overseer recalled that Hemings ‘could make anything that was wanted in woodwork.' He made fine furniture, a landau carriage, and much of the interior woodwork at Poplar Forest. Jefferson freed Hemings in his will and gave him all the tools of his shop. Continuing to work for the Jefferson family, Hemings lived for several more years at Monticello with his wife, Priscilla."


Nothing major has visibly changed noticeably at the top of the hill, although the guided tours are now more open to discussing the institution of slavery and how it was a crucial element in the construction, maintenance and operation of Monticello. Some guides are known to immediately make a point of presenting Jefferson as a typical Virginia plantation owner who had established his lifestyle on the benefits of slave labor. Others quote Jefferson as saying that he abhorred slavery and believed that he looked at his slaves with a paternalistic view; that they were children who required his supervision; then counter that notion by saying that dozens of Monticello's slaves had been gifted and/or sold off by Jefferson; and that if one judged him by his deeds and not his words, slavery was something that benefited him greatly.

Underneath the house, there remain several displays in the center alcove presenting the servants' quarters, artifacts, and slave lifestyle, including that of Issac Jefferson. The kitchen areas in particular present how Jefferson had his slave cooks trained by French chefs in the traditional dish preparations of the time. Adjacent quarters present the life of a slave named Joseph Fossett. The plaque reads, "Joseph Fossett (1780-1858) was the grandson of Elizabeth (Betty Hemings) and the son of Mary Hemings Bell, who became free in the 1790s while her son remained a slave at Monticello. According to overseer Edmund Backon, Fossett, a blacksmith, was ‘a very fine workman; could do anything it was necessary to do with steel or iron.' Joseph and Edith Fossett had ten children, from James, born in the President's House in 1805, to Jesse, born in 1830. Although Joseph Fossett was freed in Jefferson's will, his wife and children were sold at the Monticello estate auction in 1827. He continued to work as a blacksmith and, with the help of his mother and other free family members, was able to purchase the freedom of Edith and some of their children. They moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1840s. In 1850 their son Peter, who left a number of recollections of his life, became free and joined his family in Cincinnati, where he was a prominent caterer and Baptist minister."


Perhaps the most direct display of slave life at Monticello is the stops along Mulberry Row. In addition to traditional placards, brick ruins mark the areas of significance. Named for the mulberry trees planted along it, Mulberry Row was the center of plantation activity at Monticello from the 1770s to Jefferson's death in 1826. Five log dwellings for slaves were located on Mulberry Row in 1796. The Mulberry Row cabins were occupied mainly by household servants who did the cooking, washing, house cleaning, sewing, and child tending. According to Monticello's website, "Not all slaves lived on Mulberry Row. A small number who were household servants lived in rooms in the basement-level dependency wings of Monticello, and others lived in cabins located elsewhere at Monticello and outlying farms." It is estimated that in 1796 there were over 110 African-Americans living on the 5,000-acre plantation, with almost half of them being children.

Stops along the way include slave dwellings, a workman's house, a storehouse, a blacksmith shop, a nailery and a joinery. Some people may not be aware that all building materials including Monticello's bricks and nails were made on-site and they will most certainly be surprised to learn that white workers lived along this section of the estate. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation states that, "A blacksmith shop was built on this site about 1793. Here Jefferson's slaves Little George, Moses, and Joe Fossett shoed horses, repaired the metal parts of plows and hoes, replaced gun parts, and made the iron portions of the carriages that Jefferson designed. Neighboring farmers brought work to the shop as well, and the slave blacksmiths were given a percentage of the profits of their labor. In 1794, Jefferson added a nail-making operation to the shop, in an effort to provide an additional source of income. Nail rod was shipped to Monticello by water from Philadelphia and was hammered into nails by as many as fourteen young male slaves, aged ten to sixteen." The crumbled foundation of a typical Mulberry Row slave cabin remains. According to the plaque, the structures were approximately 20 ft. x 12 ft., constructed of logs on a stone foundation, with a wood chimney and earth floor. These buildings overlooked the main produce gardens. Today there is a special Plantation Tour available that covers the slave community and its daily contribution in more detail. Mulberry Row is a main focal point of the walking tour.


As with most of the nation's historical sites, Monticello also provides a quality guidebook along with each ticket purchase. This includes both an adult and a child's version. In the past, some patrons have criticized the child's pamphlet as it contains "cheerful" illustrations that explain the day-to-day life at Monticello by depicting slaves happily cooking in the kitchen and playing with the Jefferson children around the fish pond. No doubt slave-master relationships like this existed, but these representations can be viewed as illustrating complacency. Both sides of this argument are understandable as little children are perhaps too young to understand or comprehend the issues of slavery, yet these candy-coated drawings gloss over the issue altogether.

The adult guidebook that is currently distributed features two large spreads dealing with slave labor. The first is titled "Mulberry Row" and includes an illustrated map of the grounds and photographs of artifacts. Once again Issac Jefferson makes an appearance (clearly the most exhibited slave on the premises). A section on the storehouse states, "In 1796 Jefferson recorded that the log building here was used for storing iron and nail rod for the blacksmith shop and nailery. It also served over time for tinsmithing and nail manufacture and as a dwelling. A slave named Issac Jefferson, trained as a tinsmith in Philadelphia, briefly operated the tin shop."

The second spread is titled "The Plantation" and deals specifically with the institution of slavery. It states, "Most of Jefferson's slaves came to him by inheritance - 20 from his father and 135 from his father-in-law. In 1782, he was the largest slaveholder in Albemarle County. For most of his life he was the owner of 200 slaves, two-thirds of them at Monticello and one-third at Poplar Forest, his plantation in Bedford County." A photograph of Jefferson's record of slaves complements the copy and a sidebar deals directly with the subjects of enslaved families.

It states, "Enslaved Families: A number of extended families lived in bondage at Monticello for three or more generations, facilitating Jefferson's operations as farm laborers, artisans, tradesmen and domestic workers. Among them were the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Elizabeth Hemings, David and Isabel Hern, Edward and Jane Gillette, and James and Cate Hubbard. Nights, Sundays, and holidays provided the only opportunities to socialize and nurture their connections that united them as a community. Like their fellows across the South, Monticello slaves resisted slavery's dehumanizing effects by filling this time with expressions of a rich culture: gardening, needlework, music, religious practice. They were part of a cultural and spiritual life that flourished independent of their masters."


One additional area that befits the attention of this study is the small African-American graveyard that is located on the grounds of the estate. According to the sign, this cemetery is the final resting place of 40+ blacks who lived in slavery at Monticello from 1770-1827. It adds that although the names of Jefferson's slaves were known, it has not been possible to identify any of those buried here. This is perhaps one of the most telling of all the exhibits, as a separate burial plot personified the society of segregation that, even in death, existed at Thomas Jefferson's home.

Thanks to these new expansive interpretations, visitors to the new Monticello are more likely to come away with a more complex perspective of the man, as well as new conclusions. Many will acknowledge that the Thomas Jefferson we recognize today was a man who may very well have held a sincere paternalistic fondness for his slaves, but at the same time, he held them in the chains of bondage. And despite the fact that many of his servants received specialized training and developed trades that resulted in the creation of great things, they were simultaneously denied the basic principle of freedom. This is where the contradiction of the patriot who penned the most famous call for liberty lies. Thomas Jefferson was an extraordinary man whose contributions to this country cannot be denied, but he was also a man who adhered to the racist views of the period. This is an undeniable truth.

Thankfully, the folks at Monticello are not shying away from this aspect of Jefferson's life and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has made great strides to include an African-American presence in its presentation. This effort not only fills the void of a far-too-neglected history, but it also makes Thomas Jefferson human. Visitors today will more likely leave Thomas Jefferson's Monticello with a broader understanding of this remarkable, yet flawed Founding Father.

- Michael Aubrecht

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: Tuesday, 11 April 2023 10:38 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 22 February 2023
The Decision Made: Eston Hemings’ departure from African-American society

Eston Hemings, the formerly enslaved son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings [A], had lived in Ohio since the late 1830s, when, after his mother’s death, he packed up his family consisting of his wife, Julia, and their three children: John, Annie, and Beverly. However, the future for Eston and his family seemed to never be assured.

In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was signed into law, allowing for slaves to be captured in any state and essentially acting as a legal kidnapping method. This, along with the fact that Eston was still remaining in African-American society, were almost certainly push factors for him to pack up his life as an “African-American” and pass over into white society.

And thus it so happened: in the Fall of 1852, Eston and his family left Chillicothe, OH for a better life in Madison, WI. One must wonder though: why Wisconsin? Although we don’t know the exact answer, one potential pull factor is that Wisconsin, which had become a free state in 1848, had a growing abolitionist community. Additionally, the ability for him and his family to easily pass over as white people in Wisconsin without recognition or fear would’ve almost certainly been a contributing factor.

Julia Jefferson Westerinen, a great-great-granddaughter of Eston, in a somewhat modified family retelling of the story [B], recalled that: “…my ancestor came from Virginia, through Ohio, to Wisconsin in a covered wagon…”

After arriving in Wisconsin, however, the family’s happiness was short-lived. Eston’s daughter, Annie, married Albert Pearson. However, just a month before the birth of their first child (his first grandchild), Eston died, aged 47. Although his cause of death is unknown, Hemings-Jefferson family tradition suggests that he died of smallpox. He is buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison, WI, where his headstone reads thus:

“E. H. Jefferson

Died ~ Jan. 3, 1856.

Æ 48 ys 7 ms”


[A] The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, along with the majority of Jeffersonian scholars, have affirmed that he did father enslaved children by his slave, Sally Hemings.

[B] Eston’s direct male-line great-grandsons (Beverly, William, and Carl Jr.) met in the 1940s or 1950s and agreed to end the Sally Hemings story with them out of fear due to segregation and the one drop rule, favoring a story that they descended from an a uncle of Jefferson. This has often been misquoted as them saying that they descended from an “Uncle Ran” or an “Uncle Randolph.”

- Tim Marsh

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EST
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Monday, 12 December 2022
Christmas and slavery at Monticello

Although Thomas Jefferson’s Bible presents a non-traditional view on the birth of Jesus, Christmas celebrations were still held at Monticello and Poplar Forest acknowledging the Christian holiday. In 1762, Jefferson described Christmas as “The day of greatest mirth and jollity” and both friends and family wrote about the decorating of evergreen trees and the hanging of stockings. Christmas was also a time of change for Monticello’s slave population.

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation: “For African-Americans at Monticello, the holiday season represented a time between - a few days when the winter work halted and mirth became the order of the day. The Christmas season came to represent hours when families reunited through visits and when normal routines were set aside. In 1808, Davy Hern traveled all the way to Washington where his wife Fanny worked at the President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlet, Nace, and Eve set out for Poplar Forest to visit relatives and friends. Enslaved people frequently recalled that Christmas was the only holiday they knew. Many cherished memories of gathering apples and nuts, burning Yule logs, and receiving special tokens of food and clothing.”

Although Christmas did not represent physical freedom for Monticello’s slave population, it could provide an opportunity for spiritual freedom, as well as the hope for better things to come. According to his records, Jefferson granted a four-day holiday at Christmas in which slaves could visit with friends and family in the community. Christmas was also one of the two times during the year that Jefferson would provide cloth to his slaves for clothes.

Like most masters, Jefferson increased his slave’s food rations during this time and on occasion, provided whiskey. During the brief sabbatical Monticello’s slaves had the freedom to hold their own services and celebrations, which included the same merriment as their white counterparts. This included singing and dancing. There are no records that indicate that Thomas Jefferson attended any of these events, but Isaac Jefferson once recalled that his brother would “come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.”

Christmas on Mulberry Row is one of the most striking examples of the complex and contradictory nature of the master-slave relationship at Monticello. Despite its apparent hypocrisy, the holiday season represented a time when enslaved African-Americans could exercise a little levity and celebrate on their own.

- Michael Aubrecht 

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2022 12:01 PM EST
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Tuesday, 15 November 2022
Jefferson the Socialist?

The textbook definition of Socialism is “an economic and political theory, advocating public or common ownership, as well as the cooperative management, allocation and distribution of resources.” Current socialist parties existing in the United States include the Socialist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party and the Democratic Socialists of America, the latter boasting approximately 10,000 members. Despite the longtime existence of these organizations, the modern socialist movement did not get much attention in the United States until the 2009 election of President Barack Obama. Since then “socialism” has become one of the most inflammatory and misused words in our political vocabulary.

Initially, the term was commandeered by the conservative movement, primarily made up of Republicans, to be used as an accusatory campaign tactic. This was in direct response to the then Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s comments alluding to the expansion of government intervention and redistribution of wealth. It was later used to christen the counter-argument against the Obama Administration’s proposed changes such as government-funded bailouts and universal health care reform. Today it has become a permanent moniker used by the right when describing left-leaning politicians and their liberal policies.

More than a few political scholars maintain that true socialism is in fact, democratic in nature. Proponents of the system add that it properly prioritizes human needs, thus benefiting a broader stretch of the population. Additionally, many citizens who identify themselves as being on the left, support the notion of incorporating a socialist agenda into the country’s fledgling capitalist system. At the same time political traditionalists and Republican nay Sayers passionately protest the concept and liken it to oppressive forms of government including communism and fascism.

Some academics are preaching that the concept of American-socialism is nothing new, nor is it contrary to many of the Founding Father’s principles. Mark Brown, holder of the Newton D. Baker/Baker and Hostetler Chair at Capital University School of Law writes, “Many of our Founding Fathers were socialists. They believed that essential services should be provided by government to the public at large for little or no remuneration. The costs of these services would be shared by the whole. This, by most modern accounts, is socialism.”

Several historical quotes have been used repeatedly in these kinds of commentaries to support the notion that although they were not in favor of a total socialist system, some Founders did support the overall principle and as a result, the foundation of which our nation operates has socialist influence and flavor. Two individuals who are credited with sharing this mindset were Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine.

In his 1797 pamphlet titled “Agrarian Justice,” Thomas Paine outlined the concept for a nationwide account (like Social Security) that would be distributed among the people. He wrote: “[I shall] Create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling as a compensation in part for the loss of his or her natural inheritance by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum for life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.”

In 1811, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to Thaddeus Kosciusko that outlined the concept of spreading wealth around to those less fortunate. He wrote: “The rich alone use imported articles, and on these alone the whole taxes of the General Government are levied... Our revenues liberated by the discharge of the public debt, and its surplus applied to canals, roads, schools, &tc., the farmer will see his government supported, his children educated, and the face of his country made a paradise by the contributions of the rich alone - without his being called on to spend a cent from his earnings.”

- Michael Aubrecht 

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2022 8:50 AM EST
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Monday, 14 November 2022
Egos and Edits

I am interested in the personal and political relationships between Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These three egos in one room must have been a sight to behold. I have read that there was a mutual respect and competitive spirit surrounding their kinship, as well as periodic animosity.

The first sign of tension between these giants may have come during their early collaboration on the Declaration of Independence. As the most eloquent writer of the group, Jefferson was tasked with authoring the first draft, which was then reviewed by Adams and Franklin. Both critics were adamant that a document of this magnitude could not be created in it’s entirely by one man. Their fellow colleagues from the Continental Congress also injected their opinions, which in turn, led to protesting from the original author. 

Jefferson is said to have been visibly apprehensive with the editorial comments made by his peers. I was curious as to the level of “apprehension,” so I did some research and found an account that was written by Franklin’s grandson, William Temple. It was later published in William Temple’s Diary: A Tale of Benjamin Franklin’s Family In the Days Leading up to The American Revolution. It reads:

June 23, 1776

The awesome day has come and gone. Father made the proposed “tenderness and delicacy” impossible. In no uncertain terms, he told the Provincial Congress that they were an illegal body, definitely not representative of the population of New Jersey. He called them “pretended patriots,” “insidious malcontents bent on replacing British liberty with Republican tyranny.” He refused to answer the questions asked by the President of Congress. At some point, Mr. Witherspoon, President of Princeton College, lost his temper and alluded sarcastically to Father’s “exalted birth.” It was finally decided, with the approval of the Philadelphia Continental Congress, that the governor should be removed from New Jersey and sent under guard to the custody of Governor Trumbull in Connecticut. Exactly what Father had predicted!

As my aunts shed copious tears, I wondered whether this was Father at his worst — unbearably arrogant — or at his best — true to himself, whatever the cost. “To thine own self be true...” a nice Shakespeare quotation that might comfort Aunt Jane in a calmer moment.

On the very day of Father’s trial, Grandfather, now back home and feeling much better, was looking over Mr. Jefferson’s draft of a Declaration of Independence. Mr. Thomas Jefferson, a tall, lanky man with reddish hair, lives only a couple of blocks from us on Market street. The motion for such a Declaration was proposed some time ago by a fellow Virginian, Richard Henry Lee, but is acted upon only now. Known to be an excellent writer, Mr. Jefferson, also a Virginian, was quite upset by the many changes to his text suggested by various congressional colleagues. Grandfather told me that he had recommended only one important change. In the introductory sentence, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable...” Grandfather suggested replacing those two qualifiers by the word “self-evident,” and Jefferson agreed.

- Michael Aubrecht

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2022 1:02 PM EST
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Monday, 7 November 2022
Jefferson's Bible
Jefferson rejected the "divinity" of Jesus, but he believed that Christ was a deeply interesting and profoundly important moral or ethical teacher. He also subscribed to the belief that it was in Christ's moral and ethical teachings that a civilized society should be conducted. Cynical of the miracle accounts in the New Testament, Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus had been contaminated. In 1820 he conducted what practicing Christians consider to be blasphemy. He completed an ambitious work titled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English."

Using a razor and glue, Jefferson cut and pasted his arrangement of selected verses from a 1794 bilingual Latin/Greek version using the text of the Plantin Polyglot, a French Geneva Bible and the King James Version of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order—putting together excerpts from one text with those of another to create a single narrative. The text of the New Testament appears in four parallel columns in four languages. Jefferson omitted the words that he thought were inauthentic and retained those he believed were original. The resulting work is commonly known as the "Jefferson Bible."

No supernatural acts of Christ are included. Jefferson viewed Jesus as strictly human. He also believed that Jesus Himself ascribed to a more deistic belief system. In a letter to Benjamin Rush, he wrote: “I should proceed to a view of the life, character, and doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism.” (April 9, 1803). Jefferson also completely denied the resurrection. The book ends with the words: “Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

Jefferson described the work in a letter to John Adams dated October 12, 1813: “In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to them…We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the Amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an 8vo of 46 pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.”

In a letter to Reverend Charles Clay, he described his results: “Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order; and although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man.” Most historians feel that Jefferson composed the book for his own satisfaction, supporting the Christian faith as he saw it. He did not produce it to shock or offend the religious community; he composed it for himself, for his devotion, and for his own personal assurance.

After completion of the Life and Morals, about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime. The most complete form Jefferson produced was inherited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. The entire original Jefferson Bible is available to view, page-by-page, on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's website. The high-resolution digitization enables the public to see the minute details and anomalies of each page. Read Here

- Michael Aubrecht 

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 8 November 2022 5:15 PM EST
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Thursday, 3 November 2022
A Difficult Realization

You don’t have to be a historian to struggle with the subject of slavery. Even those with only a passing interest in our past can find racism difficult to discuss. Oftentimes we take the easy way out by telling ourselves to simply “keep things in context” and “not judge the past by comparing it to the present.” We remind ourselves that what was once commonplace then - isn’t commonplace now. This affirmation helps to dull the sting of racism. The most difficult part (in my opinion) of examining race and our country’s origin is admitting that our Founding Fathers were racist. In order to do that, we must reveal the faults in our heroes. After all these were some of the most brilliant men who ever lived, men who we owe the greatest debt of gratitude to, men who literally did the impossible by establishing a new nation dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If we were in ancient Greece these men would be our gods.

But…these titans of patriotism were also men who fought for freedom, while simultaneously depriving it to an entire race of people. We know that for certain. Yet in spite of this hypocrisy we are able to reconcile the faults of our Founders when celebrating their life. Who hasn’t admired George Washington’s courage or Thomas Jefferson’s brilliance when visiting Mount Vernon or Monticello? I certainly have. How many of us forget that they were also slaveholders? In recent years Mount Vernon and Monticello have both taken great steps to include the story of African-Americans in their exhibits. This effort has brought about a deeper understanding of slavery in relation to these men, but it still hasn’t enabled us to truly relate to them. To some people, the Founding Fathers are beyond reproach, while others vehemently condemn them. I believe that these extreme-attitudes do a great disservice to their memory. We must remember that they were human, capable of greatness and shamefulness.

My theory is that it is impossible for us to properly judge the Founders because we simply cannot relate to their time and place. We can’t relate because these men were never presented to us in any other capacity. Their likenesses grace our monuments and money. Our forefathers put them up on a pedestal where we continue to herald their achievements today. At the same time we forget that they once viewed African-Americans as property. This is where their racism is most evident. We react to this disturbing fact by subconsciously quantifying the issue to make it more acceptable. We remind ourselves that Washington freed his slaves upon his and his wife’s death and that Jefferson is believed to have fathered children with one of his. This rationalization dulls the sting of their prejudice.

The harsh reality is that no matter how 'well' a slaveholder treated their slaves, at the end of the day they were still slaveholders. A brutal example of this can be found in the inventory records of slaves that were kept by the overseers, as well as the advertisements that they placed in papers. These artifacts prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that these men viewed African-Americans as inferior.

The example above was placed in the September 14, 1769 issue of the Virginia Gazette by Thomas Jefferson who was offering a reward for the return of a runaway slave named Sandy. We know much about the life of the slaves on Mulberry Row and of Jefferson’s affection for many of them. At the same time we see here that he considered them personal property. Therein lays the conflict between admiring our Founders contributions while acknowledging their imperfections. It is a challenge that I still wrestle with no matter how much I read or write about the subject.

- Michael Aubrecht 

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 11:12 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2022 2:59 PM EST
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