What kind of slaveowner was Thomas Jefferson? Two comments recently attached to this post offer two very different views. The first comes from a reader who identifies him-/herself only as “Bridge”:
I’ve been writing a very extensive paper on Thomas Jefferson. He’s not what you should consider a slave driver. His best friend throughout his life was a black man named Jupiter. He bought slaves to reunite them with their families. He educated some of them and did not harshly punish them. He believed that he and his slaves were victim’s of history’s failures. He wanted them to be free but he knew that this wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. He could not escape his time period and that was not his fault.
A reply is submitted by the historian and EV contributor Henry Wiencek, whose book on George Washington and slavery can be found here and whose book on Jefferson and slavery will be published next year:
The regime at Monticello was a lot harsher than you have been led to believe. Before you finish your paper I would suggest you take a look at the video of a TJ talk I gave in Charlottesville last spring. It has a lot of new information about slavery at Monticello.
[Video embedded above. – Ed.]
I would not call Jupiter the “best friend” of Jefferson. Jupiter was one of the high-ranking slaves at Monticello but he was never more than a slave. Yes, Jefferson sometimes united families, but he split them also. Jefferson did not educate any slaves. They educated themselves. Madison Hemings persuaded one of Jefferson’s grandchildren to teach him to read and write. He did have some slaves trained in skills that were useful on the plantation. Jefferson never wanted slaves to be free unless they could immediately be sent out of the country. Of course he could escape his “time” — he was a revolutionary! He changed his time utterly. In the matter of slavery Jefferson always cast himself as the victim, but that was just one of his strategies of rationalization. In truth, he had no intention of getting rid of slavery — it was too profitable.