In “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” Henry Wiencek discusses Jefferson’s role as a slave master and his management of slave life on the Monticello plantation. At around 140 slaves, Monticello’s large slave population exemplified the problems and predicaments that slaveholders had to handle on a daily basis. With Wiencek’s unique glimpse into the inner workings of Monticello, we can see that while Jefferson was a founding father of our country, he was also just a typical slaveholder, hoping to make a profit off of his investment in slavery.
Jefferson’s identity as a typical Southern slaveholder is shown by his desire to make money and maintain the most efficient plantation system possible. He even calculated that he made a profit of approximately 4 percent each year from the increased output that his slaves’ offspring provided. With this revelation, Jefferson advised his colleagues to make a significant investment in slavery if they had not already done so. In addition, Jefferson gave managerial positions to some of his slaves to ensure that the laborers were working efficiently. One of these enslaved overseers in Jefferson’s nailery was Gabriel Lilly, who was once replaced because he was too brutal but then hired again since production decreased in his absence. As Jefferson became more aware of the potential money he could make as a planter and slave master, he also became aware of the pitfalls that slavery entailed.
One major difficulty that Jefferson and other slaveholders faced while managing a plantation was dealing with insubordinate slaves. James Hubbard, a trusted slave at Monticello, ran away on two occasions after earning more responsibilities and freedoms. Jefferson recovered Hubbard after both escape attempts, but did not punish him. In fact, Jefferson was averse to punishing slaves himself. So when a laborer stole or misbehaved, Jefferson gave the overseers the responsibility to inflict punishment. Jefferson also maintained control over his slaves by creating a network of slave informers and spies who would alert him of any wrongdoings or escape plots. Like other slave masters, Jefferson relied on these informers to provide knowledge of slaves’ sentiments that he could not gauge himself.
While Thomas Jefferson’s intelligence and rhetorical skills set him above his contemporaries, his life at Monticello shared many characteristics with the common Southern slaveholder. He focused on the profits he made and not on the immorality of slavery and he controlled insubordinate slaves through punishment (although he did not inflict it himself) and by maintaining a network of informers. However, considering all of the information we have learned about Thomas Jefferson, do his practices as a slaveholder diminish his status as one of the most brilliant and rhetorically gifted men in history or is his identity as a slave master independent from his noble work during the Revolution? In short, has Jefferson’s reputation been significantly tarnished by information about his personal life and how he ran his plantation?