Monday, September 28, 2009

Back When Democrats Kept Slaves

Annette Gordon-Reed. The Hemingses of Monticello. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.m 2008.

Thomas Jefferson kept a record of his slaves’ lives. He probably thought this information held no scholarly interest or else he or his descendants probably would have destroyed it. This information, combined with letters and other writins, provide us with information on what it was like to be a slave at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Jefferson was a consummate record keeper, saving letters and documents. Much information about slavery elsewhere was not written down or kept, as slaves were not considered consequential to many slave owners and thus few records were kept.

Sally Hemings was famous during her life. Opponents of Jefferson attacked Jefferson for their relationship as she was his mistress. The first novel published by an African American author was about a character based on Hemings.

Sally’s mother, Elizabeth, was the family matriarch with 12 to 14 children (the exact number is uncertain) and living to see four generations. About half of her children were fathered by a white and half were fathered by a Black. This mixed racial breeding continued through successive generations. Elizabeth witnesses two adult children sold to other plantations, a daughter presented as a wedding present to Thomas Jefferson’s sister, and two sons freed by Thomas Jefferson.

The Hemings women were servants and the Hemings men were butlers or artisans. The author notes that housework may have been less physically demanding than working in the fields. Yet field workers have greater abilities to talk amongst themselves and thus enjoyed a greater sense of community. Plus, they were freer from the watchful eye of their masters and mistresses amongst themselves.

Slaves then legally were property. There was no crime for raping or beating your own slave.

In the 17th century, many in the British culture considered the color black as evil or sinful. Similarly, many Africans thought Whites were ugly. Africa was the most culturally and genetically diverse continent. Yet, whites had the power and Africans were enslaved and when brought to American were considered as one race. Even the children of mixed race liaisons were considered the same as other African Americans.

John Wayles was a father of Elizabeth Heming’s children. He was an agent who brokered the sale of slaves and guaranteed payment. This created problems when tobacco farmers bought slaves on credit before their market crashed and they couldn’t afford the slaves they had ordered. Wayles became a hounding bill collected. It is noted that 400 slaves left on a ship that Wayles was involved and only 280 survived the trip.

Elizabeth Hemings was mentioned in Wayle’s will. Her last name was used. This is notable because many slave owners did not accord their slaves last name status. Many slave women were known only as Auntie and slave men as Uncle. Another slave mentioned in the same will was listed only as Jenney, one of Wayle’s daughters.

In Virginia and other Southern states, interracial marriage, but not sex, was illegal. There was no desire to provide slaves with legal claims to property. Interracial sex, though, was illegal between a white woman and Black man.

Jefferson wrote that Blacks had limited reasoning abilities and were inferior such that adding a white bloodline improved their race.

Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha was sickly. His concern for her health was a principal reason why he declined to travel with a delegation to France with Benjamin Franklin. He seldom mentioned his wife’s illnesses and he placed her above politics. He ran for Governor, a position he was no very keen on holding, in order to be close to his wife.

When British troops captured the Governor’s mansion in Richmond, they sought to arrest Governor Jefferson. He had fled but left behind things the troops took, such as meat, wine, corn, as well as Mary Hemings and her children. There is no record as to how long the troops kept them.

Jefferson allowed tow Hemings brothers to travel as they wishes. The law required they carry a pass for traveling without their master.

Siblings Sally and James Hemings traveled with Jefferson to Paris. He did not register them, as required by French law, yet Jefferson knew the law was seldom enforced. In France, slaves were legally considered as paid servants. Slaves could request their freedom by petition to court, and almost 200 did so and received the freedom in French courts.

A slave belonging to John Jay named Abby escaped but was recaptured in Paris. Benjamin Franklin recommended to Jan that she be punished by being left in jail for twenty days, and Jay agreed with this advice. Abby became sick from the poor jail conditions and died three weeks after being released back to Jay.

James Hemings petitioned French court for his freedom without mentioning Jefferson. Jefferson feared objecting which would have required him admitted to have broken the law by not registering James. Jefferson faced a fine of 6,000 livres for having slaves in France. This was the equivalent to a year’s rent for Jefferson. The Hemings thought themselves as free. Jefferson brought them back with him to America,

Thomas Jefferson took James Hemings with him to the nation’s capital, which then was New York. The 1790 New York census lists 2,056 slaves and 1,036 free Blacks. Jefferson and Hemings moved to Philadelphia when the capital was moved to there. Members of Congress were exempt from law prohibiting having slaves in Philadelphia. James eventually was freed.

There is little written record about Elizabeth Hemings and her life at Monticello. There is some archaeological evidence showing what utensils were used and they way the grounds appeared then.

Jefferson was also rumored by opponents as being an atheist. Jefferson’s own explanation as to his religious views were “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know”. This helped increased attacks on Jefferson’s morality, which included his putative affair with Hemings.

After Jefferson’s death, Monticello and its 130 slaves were sold by auction. Hemings and five children were freed in Jefferson’s will and two other children were freed by Jefferson’s oral wishes.


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