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The American Farmer in the Eighteenth CenturyA Social and Cultural History$

Richard Lyman Bushman

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780300226737

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300226737.001.0001

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Learning Slavery

Learning Slavery

How Slaves Learned to Be Slaves and Whites to Become Masters

(p.244) 13. Learning Slavery
The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century

Richard Lyman Bushman

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Plantation agriculture created a culture in which commanding a slave became a mark of distinction. Large owners left a slave to each of their children as one of the accoutrements of a respectable lady or gentleman. White children of necessity had to learn to be masters and their black companions to be slaves. Much of this learning occurred through the stories of black-white relationships which slaves told each other. The stories formed a body of black literature which was passed along with other skills like singing and playing. White masters had to learn to provide supplies for their workforce—food, clothing, housing. Management of a large plantation called for the skills of a quartermaster. Whites, furthermore, even white women, had to learn to demand and to punish. As they grew, black children had to decide if they were to seek to be trusted by their masters or take a chance on resistance. Resistance could involve little more than slacking off work when not under the master’s gaze. Or it could mean running away. During the Revolution, black families that were seemingly quiescent took the chance on joining the British forces and ran away. Blacks concealed their true feelings in hiding places in their minds.

Keywords:   Slavery, Stories, Trust, Resistance, Feelings

By the time of the Revolution, slavery had become a way of life in the American South, a distinctive culture shaped around plantation agriculture. Slavery evoked techniques of control, a set of postures, scripts for all occasions, an ethic, and measures of personal achievement. Slaves were something more than an economic expedient, a way to increase production. Owning slaves became an end in itself. They were a sign of status and competence. Mastery gave confidence and empowerment to those who dictated to other human beings, much as fine houses and fine clothing sustained the confidence of eminent northerners. Slaves were perhaps the chief mark of consequence in the South. For planters preparing for their children’s future, it was as important to bequeath a slave as to bestow tools, clothing, and furniture. As part of growing up, white boys and girls had to learn mastery, and black boys and girls had to learn submission.

Southern Comfort

The cultural value of slavery became evident in a massive study of American wealth in 1774 on the eve of the Revolution. A team led by Alice Hanson Jones tabulated the wealth of individual households as recorded in probate records from a sample of counties across Britain’s North American colonies. Jones was able to group the various forms of property named in the (p.245)

Table 13.1 Physical Wealth Per Free Capita, 1774, in Pounds Sterling and Percentage Consumer Goods

New England

Middle Colonies


Slaves, servants, land, and producer’s capital




Consumer goods




Percentage consumer goods Of other wealth




Source: Virginia estate inventories, 1774–75, in Alice Hanson Jones, Wealth of a Nation to Be: The American Colonies on the Eve of Revolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

inventories and make broad generalizations about wealth distribution in the three major sections: the South, the Middle Colonies, and New England. Her data confirmed the impression of the South’s superior wealth in many forms: the workers they controlled, the land they owned, and the capital goods they possessed. One incongruity, however, emerged in Jones’s study: the South outshone the other two sections in virtually every category of wealth except for consumer goods.

Southerners possessed over two and a half times as much producer wealth as New Englanders and more than twice as much as Middle Colony people. But measured by their consumer goods, southerners were relatively abstemious. Their consumer goods constituted only 6 percent of their other wealth, while in New England the number was more than 13 percent, and in the Middle Colonies more than 10 percent. Southerners were not fully employing their wealth to raise their standard of living. They lived somewhat better on the average, but owning twice as many resources as Middle Colony residents and two and a half as much as New Englanders did not result in a proportionately better lifestyle.

Consider Callam Bailey, whose estate inventory was returned in Albemarle County in 1787. Bailey had the fifth-most slaves, twelve, among the people who died in the decade between 1779 and 1788. Ranked in the upper third of the total population in wealth, he represents the comfortable middling slaveholder. At his death he owned “9 china plates & 1 ditto dish,” a sign of aspiration, to be sure, but what accompanied the china in the family’s household by way of furnishings?

  • (p.246) 1 tub and 1 looking glass

  • 1 table 2 jugs and 3 bottles

  • 1 d[oz] table spoons & 1 large ditto

  • 1 pewter dish & 5 pewter plates

  • 3 ditto basins ½d [oz] knives & forks

  • Sundry books 1 horn

  • Sundry china ware

  • 2 awls 1 jug & nutmeg

  • 2 drinking glasses 1 cupboard

  • Chest 1 tea kettle handle

  • 1 blanket and rug

  • 1 table 1 chest

  • 8 seting chairs

  • 3 table cloaths

Besides these items, Bailey owned three feather beds and bedsteads, a razor, and a pair of spectacles, but nothing of elegance beyond the china dishes. He owned a table and eight chairs, but his family when he died consisted of four sons and seven daughters. Where would they have sat for dinner when they were young and still at home? How many children slept in the two beds left for them after the parents claimed one? The Baileys had a teakettle but no teacups. They had the basics but nothing fine. The china dishes were only a touch of gentility in an otherwise drab interior.1

Bailey was typical of modest slaveholders of Albemarle County. The one luxury object small slaveholders were most likely to have was a looking glass. They did not have fine furniture or tableware. They had no carpets and clocks. They ate from pewter and wooden plates and dishes. Desks and cupboards, common in households with ten or more slaves, were rare below that level.

Based on the ads for property in the Virginia Gazette, Camille Wells has concluded that even well-off Virginians, those just below the stratospheric heights of the great planters, lived in one- or two-room houses with a loft above and perhaps an extension to the side or back. Between 1736 and 1780, 1,016 residences were mentioned in 838 for-sale notices in the Gazette, probably representing the better properties in the colony. Yet more than half of the ground dimensions of the houses were less than 576 square feet, or 24 by 24 feet, meaning the two main rooms were each 12 × 12. Only 9 dwellings in a thousand ads were described as 1,500 square feet or more, and only 47 of (p.247)

Table 13.2 Luxury Objects in Albemarle County Estate Inventories, 1779–88, by Number of Slaves in Household

Slaves in Household (Inventories)

1–4 (8)

5–9 (13)

10–20 (4)

Luxury Object

Percentage with Object in Inventory

Mahogany, cherry, walnut tables and chairs












Looking glass












Desk, cupboard




Source: Virginia County Court Records, Will Book: Albemarle County, Virginia, 1752–1756, 1775–1783 (n.p.: Antient, 2002); Virginia County Court Records, Will Book: Albemarle County, Virginia, 1785–1798 (n.p.: Antient, 2002).

the advertisements mentioned a second floor, suggesting that one story was the norm. Brick or stone was rarely mentioned. A housing survey of Halifax County in 1785 found that more than three-quarters of the inhabitants lived in one-room log or plank houses of less than 310 square feet.2

The Gazette ads were probably for the upper end of Virginia housing, save for the mansions of the extravagant elite, another category altogether. The little huts of the poorest people were not likely to be advertised. Virginia houses impressed travelers as shabby and cramped. On the eve of the Revolution, one visitor described the Virginia landscape: “Now & then a solitary farm house was to be seen, a narrow wood building, two stories high, with gable ends & a small portico over the central door. A cluster of small, miserable negro huts, a canoe & a brood of little negroes paddling in the mud completed the landscape.” Two stories and houses for the slaves would have put the owner of these buildings toward the top of the scale, and travelers were not impressed.3

Where southern planters stood out among their fellow colonists on the eve of Revolution was in the large proportion of their wealth invested in labor. Estate inventories in New England in 1774 showed less than a pound invested in slaves and servants; the Middle Colony households averaged £1.8 (p.248) on average. In the South the average value of their labor was £31.2 per household. In Virginia in 1774–75, the figures were even more stark. Among the smallest slaveholders, those with only one to five servants, estates on average were valued at £191; the value of their slaves was £91, nearly 48 percent of the total.4

How are we to understand this high investment in the productive capacity of slaves and yet so little inclination to raise the family’s standard of living? Judging from how they deployed their resources, southerners measured their success by the ownership of slaves. Owning slaves in itself, apart from their use, had value. Slaves imparted worth in the South, much as central-passage houses with elegant scroll doorjambs did in the Connecticut Valley.5 Mastery of other human beings represented competence and achievement as consequential as houses and furniture.

Callam Bailey left his estate to eleven children in 1787. The four boys all received land; four of the unmarried older girls received a horse and saddle. But each of the children, save one daughter, also received a slave. If maximization of productive capacity was the goal, the slaves would have been gathered into a workforce for one or two of his sons. Instead, Bailey bestowed a servant on each of his children, including his daughters. Bailey’s girls were to have a horse to ride and a servant to command. A servant was part of proper demeanor. John Davis, who opened a school in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia at the end of the century, described two sisters arriving on a horse on the first day accompanied by a “running footman” who carried a basket of food.6 Propriety and self-respect required a servant.

Charles Lewis, the wealthiest of the Albemarle County decedents in the 1780s, went even further than Bailey. Each of his six daughters received at least one girl named in the will: Albey daughter of Nan, Yaf daughter of Phoebe, Suck daughter of Judith, Lucy daughter of Phoebe, Mary daughter of Mulatto Lucy, Amy daughter of Mulatto Lucy, and Hanah daughter of Tamar. Then, having slaves to spare, Lewis went on to the next generation. Grandson Howell received “Negro boy Bob son of Cate,” while granddaughter Sally was given “Negro girl Lucinda daughter of Patt.” The same for all his progeny. Three boys were each given “a Negro boy between the ages of four and seven years,” and four granddaughters “a Negro girl between the ages of four and seven years.”7 Lewis felt that every one of his descendants should have a girl or boy slave, perhaps first as playmate and (p.249) eventually as servant. A slave marked the standing he hoped they would enjoy.

This mingling of slaves and white children was both congenial and cruel, for it inevitably led to a crisis. At some point in time, childhood ended. A French visitor to Virginia in the early nineteenth century called this passage “the time of transition from happy ignorance to painful knowledge.”8 The assignment of black children aged four to seven years to white children not much older suggests a question for southern farm history: How did white and black humans differentiate themselves? How did slave children learn to be slaves and white children learn to be masters?


Hints of how young slaves learned their roles can be found in the narratives collected from former slaves in the 1930s. Even though shaped by time and many retellings, the tales suggest the complexities of childhood relationships. In 1937, long after slavery had ended, ninety-six-year-old Mrs. Fannie Berry, born a Virginia slave in 1841, remembered her adventures with “young marser Tom,” as recorded by an interviewer who tried to capture her colloquial speech. “He was my real marser too,” she told the interviewer, “but I b’longed to Miss Sarah Ann, ’cause he couldn’t own me till he was 21.” For the time being they “used to play together all de time. Used to come down to de quarters early in de mornin’ an’ call neith de window, ‘Fanny, git up, we gonna git bark.’” The children collected strips of bark in the woods to lay on the coals while clothes were being ironed. The bark kept the ashes off the iron when it was put in the fire to reheat.9

“Marse Tom an’ me used to make a game of it. We’d go runnin’ from tree to tree each tryin’ to find de bigges’ pieces of bark,” Fannie remembered. The big pieces had the advantage of lasting a long time before burning away. Trouble began when Fannie spotted a big tree and put her arms around it to claim it as hers, taunting Tom by saying “I got de bigges’, I got de bigges’.” Not to be out done, Tom came running up and warned her away. That day he had brought a forbidden axe with him instead of the paring knife he was supposed to use. “Fanny take your han away fo’ I cut it off,” he threatened. “Go way, I saw it fust,” Fannie said. “Git yo’ own bark.” Swinging the axe menacingly to scare off Fannie, Tom lost his grip and the axe came down on Fannie’s finger. “Chip de end right off. Twas jus’ hanging on by a little thread (p.250) of skin, an’ de blood come flyin’ out.” Terrified, Tom pled with Fannie, “Don’t tell Missus, I give you all my sweet bread in de mornin’.” Fannie agreed not to tell and then tended to her wounded finger. “I ketch holt to dat little piece dat’s hangin’ an’ pulled it off an’ throwed it in de bushes. Den I tore off piece my petticoat, an’ wrapped all roun’ it an’ started for home.” Tom followed carrying the bark, calling out “Member, Fanny, you promised you won’t gonna tell.”10

When they got to the yard, the petticoat bandage came off and the blood spurted again. Looking out the window, Sarah Ann saw the bleeding. “She come runnin’ out, an’ yellin’, ‘Chile, what you do?’” She washed off the finger, applied mustard, and tied it up tight again, asking all the time how it happened. True to her word, Fannie said nothing, but Sarah Ann guessed the truth. She took hold of Marse Tom and “give him a good whuppin’.” “How I knowed dat,” Fannie explained, “was cause I heard him cryin’. White folks never whupped white chillum in front of niggers, no matter what dey do.” Through it all, Fannie said nothing about Tom, “an’ show nough next mornin’ he gimme his sweetbread.”11

It is hard to tell what Fannie Berry knew as a child playing with Tom and what she added later after growing up in slavery. As a little girl, did she understand the complicated relationship of a playmate who was to be her master, but not quite yet? The story suggests that as a child she was sure enough of her friendship with Tom to take liberties with him. “I got de bigges’, I got de bigges’,” she gleefully shouts. When he demands the tree for himself, she does not meekly yield but boldly claims “I saw it fust.” Just as telling, she promises to cover up his crime and keeps her promise. She was proud of her loyalty to Tom. Before she was a slave, Fannie was a playmate of a young white boy. For her, slavery emerged from friendship, which, for all the suffering she underwent, she never forgot. Thomas Jefferson had grown up with Jupiter, one of his father’s slaves born the same year. In adulthood Jupiter served as Jefferson’s body servant and later his coachman. Jupiter’s son Philip was the friend of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the president’s grandson. Randolph referred to Phil as his “companion in childhood and friend through life.”12

Judging from her respectful comments, Fannie was as close to her mistress as she was to Tom. One wonders what she means to convey by recounting Sarah Ann’s binding of the wound. Throughout her long narrative, Fannie invariably speaks well of her mistress. Is Fannie trying to say she (p.251) was valued? Sarah Ann cared that this little black girl had lost her fingertip, and the girl never forgot. At the time, she may not have understood why Tom was whipped out of view. She wouldn’t have known that white owners never wanted slaves to see a white person subjected to the same punishment as blacks. Fannie was caught up in a swirl of affections, loyalties, and limits she could scarcely have understood at first.

And what did Tom learn? He had put himself at the mercy of Fannie’s goodwill. That was not a wise course for an emerging master. What should he have done? One conclusion would be not to play with slaves. More distance was required, so as never to have to beg for a slave’s favor. Five years later, Tom would not have begged for Fannie’s mercy; he would have threatened to beat her if she betrayed him.

At another time, Tom showed Fannie some little sticks with yellow ends. He “drawed one cross a rock, an’ it made a fire.” She begged for one and put it in her hair. Later, on her own, she went into the barn to try it out. She struck it across a rock and “sho’ nough it made a fire.” She dropped it into some leaves in the barn and then ran away terrified. Hiding in the cornfield, she saw smoke and flames rolling out of the barn, and she “could hear it crackin’.” She watched as the master formed a bucket chain to pass water from the well. Once the fire was under control, the master “called all de nigger chillum together an’ tole em he gonna whup ev’y last one of ’em cause he knows one of dem don made dat fire. An’ he whupped ’em too till he got tired, whilst I lay dere in de corn fiel’ not darin’ to raise my head. Never did whup me.”13

By this time, whippings stood out in Fannie’s mind. She had learned to respect those outbursts of the master’s passion. She did not rush to protect the “chillum” as she had protected Tom. She stayed out of the firefighting scene and watched the master whipping the children until he tired, glad she was not one of them. She showed no regret or guilt for the trouble she had made for the others. She showed more concern for Tom than for the other slave children. What she remembered was that she had made a terrible mistake and yet escaped punishment.14 As a child, self-preservation meant more to her than solidarity.

By slow and precarious steps, Fannie learned to act the part of a young slave. Somehow she found the courage to resist white lust. “I wuz one slave dat de poor white man had his match.” When one tried to throw her down, she fought back. “We tusseled an’ knocked over chairs an’ when I got a grip (p.252) I scratched his face all to pieces.” One wonders how her assailant told the tale, but Fannie had her story: “dar wuz no more bothering Fannie from him.” She was not claiming that she and her sisters always won out. “Us colored women had to go through a plenty, I tell you.”15 But the stories she told about white advances were the ones in which the slave women fended off their attackers.

On big plantations, slaves often knew their parents. Men and women could find a spouse among the twenty or thirty people living in a quarter and maintain a modest family life. Cornelia Carney remembered her father as “de purties’ black man you ever saw.” John Jones Littleton “had a long thin nose like a white man, an’ had de lovelies’ white teef, an’ hones’ chile, de purties’ mouf.” He could make anything, Cornelia remembered, including a chest she owned. She refused to sell the chest to white folks because they treated her father “so mean. Ole Marsa Littleton used to beat father all de time. His back was a sight. It was scarred up an’ brittled fum shoulder to shoulder.”16 The dispute between them was that John wanted to work with wood and the master wanted him in the fields.

After many whippings, John Littleton ran away and lived in the woods, slipping back on Saturday or Sunday when the master and mistress were in church. “Mama used to send John, my oldes’ brother, out to de woods wid food fo’ father, an’ what he didn’t git from us de Lawd provided.” With her father were Gabriel his cousin and a man named Charlie. The master searched the woods without ever capturing the fugitives. “Niggers was too smart fo’ white folks to git ketched. White folks was sharp too, but not sharp enough to git by ole Nat.” Cornelia explained that “git by ole Nat ” was a phrase folks used referring to Nat Turner. “De meanin’ I git is dat de niggers could always out-smart de white folks.”17

Limited as was her time with her beautiful father, Cornelia loved and admired him. He stood for something. She classed him with clever, rebellious blacks like Nat Turner, thus mingling black national history with local, personal history. The very absence of father John was turned into a sign of his smarts and his heroism. Her tale of a proud father—who stood up against the cruel master who had unjustly beaten him until his back was brittle—inspired and instructed her.

Black oral culture consisted of stories like these. They were the slaves’ literature, an imaginative world they created to sustain their dignity and hope. This lore, kept alive by many retellings, instructed the rising (p.253) generation about the nature of their plight and the possibilities of life under slavery. The stories probably conveyed more of life’s truth than explicit admonitions from masters and parents. They illuminated a slave’s ambiguous relationships to masters and mistresses, to other slaves, to their parents, and to themselves. The stories laid out possibilities, often in a way to give slaves hope and agency, while conveying the ambivalence and conflict in slave life. Learning took place whenever the stories were told.18

Monticello’s “Roll of the Negroes”

Most of the stories about slavery in eighteenth-century Albemarle County were told by the slaves of Thomas Jefferson. They were written by people who worked close to him and remembered their experiences in the light of their master’s eminence. The stories are warmhearted and admiring. They depict a strong, wise, powerful master. The storytellers showed no inclination to outwit their master or hold him at bay.

On the master’s side, no stories are forthcoming. From Jefferson himself, we learn the statistics of slave management as recorded in his Farm Book and Memorandum Book. He occasionally commented on his slaves in his correspondence, but said almost nothing personal. In his extensive correspondence, he left no anecdotes. The death of his house servant Burwell in 1819 upset Jefferson, but he never spoke of his feelings for Jupiter, the slave who was born at Shadwell the same year as Jefferson and who later served as his valet and coachman. Jefferson attributed Jupiter’s death to “an imprudent perseverance in journeying” when Jefferson wanted him to stay home. Jefferson said he was sorry to lose him but was miffed that “he leaves a void in my administration which I cannot fill up.” Someone else would have to bottle the cider.19

Most of what we know about Jefferson’s management of his slaves comes from his Farm Book. He made many entries from 1794 to 1796 after his resignation as secretary of state, and again after retirement from the presidency in 1809. Jefferson arrived at Monticello from Philadelphia on January 16, 1794, and wrote nothing for ten months. Then in December 1794, impressed perhaps with the complexity of running a plantation again, he turned to his instinctive method for gaining control—charting a plan. For the next two months, perhaps the high point of Jefferson’s engagement with farming, he turned his thoughts into tables and calculations. He made lists (p.254) and created charts, often estimating costs for every activity. At one point he set aside sixty-eight pages as a filing system for what he styled “Aphorisms, Observations, Facts in husbandry.” He put headings on the pages and left space for information under seventeen categories from “Implements of husbandry & operations with them,” to “Potash” and “Tenants.” The Farm Book reveals the mind of a farmer with unusually strong rational impulses trying to bring his plantation into order.20

Judging by his record, Jefferson’s highest priority was management of his large, valuable, and unwieldy workforce. Of all the things a rising planter had to learn, regulation of his slaves was the most challenging. The first entry in the Farm Book, dated November 1794, was a “Roll of the negroes.” Keeping track of the people he owned was a big job, especially when births and deaths constantly altered the names on the list. The second entry in the Farm Book in 1794 was a “Register of births.” He made similar lists in 1774, when he had inherited 135 slaves from his father-in-law and was beginning to take farming seriously. Many subsequent lists appear in the Farm Book, even after he had relinquished management of his farm to his son-in-law and grandson.21

In 1794 Jefferson owned 154 slaves, 105 of them at the adjoining Albemarle plantations of Monticello, Tufton, Shadwell, and Lego. The remainder were at Poplar Forest in Bedford County. The 64 slaves at Monticello were the single largest contingent. He knew all of them by name—Bagwell, Minerva, Ursula, Mary, Virginia, Judy, Austin. The names were not listed alphabetically but grouped by two categories, family and skill. In the left margins, he placed brackets around families, and in the right margin around skill groups. Eight families resided at Monticello, accounting for 34 of the 64 slaves. Four categories of skills were named, smiths, carpenters, carters, and spinners, and one was left unlabeled, nail makers. The first three were all men; the spinners were all women. The skills categories were not rigorous or exclusive. “Phill shoemaker” was bracketed with the carpenters.22

Once Jefferson had listed his slaves by families and skills, he began another series of lists accounting for supplies. Food, clothing, and bedding were the ongoing expenses of slavery, and Jefferson sought for control here as in everything else on the plantation. His first list recorded the distribution of blankets. He assumed a blanket was good for ten years and so headed each column with a ten-year period: 1792–1801, 1793–1802, 1794–1803. Betty Brown received a blanket for herself in 1792, and a year later another blanket for her two children, Wormeley Hughes and Burwell Colbert. Doll received (p.255) her own blanket in 1792 and blankets for her children in 1794. Had Jefferson kept the lists up, he could have told, when a slave begged for another blanket, the date when the previous blanket had been issued.23 No one could sell a blanket and then request another ahead of schedule.

Jefferson was even more careful with cloth. Rather than purchase ready-made clothing for his workers, he purchased cloth and thread for each slave and assigned slave tailors to cut and sew. To know how much to buy, he calculated that it took three “skaines” of thread to make a shirt and three to mend it. The same for a “suit of cloth.” He made an attempt to scale the yards of cloth required according to age. A one-year-old’s suit called for a yard of linen, a two-, three-, or four-year-old’s two yards, and so on up to sixteen years, when six yards were required. Grown men or women needed seven yards, and very large people eight yards.24 Jefferson drew a line through these calculations as if they were in some way unsatisfactory, but they accorded with his way of working.

Having determined just amounts for their winter clothing, Jefferson noted the cloth needed for each slave. John Hemings was allotted seven yards of linen and eight “half ells” of “knap.” An ell was generally forty-five inches, so that eight half ells was roughly five yards. Knap or nap was a heavy woolen, probably for winter wear. With the fabric, John required six skeins of thread plus three more. Probably the six was the ration for making his “suit” and the three for mending, a slight change from Jefferson’s earlier calculation. In this list, men generally required seven yards of linen, and eight of knap, adult women the same, teenagers five yards, and the children two or three. The adults needed shoes and stockings; the children neither. Monticello’s slave children went barefoot and sockless even in winter.25 In summer, another batch of cloth and thread was required.

The primary purpose of the lists was to calculate purchases. Jefferson had to know how much cloth to order. In December 1794, the month after he had made an accounting of his slaves, Jefferson sent off a bulk order to Fleming and McLanahan for 343 yards of knaps and halfthicks, five dozen stockings in four different sizes, and twenty-eight blankets. He ordered 514½ yards of “oznabrigs,” the rough linen named for its origins in Osnabruck, Germany, and commonly used for slave clothing. He ordered thread by weight, four pounds of it. Earlier he had calculated that he could derive 100 to 130 skeins of thread from a pound.26 He served as his own procurement officer, a necessary part of providing for his numerous workforce.

(p.256) Jefferson had similar responsibilities for his slaves’ food. Less accounting was necessary for provisions because of the standard weekly ration: one peck of cornmeal (two dry gallons), a half-pound of pork or pickled beef, and four salted fish. In 1797 Jefferson listed the names of slaves and their ration by groups, usually by family. Lucy received two rations because of her son Zach; Betty B three pecks because of children Melinda and Edwin; Jupiter four because of his wife Suck and their sons Philip and Johnny. Fifteen teenage nail makers formed another group.27 A fish list follows the same pattern, though somewhat more roughly. Betty Brown and her two sons received eight fish rather than twelve because her children were young. Five hired enslaved men received six fish each. During the arduous harvest season all the workers received extra rations, fresh meat every day with peas.28

To provide sufficient food was in Jefferson’s interest as well as his slaves’. To keep them working, he needed a well-stocked storehouse. In December 1794, when he was rationalizing the whole system, he calculated what he would need for all the consumers in his family economy. He counted the barrels of corn on hand at Monticello and Shadwell, 229½ and 256½, and then calculated his needs for the 120 persons at the two plantations, plus all the riding horses, broodmares, colts, mules, workhorses, oxen, and so on down the list of animals, to beeves and hogs. In a column opposite each type, he noted their needs: 1 peck of corn a week for each of the 120 persons; 1½ gallons a day in winter for each of eight riding horses and 1 gallon in summer. The hogs received a half-bushel a day, or 2 pecks, which was 4 dry gallons. All of the animals, save for riding horses and workhorses, were fed corn from December 15 to April 1; after that they foraged in the woods and at pasture. When everything was added up, Jefferson calculated that he would need 512 barrels of corn by November 15, 1795, and he had only 486 barrels on hand, putting him in the market for 26 additional barrels.29

Jefferson was unusual in writing down and preserving all of his calculations and plans for his plantation, but not unusual in his thinking. Every farmer with slaves had to keep track of them by name, note the births in his mind, figure out how to house them by family groups, provide cloth and thread for clothing, and supply them with food. Every young planter-to-be had to acquire the skills of a quartermaster to keep work in the fields and barns humming along.

The masters had to be ready to deal with breakdowns too. Slave populations were subject to epidemics and common diseases, as well as the perils (p.257) of childbirth and aging. A sick slave was of no use to his master and commonly an expense. Jefferson spent from forty to sixty dollars a year on doctors to tend to his slaves. He limited their attendance to certain diseases: “pleurisies, or other highly inflammatory fevers, intermitting fevers, dysenteries, and venereal cases.” As was common in his day, Jefferson doubted the doctors’ efficacy. Except for the diseases he named, “they oftener do harm than good.” Jefferson thought for most of the slaves’ illnesses that “a dose of salts as soon as they are taken is salutary in almost all cases, and hurtful in none.” “A lighter diet and kind attention restore them soonest.” He forbade bleeding, a common remedy, but did inoculate a few slaves at Monticello against smallpox in the 1770s, a risky procedure. Beginning in 1801, after the arrival of Edward Jenner’s procedure, all the slaves were vaccinated.30

Jefferson would have liked to achieve the same degree of efficiency in every aspect of his farm operations, including the management of work. In July 1795, while still at the peak of his interest in agriculture, he kept close notes on the harvest of a parcel of wheat near Monticello, reducing the entire operation to numbers: twelve workers cradled the seventy-three acres in two days, which he calculated as three acres a day for each worker. Oxcarts manned by three loaders plus a driver transported the sheaves from the field. Each loading took fifteen minutes, and carrying it a quarter of a mile and returning took another twenty-two minutes. Having broken down the process into its parts, Jefferson projected what should happen “were the harvest to go over again with the same force.”

  • A treading floor should be laid down before harvest

  • A half dozen spare scythes should be mounted and a half dozen more made ready

  • The slave George with tools and a grindstone mounted should stand ready to mend cradles and grind scythes.

  • 18. Cradlers should work constantly. Smith George, John, Davy, Lewis, Johnny, Isabel, Patrick, Isaac, Ned, Toby, James, Val. Bagwell Caesar Jerry Tim & Philip.

  • 18. binders. Of the women & abler boys. Isabel. Jenny. Jenny. Doll. Molly. Amy. Minerva. Lucinda. Judy. Belinda. York. Burwell, Jamy, Barnaby. Davy. Patty. Lucy.

  • 6. gatherers, to wit 5 smaller boys & 1 larger for a foreman. Wormely. Brown. Davy. John. Ben. Kit.

    • (p.258) 3. Loaders. Moses, Shepherd & Joe.

    • 6. stackers. Squire. Abram. shoemkr. Phill, Essex, Goliah. Austin.

    • 2. cooks. O. Betty & Fanny.

    • 4. Carters. Tom. Phill. Frank. Martin.

    • 8. would remain to keep half the ploughs a going. Rachael. Mary. Nanny. Sally. Thamar. Iris. Scilla. Phyllis

Jefferson named the slaves he would deploy to their various posts, suggesting that he did see them as individuals, but the aim, as with all who measure work in the interests of efficiency, was the creation of a human machine. Speaking of his plan, he observed that “in this way the whole machine would move in exact equilibrio, no part of the force could be lessened without retarding the whole, nor increased without a waste of force.” His aim, as with his plow, was mathematical exactitude and machinelike efficiency. It was as far as he could carry rational agriculture in the human department. Sickness, recalcitrance, mistakes, and accidents all lay waiting to disrupt the plan. Yet Jefferson could not forgo his desire to achieve some measure of control, something more effective than his current harvesting program. While his nailery was in operation, he personally weighed the iron given to each worker in the morning and returned in the evening to weigh their nail production, hoping to prevent theft and to measure the productivity of each slave.31

In 1794 he saw more practical ways to extract labor from this workforce. The slaves, he knew, were a resource that must be employed to maximum advantage. How could little children, for example, be tended without keeping valuable female hands from the fields? “Build the Negro houses nearer together that the fewer nurses may serve & that the children may be more easily attended to by the super-annuated women.” That put the old women to work and released the young females for the field. Old men and women, termed by Jefferson the “senile corps,” could garden. “The negroes too old to be hired,” he suggested to his steward in 1788, “could they not make a good profit by cultivating cotton?” The sick enjoyed some respite. “Invalids,” he proposed, should be made to work “only when they shall be able,” at such tasks as hauling dirt from a canal Jefferson was digging.32

There was also work for children. To help the old women, he wanted “children till 10. years old to serve as nurses.” They could help the “superannuated” with child care. From ten on, they could go on to more productive labor. “from 10. to 16. the boys make nails, the girls spin. at 16. go into the (p.259) ground or learn trades.” He was proud of a thirteen-year-old who “works well at the plough already.” Jefferson was not alone in his thinking about child labor. In the 1780s, the Virginia assembly altered the tax list categories to take into account the economic worth of young slaves. In 1782 tax legislation simply called for the number of slaves without distinguishing their ages. That changed in 1784 to distinguish titheable slaves, the truly valuable adults, from those under sixteen. By 1788, there was column for “No of Negroes abo 16” and another for “no of Negros between 12 and 16,” implying that by twelve, they could be put to work. By 1794, all slaves from twelve up were taxed the same. Children were part of the remunerative workforce.33


All these schemes presumed the slaves would work when told. In 1794 Jefferson owned 154 slaves. How were they to be kept in order? They had every motive to steal and damage and worse. As Jefferson put it rather ominously, a slave must seek “the evanishment of the human race, or entail his own miserable condition on the endless generations proceeding from him.” Every slave owner faced the same difficulty. Callam Bailey had to teach his sons and daughters the right techniques and attitudes before he bequeathed them slaves. Bailey seemed to be confident he had prepared his children when he gave to “Nancy and Phanny Baily one Negro woman named Jenny and her future increase.”34 By the time they were young adults, southern white children had learned to deal with black servants.

Jefferson avoided harsh punishment most of the time. One of his most talented slaves, Isaac Granger, said later, “Old Master very kind to servants.” Madison Hemings, Jefferson’s son by Sally Hemings, left the same impression. “About his own home he was the quietest of men. He was hardly ever known to get angry, though sometimes he was irritated when matters went wrong.” Occasionally he did authorize a whipping of particularly fractious slaves, and he allowed his overseers to whip slaves as part of ordinary discipline. But it was not to his taste. The harshest punishment he regularly inflicted was to sell slaves. Workers who repeatedly ran away or were consistently troublesome could count on being disposed of. He sold more than a hundred slaves over the course of his life.35

Monticello was proof that whippings were not the only way to make slaves work. While traveling, Jefferson tipped slaves, and so did his guests. (p.260) Judging from their later accounts, servants remembered tips as well as they did whippings. Isaac related a story about a gift from Mrs. Wiley, a baker in Richmond, whom he helped while serving Jefferson in the state capital. She sometimes gave Isaac a loaf of bread or a cake and, when she later visited Monticello, gave him ninepence, remarking that “this is the boy that made fires for me.” Jefferson did the same when he traveled. As a reward for their labors in the nailery, he gave the young workers an extra meat ration, with suits of red or blue for the best producers.36

Colonel Archibald Cary was a heavy tipper. As the grandfather of Jefferson’s son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., Cary regularly visited Monticello. He owned more slaves than Jefferson and had his own ways of treating them. One was to tip liberally. Isaac remembered Cary giving five or six dollars to the house servants on his departure. He was demanding, too. Soon after his arrival he would inquire in the kitchen about the menu. If he was not pleased, he would insist that they cook his favorite. As he came up the long drive to Monticello, Cary expected the three gates to be opened, one a mile from the house, another three quarters of a mile, then the yard gate at the stable three hundred yards from the house. Cary would write when he was coming, and Jefferson sent Isaac to open the gates. If Isaac was not there in time, as soon as he got to the house, Cary would “look about for him and whip him with his horse-whip.” Isaac said Cary gave him “more whippings than he has fingers and toes.”37 Jefferson apparently had to tolerate his guest’s presumption. The whippings implied a white person had the right to mete out discipline to slaves under any circumstances.

Observant in all things, Thomas Jefferson understood the education of children in the management of slaves. In Notes on the State of Virginia, he recognized that children learned the arts of mastery by watching. “The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.” Was Jefferson thinking of Cary when he wrote that “the whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotisms on the one part, and the degrading submissions on the other?” Or had he felt boisterous passions himself? One of his infrequent outbursts of anger was directed at Jupiter, his close companion from boyhood and coachman at Monticello. Jupiter objected to Jefferson letting a young slave (p.261) take one of the carriage horses to run an errand and told his master so. Jefferson was thrown into a passion. He chastised Jupiter for using “so blunt a method of ‘telling his mind.’” One biographer said that “never before or afterwards” was such a tone “witnessed at Monticello.” For an instant Jefferson showed signs of rage below the calm exterior.38

Jefferson probably had witnessed “boisterous passions” in other households. His indictment of the “customs and manners” of a slave society has to be a commentary on his Albemarle neighbors. Nothing he had seen caused Jefferson to mitigate his disheartening judgment about “the lineaments of wrath.” He would lead us to believe that Charles Lewis’s bequest of a slave age four to seven to each of his grandchildren implied that they had learned from their parents how to put on “airs in the circle of smaller slaves.” The arts of mastery, Jefferson seemed to say, required little explicit instruction. Children absorbed those manners with the air they breathed. Even little girls learned to be cruel at times.

Small Planters

The size of the slave workforce on each plantation made a big difference in slave family life. If the workers lived in the same quarters, husbands and wives could cobble together a much more conventional family order. The chances of finding a mate close to home were much better, and after a slave marriage, some big planters housed family groups so that they could cook and sleep together. Husband, wife, and children could raise chickens in the yard and tend vegetables in the little plots by their houses, and husbands could hunt and fish. Jefferson’s sparse food allowances assumed that slaves would augment their diets with fresh food from their gardens and meat from the woods. On big plantations, moreover, slave children could look to their parents for guidance on how to live as a slave. After age sixteen, they worked alongside their mothers and fathers, making it more likely that they would grow up with memories of their parents. Cornelia Carney remembered her father’s white teeth and beautiful mouth.39

In Albemarle County in 1792, about 23 percent of the slaves lived on plantations with more than twenty slaves, 20 percent on plantations with eleven to twenty slaves. The rest, 57 percent, were divided between small slaveholders with one to five slaves and slightly larger groups with six to ten slaves. The 32 percent who worked on farms with five or fewer slaves are the (p.262) most difficult to recover. It is hard to know even where slaves slept on small farms. On larger plantations by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, barracks that housed a parcel of slaves were giving way to log cabins large enough for one or two families. At Monticello, the house servants’ families were given earthen-floor cabins ranging from 12 by 14 feet to 12 by 20 feet. We can picture the slave quarters as small villages, like Mulberry Row at Monticello, where slave families worked at their trades, cooked, gathered at night to sing, and lived as families in their own cabins. The 12 × 14 cabin was the usual dwelling on middling plantations, too.40

On small farms, scarcely any evidence of living quarters survives. Households with only a slave or two probably housed them in work sheds or barns, with straw or old rags for a bed and little warmth and less privacy. An architectural survey of Halifax County in 1785 estimated that a third of all slaves dwelled in kitchens or outbuildings. The slaves occupying these make-do accommodations were probably the ones on small farms. If they lived in kitchens or stretched out between tools and stalls in outbuildings, where did they cook, eat, converse, rest, make love?41

The poverty of the sources limits our knowledge of slave lives on modest farms. Small farmers did not keep farm diaries or write their friends about plantation affairs, and the legal documents where slaves are mentioned are sparse. Slaves always appeared in tax lists, but only as numbers—how many “negroes over age 16” or “between 12 and 16.” Wills give the slaves’ names and specify the people to whom they were bequeathed, but without comment about how they were treated or where they lived. Probate inventories offer elusive clues to the slaves’ material environment without saying which implements or pieces of furniture they used. To reconstruct the lives of small-farm slaves from this spare offering, we have to use our imaginations a bit more freely than usual.

The name of William Owens, a small Albemarle County planter, appeared on the 1782 tax list with four slaves. Owens was nearing the end of his life. In the eight years before he died in 1790, Owens set up his three sons, David, William, Jr., and Stewart, on their own farms in Albemarle. Meanwhile, three of Owens’s daughters, Mary, Elizabeth, and Elenor, married, leaving only Jane at home to help in the household. No wife is mentioned in the will. By 1791, when William’s will was probated, he had provided for his three sons and settled three daughters in marriage, a record to be proud of by eighteenth-century standards.42 Strangely, no mention is made in the will of (p.263) the five slaves named in the estate inventory. According to the tax lists for succeeding years, they remained with David. Everyone must have agreed they were his.43 The three slave men named in the probate inventory, Simon, John, and Stephen, were probably three of the four slaves consistently numbered under David’s name in the tax lists. Father William also had two female slaves to help in the house, perhaps under the direction of David’s wife with Jane’s assistance.

How did the Owens family employ their five slaves? The inventory points to a bevy of nonagricultural operations. William and his boys owned cattle or hogs, to be sure—“2 stock locks & 1 branding iron” evidenced that—but little to indicate crop production: no scythes, reaping hooks, sieves, casks, hogsheads, plows, hoes, carts, butter pots. The will does mention “Plantation” tools going to David, indicating that some of those items had passed to him before the appraisers came, but the inventory emphasizes what the will refers to as “carpenters tools and stilliards [steelyards].” William Owens owned fourteen “cut saws” (probably crosscut saws), three augers, three chisels, an axe, a gouge, a drawing knife, a claw hammer, a pair of maul rings, and three wedges.44 The maul rings reinforced the heavy mallets used to drive wedges into logs. Together they suggest a lumbering operation, perhaps to split shingles and fence rails or make siding. The augers, the chisels, and the gouge would be useful in rough carpentry, perhaps raising slave cabins. The family may have made barrel staves, as the drawing knife suggests.

Inside the house, more making was going on: “1 cotton wheel, 1 flax ditto, 1 jack reel, 2 pr. Cotton and wool cards,” and “1 loom and gear,” plus the presence of a pair of “Taylors shears,” suggest that the Owenses were running sheep, shearing them, carding the wool, spinning, and weaving—a lot of labor for the girls growing up, doubtless aided by the slave women Ann and Fanny.45 The steelyards for weighing bulky objects suggest that they were trading in wool, too. They probably grew their own flax for spinning on the flax wheel. The box iron with two heaters smoothed the linen after it was woven. The Owens household was a small textile factory, handling the entire process from sheep and flax to finished wool and linen. The women held up their side of “manufacturing,” as the will put it, to match the men’s lumbering and carpentry.

The male slaves, Simon, John, and Stephen, may have managed the cattle and sheep and worked in the cornfields that were certainly under cultivation to provide basic food for the family. But they must also have been part of the work crews that felled and cut the logs. So many saws—fourteen of (p.264) them—provide further evidence of a lumber operation. As William grew older, either Stephen or John held one end of the saw while David probably pulled the other. Many saws suggest many people working at once.

On large plantations, tradesman slaves were distinguished from those who worked the land. In small households like the Owenses’, slaves were into everything. They were members of flexible work crews managed by the masters. Small owners had every incentive to enlarge the range of their slaves’ skills. If they did not teach slaves to read and write, they certainly taught them to plow and fell trees, to cut grain and sift wheat, to card and spin. Like all farmers, slave farmers were people of many skills. How about their slaves? On large plantations like Monticello, there could be a division of labor between the skilled craftsmen and the people who worked in the ground. Jefferson favored the skilled people who worked under his direct command, while the field hands only saw the master sitting on his horse, watching as they hoed. That division of labor was not possible on small plantations. Male slaves learned all the male skills, and the females learned to spin, garden, and dairy. Over a lifetime, they would all develop a number of talents and come close to being coworkers rather than drudges.46 Stephen’s appraisal at seventy pounds, a good price, suggests that he was skilled.

Owens or one of the sons would always have been in charge of the work in the woods or on building projects, but the masters did not stand by and watch while the slaves labored. By the same token, William’s wife and then the older girls probably sat at the spinning wheels alongside Fanny and Ann. Especially for labor that required two sets of hands, like moving logs or rails, slave and master worked together. Grain harvests required as much help as possible to mow, rake, shock, and thresh. A female slave would have been in the fields in that season along with all the men in the family. Slaughter of the hogs required someone to separate out the victim, hold the animal while it was bound, and carry away the cuts of meat to pack in salt. Slaves were part of a black-and-white work crew. Work can go on in silence for long spells until grunts or hand signals or words come into play to coordinate the action. Each worker has to have the other in mind to move the task along. A kind of camaraderie of work takes over, even if one worker is boss. In households with one or two male slaves and one or two female slaves, work wove ties across the master-slave divide.47

But at night, separation occurred. Philip Morgan, who studied slavery in Virginia for many years, judges it unlikely that masters would invite a slave (p.265) into the house to sleep. Because the Owenses probably occupied a very small house themselves, the slaves probably slept in a shed, denied the comfort and warmth the Owens family enjoyed. Did they eat meals together? Probably not. Domestically, white and black were divided. Whatever degree of companionship developed through common work, it could not erase the bedrock realities of the relationship. Small-farm slaves had to learn to divide their feelings. Work brought slaves closer to their white masters, but the camaraderie of work ended once work stopped. Slave children had to learn to live within bounds. There had to be a gulf, a psychic space, a callus to protect them from the rebuff they met every night when they went “home” after work.48


The history of education has little to say about slaves before 1865. No one thought to send them to school. Jefferson’s Isaac Granger slept in the “out-chamber” fifty yards from Monticello where the young scholars from the neighborhood studied while going to school. He slept on the floor in a blanket and made the fire in the classroom each morning. That was the closest Isaac got to formal schooling. He did, however, learn a trade. Jefferson apprenticed him to a tinsmith in Philadelphia and later put him to work in the nailery. After Granger gained his freedom, he worked as a blacksmith. Like other masters, Jefferson picked out promising young slaves for training. The pattern was for the master to hire a skilled tradesmen to train the slaves, then let the slaves take over the skilled work to reduce labor costs.49 Skilled slaves were essential to the workings of large plantations, and they were more valuable by 20 percent or more.50

By happenstance and inclination, slaves also picked up learning incidentally. Madison Hemings learned to read by “inducing the white children to teach me the letters.” The slaves also taught each other. Isaac Granger learned to play the drum from a slave named Mat Henderson, who was courting Mary Hemings. Henderson would visit her in the kitchen at Monticello while Granger was working in the house. Mat had learned to beat the drum while his master played the fife on ceremonial occasions, and when Mat came to the kitchen, he brought the drum along. According to his memoir, “Isaac would beat on it and Mat larnt him how to beat.” Fifty years later, he remembered the chance circumstances that put him in the path of a drum and a drummer as a significant moment. One can imagine a host of skills like (p.266) trapping, weaving, and singing passed along by chance and imitation through the veins and arteries of communal life.51 The slave community can be thought of as a learning order, disseminating information by example, observation, imitation, and the telling of stories.

It is less clear how well the slave community guided young slaves in their great life choices. One of the greatest was how much to seek the master’s trust and how much to resist him. The slaves whose names come down in history from Jefferson’s household were trust seekers: Madison Hemings, Isaac Granger, Israel Gillette Jefferson, Sally Hemings, George Granger, Ursula Granger, Jupiter, Mary Hemings. They were the ones to leave stories and their names in the record. For them, Jefferson’s return home was “a great event,” as Israel Jefferson, a house servant and carriage driver, remembered. They reaped the benefits of being faithful. “For when he came home many of them, especially the leading ones, were sure to receive presents from his hands.” Less is said of the slaves who tried to escape or stood up to their overseers. At Monticello, they were quickly disposed of and drop out of sight. Elsewhere they were flogged as examples to their fellows. Slave backs were crusted with scars. Though the faithful slaves stand out in the historical record, in real life the rebels offered a stark alternative for young slaves finding their way in the precarious slave world.52

Most of Jefferson’s trusted slaves came from the ranks of the skilled. Madison Hemings said, “It was his mechanics he seemed mostly to direct, and in their operations he took great interest.” Once a slave had worked in the nailery and then gone on to carpentry or blacksmithing, he was in a position to win trust. George Granger was foremost among Jefferson’s trusted slaves. In 1773 Jefferson purchased Ursula as a housekeeper for his wife Martha and bid for her husband George to keep the couple together. Ursula ran the kitchen, preserved meat, and washed and ironed clothes. Their son George learned blacksmithing and ran the nailery. Jefferson even granted him 2 percent of the revenue. When Jefferson was away, his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph managed Monticello. Randolph wrote that he left the nailery to George. “I am sure he could not stoop to my authority and I hope and believe he pushes your interests as well as I could.”53 Faithful service brought George his own domain.

The elder George’s other son, Isaac Granger, tells the story of his father’s courage and ingenuity during the British capture of Richmond. Jefferson, then governor, had hurriedly fled as the British under Benedict Arnold swept up the James in January 1781. According to Isaac, George (p.267) remained behind to receive the British officer who hoped to surprise Jefferson. The office demanded the keys to the house and then asked “Whar is the silver?” George told him the silver had gone with Jefferson “to the mountains.” Actually, George had hidden the silver in a bed tick and stashed it under a bed in the kitchen. The officers had to content themselves with raiding the wine cellar and meat house and commandeering Jefferson’s stock of corn for their horses. Isaac said George “continued to sarve Mr. Jefferson and had forty pounds from Old Master and his wife.” But the immediate reward was only part of George’s compensation. He made himself a hero in Isaac’s eyes. Isaac admired him for protecting his master, in a sense reversing their roles.54

George showed what Jefferson called “character,” by which he meant loyalty and trustworthiness. Jefferson valued “character” above all other qualities. He refused to punish a slave who ran from one plantation to another because Jefferson trusted the man’s character. It was always an issue. Whom could he trust among all the people doing his bidding? Who acted because he chose to act loyally? There was a kind of manhood and honor in bearing up under temptation. Jupiter drove Jefferson’s horses the length of Virginia alone under the mantle of trust, doubtless gaining his master’s approbation.55

But choosing to show one’s honor and manhood by earning trust had its risks. Thomas Mann Randolph reported the case of a slave on another plantation who took the loyalty route and suffered by it. The “sensible, lively, and likely young mulatto man” had avoided “any misconduct.” Despite the man’s compliance, a new overseer concluded that “fear would be [a] safer security for good conduct than any determination to do right” and flogged the man for leaving his tools behind in the field. Horribly ashamed by the humiliation, the slave “hung himself 30 feet from the ground, in a tree near his Master’s door, the same night.” It was enough to turn Randolph against the “hideous monster” that was “our Southern system.”56

No matter how loyal to his master, a trustworthy slave was always in danger of degradation. He could not be sure that some misstep would not destroy his master’s confidence. A surer path to honor, though not to safety, lay at the other end of the spectrum, in saying no to masters. In September 1769 Jefferson placed an ad in the Virginia Gazette for Sandy, a slave in his mid-thirties who had run away—how far Jefferson could not say. He offered forty shillings for the runaway’s recovery in Albemarle County, and ten pounds if he was captured in another colony. Sandy was a tradesman, the kind of slave (p.268) Jefferson valued most, a shoemaker and capable of rough carpentry. The problem was that “he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly.” However compliant on the surface, Sandy was resistant inside. Jefferson saw nothing honorable or admirable in this recalcitrance. In the ad, Jefferson called Sandy “artful and knavish.” He may have appeared compliant while privately seething. Sandy took his shoemaking tools with him, doubtless betting that they could earn him an income as a free man. Unfortunately for him, he lost the wager. He was captured, returned to Jefferson, and sold away within three years to a neighbor for one hundred pounds.57

Did Sandy think of himself as daring and manly? The ad said “he swears much.” Apparently, he was not willing to suppress his feelings all of the time, even within hearing of white ears. Just as important, how did the young slaves feel about Sandy when they heard he was gone and then when he was dragged back? Did they secretly admire him, or did they think him foolhardy to have risked his position as a trusted slave tradesman? Whom should they emulate? George or Sandy? The repercussions of resistance could be horrible. On most plantations, it meant a severe whipping or, with Jefferson, separation from friends and family by sale. Was Sandy admired for risking so much?

Slaves might not initially have had a language for describing the honor in Sandy’s flight to freedom. But the Revolution helped. One slave later hanged for involvement in an insurrectionary plot was asked why he turned against his masters. He borrowed language he must have heard often during the past decade. “I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen.”58 Like religion later, revolutionary rhetoric gave slaves words to express their sufferings and anger.

For most slaves, the choice was rarely as stark as George versus Sandy. Compliance and resistance operated in a much narrower range. Slaves were mostly caught up in everyday labor—for the master during the day and for themselves at nightfall. They watched after children, hunted for possum and squirrels, tended their gardens, devised more comfortable beds, cared for the sick, and courted. For slaves absorbed in daily routines of survival, resistance may have taken more modest forms, such as the phenomenon the French traveler Count Constantine de Volney observed on his way to visit Jefferson. From a distance, he saw slaves in a field under the watch of an overseer plying a whip. To Volney it appeared that while the overseer was looking at them (p.269) they worked at one pace, and as soon as he turned his attention elsewhere, the pace slowed.59 The overseer’s gaze was like a searchlight sweeping prison walls. When it fell upon the slaves, they heeded their duties. When the gaze moved on, they let down, spoke, or rested. Young slaves who never came near a radical choice between the paths of George and Sandy would have learned to feel the overseer’s gaze upon them and to act accordingly. It was a modest gesture toward Sandy but still a form of resistance. Learning to sense when the overseer was looking and how to meet his expectations was a first step toward artful avoidance of the master’s power.

Until the Revolution, most slaves steered a middle course between striving for trust and flaunting their independence. Young, single men were the ones who most often tried to flee.60 Family men and women held back. During the Revolution, this sensible avoidance of conflict came to an end for some. Beginning with Lord Dunmore’s invitation to join him as he left Virginia in 1775, slaves had opportunities to flee to the British lines. More than six thousand in Virginia and Maryland took the leap. Twenty-three of Jefferson’s slaves left him (including three men and a boy from Monticello), sixteen of Washington’s. They met a miserable fate. About two thousand followed the British out of the United States to Canada. The sick and dying were left behind in their sufferings, either to perish or to be returned to their masters. Jefferson eventually retrieved six of his slaves.61

Six thousand was a tiny fraction of the 210,000 slaves in Virginia when the Revolution began, but this time many fled in family groups, some with five or six children.62 Their willingness to take the risk in wartime suggests that restive, single young men were not the only ones to contemplate escape. Families must have asked the question: Is now the time to go? Will the British king protect us? Will we find safety in the care of the British army? Thoughts of escape may have been brewing for years. How many others mulled possible escape plans, weighed the chances, listened carefully to reports of those who tried? In 1806 Jefferson was surprised that twenty-six-year-old Joe ran away “without the least word of difference with any body, & indeed having never in his life received a blow from any one.” For twelve years he had worked at the blacksmith’s trade, and then one night, he was gone. During the Revolution, Washington’s farm manager reported “there is not a man of them, but would leave us, if they believ’d they coud make their escape.”63 Some left when news of the British army filtered into the quarters; most held fast; many must have imagined how they might play the part of Sandy.

(p.270) The first thing slaves had to learn was how to deal with the master’s ever-present power. What bodily posture, what words, what precautions, what preemptive actions best preserved one’s dignity and avoided brutality? It required more than a knowledge of one’s duties and the routines of labor. Masters and mistresses could be capricious. As Jefferson said, they gave way to their passions. Slaves had to be ready for anything. They necessarily became expert readers of emotions, especially on the spectrum of calm and wrath. Jefferson’s trusted servants spoke appreciatively of his contained behavior. He was not easily ruffled, “the quietist of men,” as Madison Hemings put it. Isaac Jefferson, who worked for Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha, liked her because she was a “mighty peaceable woman: never holler for servant: make no fuss nor racket.”64 They commented because other slaves had to deal with masters who knew no bounds. Slaves were as alert to the turbulent passions as Jefferson was to evidence of loyalty. Masters watched eagle-eyed for signs of subversion; slaves grew hypersensitive to evidence of wrath.

Because slaves harbored thoughts of escape and feelings of resentment, they developed secret selves where lay buried their true feelings and seditious ideas. To stay out of trouble, slaves had to appear compliant and willing. When the British army was tempting slaves to leave, Robert Carter’s slaves assured him “we all fully intend to serve you our master,” yet thirty of them left when given a chance.65 Many more than Sandy turned artful to conceal the “knavish” nature that Jefferson detected in his runaway. Slaves dug holes in the earthen floors of their cabins where they buried things they had purchased or stolen. They had to dig holes in their minds for hiding their resistant thoughts and angry feelings. Monticello slaves knew secret paths on the mountain for spiriting away slaves in trouble or getting away themselves to visit other quarters.66 Secret paths wound through their own minds. They did not begin that way as children paddling in the mud near their huts or hunting for bark in the woods. It was the constant presence of the masters’ power that formed the slaves’ inner selves.


(1.) Virginia County Court Records, Will Book: Albemarle County, Virginia, 1785–1798 (n.p.: Antient, 2002), 17–18. Hereafter Albemarle Virginia Will Book.

(2.) Camille Wells, “The Planter’s Prospect: Houses, Outbuildings, and Rural Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Winterthur Portfolio 28, no. 1 (1993): 3, 6. Information on one-room cabins is summarized in Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 104.

(3.) From John Harvey Darrell, “Diary of John Harvey Darrell: Voyage to America,” Bermuda Historical Quarterly 5 (1948): 142–49, quoted in Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (New York: Norton, 2013), 18. Wells, “The Planter’s Prospect,” 5–6. On the mean houses of ordinary farmers, see Sobel, The World They Made Together, 103–19. The anthropologist Alison Bell has found that Virginia planters continued to live below their means to the end the eighteenth century. Alison Bell, “Emulation and Empowerment: Material, Social, and Economic Dynamics in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Virginia,” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 6, no. 4 (2002): 268–69.

(p.357) (4.) Alice Hanson Jones, American Colonial Wealth: Documents and Methods, 3 vols., 2nd ed. (New York: Arno, 1977), 2: 97, and estate inventories, 2: 1300–1400.

(5.) Kevin M. Sweeney, “Mansion People: Kinship, Class, and Architecture in Western Massachusetts in the Mid Eighteenth Century,” Winterthur Portfolio 19, no. 4 (1984): 231–55.

(6.) Albemarle Virginia Will Book, 19–20. John Davis, Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America During 1798, 1799, 1800, 1801, and 1802 (New York: Henry Holt, 1909), 397.

(7.) Virginia County Court Records, Will Book: Albemarle County, Virginia, 1752–1756, 1775–1783 (n.p.: Antient, 2002), 76, 400. Hereafter Albemarle Virginia Will Book. In plantation culture, slaves were as vital to a daughter’s position in the world as a son’s. Jean Butenhoff Lee, “Land and Labor: Parental Bequest Practices in Charles County, Maryland, 1732–1783,” in Colonial Chesapeake Society, ed. Lois Green Carr, Philip D. Morgan, and Jean B. Russo (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 334–35. I am grateful to Lucia Stanton for identifying the names in the record.

(8.) Letters from Virginia (Baltimore, 1816), 100. My thanks to Alan Taylor for this reference. The author was probably George Tucker, cousin of the more famous St. George Tucker and a resident of Albemarle County.

(9.) Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976), 47.

(10.) Ibid., 47.

(11.) Ibid., 47–48.

(12.) Lucia Stanton, “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), 110.

(14.) Ibid., 48.

(15.) Ibid., 36.

(16.) Ibid., 66.

(17.) Ibid., 67.

(18.) For black oral culture and the collecting of slave stories, see Lisa Francavilla, “Ellen Randolph Coolidge’s ‘Virginia Legends’ and ‘Negro Stories’: Antebellum Tales from Monticello,” Massachusetts Historical Review 17 (2015): 99–152.

(19.) For Burwell, Ellen W. Randolph (Coolidge) to Martha Jefferson Randolph, Poplar Forest, July 28, 1819, in “Jefferson Quotes and Family Letters,” (p.358) Monticello website, http://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/823, accessed March 9, 2017. “From Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, 4 February 1800,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-31-02-0304, ver. 2016-12-28) [original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 31, 1 February 1799–31 May 1800, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 359–61 ]. On Jupiter, see Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 107–11.

(20.) Edwin Morris Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book ([Princeton]: Princeton University Press, 1953), contains a facsimile of the Farm Book. Robert C. Baron, ed., The Garden and Farm Books of Thomas Jefferson (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1987), transcribes both books. Diary and tables in Baron, Garden and Farm Books, 244–305, aphorisms, 306–73.

(22.) For Jefferson’s slaves in 1773–74, see Mary Beth Norton, Herbert G. Gutman, and Ira Berlin, “The Afro-American Family in the Age of Revolution,” in Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983), 184. Baron, Garden and Farm Books, 244–45.

(24.) Ibid., 262.

(25.) Ibid., 266–67; cf. 286–87, 295–97.

(26.) Ibid., 262, 268.

(29.) Ibid., 272.

(30.) Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 158–59. “List of Inoculations, 7 August 1801–17 September 1801,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-35-02-0029, ver. 2016-12-28) [original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 35,1 August–30 November 1801, ed. Barbara B. Oberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 34–35.

(33.) Baron, Garden and Farm Books, 327. Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 144. Tax lists for 1782, 1788, 1788, Albemarle County, Virginia 1782–1799 Personal Property, Virginia County Tax Lists, scanned microfilm images, Binn’s Genealogy, CDR 000467; William Waller Hening, Hening’s Statutes at (p.359) Large, transcribed for the internet by Freddie L. Spradlin, 12: 336 http://vagenweb.org/hening/, accessed Feb. 18, 2015.

(34.) Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954), 163. Albemarle Virginia Will Book, 20.

(35.) Isaac Jefferson, Memoirs of a Monticello Slave As Dictated to Charles Campbell in the 1840’s by Isaac, One of Thomas Jefferson’s Slaves (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1951), 30. Madison Hemings, “The Memoirs of Madison Hemings,” in Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), 247. Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 13–15, 105. For a severe picture of punishment at Monticello, see Henry Wiencek, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

(38.) Jefferson, Notes, 162. Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Philadelphia, 1865), 3: 510, quoted in Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 112.

(39.) Slave family life is worked out in Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Low Country (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), chap. 9.

(40.) Ibid., 104–6. Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 125; Betts, Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, 6. William M. Kelso, “Mulberry Row: Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” Archaeology 39, no. 5 (1986): 3–34. Sobel, The World They Made Together, 105–10, 112, 117.

(41.) Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 107–8, 144. Morgan and others rely on the unpublished work of Michael Nichols, “Building the Virginia Southside: A Note on Architecture and Society in the Eighteenth-Century,” ms., 1982, Colonial Williamsburg. For slave housing generally, see Sobel, The World They Made Together, 100–126.

(42.) William, Jr., was already listed independently in the 1782 tax list, though with no slaves and only four head of cattle and two horses. “Albemarle County, Virginia 1782–1799 Personal Property.”

(44.) Ibid., 88–90.

(45.) Ibid., 89–90.

(46.) Connecticut slaves joined in the labor of their white masters. Allegra di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (New York: Liveright, 2013), 289–302.

(p.360) (47.) Jefferson thought slave owners would not work alongside their slaves. “For in a warm climate, no man will labour for himself who can make another labour for him.” Jefferson, Notes, 163. It is hard to believe that was true in households with grown sons and few slaves.

(48.) Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 108. For a discussion of this division within the self, see Gerald W. Mullin, Flight and Rebellion: Slave Resistance in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 121–23.

(50.) Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder (New York: Henry Holt, 1988), 102–4. Jefferson, Memoirs, 33–34. Hamilton W. Pierson, Jefferson at Monticello: The Private Life of Thomas Jefferson, from Entirely New Sources (New York: Scribner, 1862), 68–109.

(52.) Israel Jefferson, The Memoirs of Israel Jefferson. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/cron/1873israel.html, accessed July 10, 2017. Sobel, The World They Made Together, 41.

(54.) Jefferson, Memoirs, 19–20. Similar tales were told of slave heroism when the British took over Monticello in 1781. Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 133–34.

(56.) Ibid., 83. Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 (New York: Norton, 2013), 82–83.

(57.) Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 151. “Advertisement for a Runaway Slave, 7 September 1769,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-01-02-0021, ver. 2014-12-01) [original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 1, 1760–1776, ed. Julian P. Boyd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 33 ].

(60.) For stories of slaves running away from the Jefferson family, see Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 139, 141, 147.

(61.) Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 62, no. 2 (2005): 245–46, 258, 261; Taylor, Internal Enemy, 27.

(p.361) (62.) Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math,” 249, 251–52. Cassandra Pybus, Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 30–31.

(63.) Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, to Joseph Daugherty, July 31, 1806, in Betts, Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, 22. “To George Washington from Lund Washington, 3 December 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0434, ver. 2014-12-01) [original source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, 16 September 1775–31 December 1775, ed. Philander D. Chase (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1987), 2: 482 ].

(66.) Ibid., 25. William M. Kelso, Kingsmill Plantations, 1619–1800: Archaeology of Country Life in Colonial Virginia (Orlando, Fla.: Academic Press, 1984), 104–5, 191, 201. For the literature on house pits, Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 116. Stanton, “Those Who Labor,” 117.