October 8, 1809 – Thomas Jefferson Rejects Idea That Blacks are as Intelligent as Whites

In his famous book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781), while Thomas Jefferson condemned slavery itself, he claimed that blacks were physically and intellectually inferior to whites.

He wrote:

Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior . . . and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous . . . But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait, of painting or sculpture.”

He was challenged in this view by a black polymath, Benjamin Bannaker, as we shall see below. But Jefferson stubbornly adhered to his initial judgments.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote as much to Joel Barlow, a minister, writer, liberal thinker, and diplomat. Jefferson was acknowledging receipt of Barlow’s written copy of an oration delivered on July 4, 1809 in Washington, D.C. (accessible online here).

Jefferson said he saw the critique of Barlow’s speech by Henri Gregoire. Gregoire, the constitutional bishop of Blois, was a former French revolutionist who, according to Jefferson’s account, “must have been eagle-eyed in quest of offence, to have discovered ground for it among the rubbish massed together in the print he animadverts on.”

But Jefferson’s strongest objection to Gregoire had nothing to do with Barlow. Rather, it was borne of Gregoire’s critique of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.

After Jefferson disparaged Gregoire on Barlow’s behalf, he revealed that his animus came from his own grudge against Gregoire for disagreeing with Jefferson on the matter of the intellect of African Americans:

He wrote to me also on the doubts I had expressed five or six and twenty years ago, in the Notes of Virginia, as to the grade of understanding of the negroes, and he sent me his book on the literature of the negroes. His credulity has made him gather up every story he could find of men of color, (without distinguishing whether black, or of what degree of mixture,) however slight the mention, or light the authority on which they are quoted. The whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.”

The matter of Benjamin Banneker is worth a full explanation. Benjamin Banneker, born to a free African-American woman and a former slave, was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, inventor, author, and political activist. With the encouragement of George Ellicott and Elias Ellicott, members of the Maryland Society for the Abolition of Slavery, he prepared an ephemeris for 1791. (An ephemeris gives the positions of astronomical objects in the sky at a given times.) The Ellicotts’ cousin Andrew Ellicott, a prominent surveyor, brought Banneker’s mathematical accomplishments to Jefferson’s notice.

But Banneker also contacted Jefferson himself. In 1791 Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery and calling Jefferson a hypocrite. (The ostensible purpose of the letter was to enclose the almanac Banneker wrote, which no one would publish but an abolitionist. You can read the full text of his letter here.)

Banneker argued:

…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath 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 yourselves.”

It is ironic that if Banneker were white, Jefferson would have sought him out as an intellectual soul mate. Many of Banneker’s interests mirrored those of Jefferson. Banneker even built a wooden clock by duplicating the gears of a borrowed pocket watch; Jefferson loved that kind of thing.

Jefferson responded to Banneker, claiming:

“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.”

[Unless, of course, it meant having to give up his own slaves.]

Banneker’s almanac was quite successful, and he continued to publish it each year until 1797.

But Jefferson never really gave up his ideas as expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia, as this letter revealed. To reinforce his views, he now justified them by claiming Banneker could not have accomplished what he did on his own, without help from white people.

July 11, 1786 – Letter from Jefferson to John Adams on Strategy Regarding the Barbary Coast

In 1662, England made the first treaty with a Barbary ruler, agreeing to pay “tribute” in exchange for the ruler’s calling off attacks on that nation’s ships. Tributes were often subject to renewed negotiations lest the piratical attacks resume. Nations like England were said to have agreed to the treaties rather than destroying the pirate ships because it not only protected their own ships but provided for the destruction of competing, non-paying merchant marines.

Map of the Barbary Coast

In 1784, the American Continental Congress, finding that their commerce was impaired by the pirates, agreed to enter into tribute negotiations. It appointed Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin as peace commissioners. In 1785, Congress authorized a maximum of $80,000 for payment to all the Barbary states.

John Adams met several times with His Excellency Abdrahaman, envoy of the sultan of Tripoli. Adams felt he had gone the extra mile to please the envoy, but he soon realized that $80,000 was considered insufficient, and was not enough money to avert a war.

Jefferson, serving in Paris as U.S. Minister to France, wrote to Horatio Gates on December 13, 1784:

Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive. Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates. If we yeild [sic] the former, it will require sums which our people will feel. Why not begin a navy then and decide on war?”

On July 3, 1786, Adams corresponded with Jefferson, opining that paying tribute would be more economical and easier than convincing the people of the United States to fund the building of a navy.

But Jefferson still favored a military solution. In a letter on this date to John Adams, he acknowledged that “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war.” He wrote further, “However if it is decided that we shall buy a peace, I know no reason for delaying the operation, but should rather think it ought to be hastened. But I should prefer the obtaining it by war. And then he listed his reasons, which included “justice,” “honor,” and “respect in Europe.” He believed that if the U.S. went to war on this issue, it would no doubt be joined by Naples and Portugal. Thereafter, “many, if not most of the powers of Europe (except France, England, Holland and Spain if her peace be made) would sooner or later enter into the confederacy, for the sake of having their peace with the Pyratical states guarantied by the whole.”

Jefferson as a young man

Nevertheless, nothing much happened, and by the time Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in March of 1801, he inherited the troubled relations with the Barbary states.

As the Monticello website reports:

The new president very quickly made his decisions. He would arrange the payments long overdue to the rulers in Algiers and Tunis and following his convictions of earlier years he would send the navy to deal with the maritime forces of Barbary, of whose strength he himself prepared an estimate from documents sent him by the Navy department.”

Jefferson sent a letter to Pasha Yusuf Qaramanli of Tripoli in which he emphasized “our sincere desire to cultivate peace & commerce with your subjects.”

But even before the letter was received, Pasha Qaramanli declared war on the United States on May 14, 1801 by chopping down the flagpole at the American consulate in Tripoli.

U.S. Navy Schooner Enterprise capturing the Tripolitan Corsair Polacca Tripoli August 1, 1801

During the following three years the pasha maintained his demands and the United States, rotating ships and crews, maintained its naval presence in the Mediterranean as well as diplomatic efforts to make peace.

The war was finally resolved in 1805 after a great deal of both military conflicts and diplomatic wrangling.

February 28, 1787 – Thomas Jefferson Leaves Paris for a Three-Month Journey to Southern France and Northern Italy

Thomas Jefferson, serving as American Ambassador to France, lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789. While there, he sustained a broken wrist; according to the biographer Fawn M. Brodie, Jefferson was walking along the Seine on September 18, 1786 with Maria Cosway, a married woman with whom he was involved in an affair. For some reason, Jefferson tried to jump over a fence – ”whether to retrieve a blowing scarf in the wind or simply in sheer exuberant good spirits one can only guess,” writes Brodie – and he fell and apparently dislocated his right wrist. His doctors recommended the waters in Aix-en-Provence in France for healing.

Thomas Jefferson. London,1786. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution;

In early 1787, when Mrs. Cosway was obliged to accompany her husband back to England, Jefferson took the opportunity to get his wrist treated and tour the area at the same time.

Thus on February 28, 1787, this day in history, the forty-four-year-old Thomas Jefferson left Paris for a three month, twelve-hundred-mile journey to southern France and northern Italy. As Jefferson wrote to James Monroe:

I am now about setting out on a journey to the South of France, one object of which is to try the mineral waters there for the restoration of my hand, but another is to visit all the seaports where we have trade, and to hunt up all the inconveniencies under which it labours, in order to get them rectified.”

The Monticello website reports that Jefferson traveled as a private citizen from Virginia, not as a diplomat. He paid his own way, traveled in his own carriage, and none of his Paris servants went with him. Preferring to travel alone and anonymously, he chose to hire valets in each town.

As Andrea Wulf observes in Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, Vintage Books, 2012:

Jefferson believed that every journey should be also educational, and for that purpose had compiled some instructions for American tourists in Europe. This included a list of ‘Objects of Attention for an American,’ with agriculture as number one.”

She writes further:

Following his own suggestions Jefferson had spent several months questioning farmers and gardeners along the way, trying to learn about their plants and agricultural methods. . ..After several months in France, Jefferson had gone on a three-week detour across the Alps to find out what kind of rice the Italians were growing, hoping that it would thrive in South Carolina. Under threat of the death penalty, he had smuggled ‘as much as my coat and surtout pockets would hold.’”

In Italy, Jefferson sketched a machine for making macaroni

You can see Jefferson’s entire itinerary here.

You can also access his notes from his trip, online here.

September 26, 1785 – Washington Writes Jefferson About Progress on the First Torpedo Boat

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson was serving as Minister to France, having been sent there by the Congress of the Confederation (the governing body of the United States of America that existed from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789). While there, he corresponded often with other “Founding Fathers” who were working on the government of the nascent country.

On this day in history, George Washington sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson about a variety of matters, including the efforts of “Captn Bushnals” [David Bushnell] “for the destruction of Shipping.”

David Bushnell

As Washington relates, Bushnel [sic], a Man of great Mechanical powers – fertile of invention – and a master in execution” came to Washington in 1776 for seed money. His plan was to construct a machine to carry a man under water to any depth so that he might stealthily approach an enemy ship, attach a powder keg to it, get safely away, and then cause the ship to be blown up by the keg.

Bushnell called his device “The Turtle.” The Turtle was an oak carved egg-shaped submarine for one man that submerged by admitting water into the hull and surfaced by pumping it out by hand.

Drawing of the Turtle, based on contemporary accounts

Bushnell did attempt using The Turtle during the Revolutionary War against British ships, but was unsuccessful. As a Connecticut online history site recounts, on the night of September 6, 1776, the Turtle, operated by Army volunteer Ezra Lee, made its way through the waters of New York Harbor and conducted the attack. Problems arose, however, when the boring device operated from inside the submarine failed to penetrate the ship’s hull. The torpedo was eventually abandoned and Lee emerged unhurt. The abandoned torpedo detonated about an hour after it was released but did no harm.

While Bushnell never was entirely successful, it was Bushnell that proved gunpowder could be exploded under water, and who made the first time bomb. His ideas also inspired later efforts.

A full sized model of David Bushnell’s Turtle is on display at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

You can read Washington’s entire letter and description of Bushnell’s work here.

Model of Bushnell’s Turtle at the U.S. Navy Submarine Museum

August 26, 1792 – George Washington Expresses Frustration Over Partisan Wrangling

Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson were both members of President Washington’s first cabinet, but did not get along, and each wrote to Washington complaining about the other. Washington replied to each man, expressing dismay over their bickering, and urging them to get along in spite of political differences. He wrote to Hamilton on this day in history:

Differences in political opinions are as unavoidable as, to a certain point, they may perhaps be necessary; but it is to be regretted, exceedingly, that subjects cannot be discussed with temper on the one hand, or decisions submitted to without having the motives which led to them, improperly implicated on the other: and this regret borders on chagrin when we find that Men of abilities—zealous patriots—having the same general objects in view, and the same up-right intentions to prosecute them, will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions, & actions of one another. When matters get to such lengths, the natural inference is, that both sides have strained the cords beyond their bearing—and that a middle course would be found the best, until experience shall have pointed out the right mode—or, which is not to be expected, because it is denied to mortals—there shall be some infallible rule by which we could fore judge events.”

Presciently foreseeing Fox News, he continued:

Having premised these things, I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another; and instead of those wounding suspicions, and irritating charges with which some of our Gazettes are so strongly impregnated, & cannot fail if persevered in, of pushing matters to extremity, & thereby tare the Machine asunder, that there might be mutual forbearances and temporising yieldings on all sides. Without these I do not see how the Reins of Government are to be managed, or how the Union of the States can be much longer preserved.”

You can read the entire letter here.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1797

Review of “The Hemingses of Monticello” by Annette Gordon-Reed

The first thing to understand about this book is that it is not just a story about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, nor is it in fact focused on Jefferson, although he naturally plays a large role in this history. The author took the opportunity provided by Jefferson’s fame and record-keeping to profile a slave family, the Hemingses, because accounts about the lives of slaves in early America are few and far between. As many as 70 members of the Hemings family lived in slavery at Monticello over five generations.

It begins with Elizabeth Hemings, the daughter of an enslaved black mother and a free white father. Elizabeth and her mother came into the ownership of John Wayles when Wayles married Martha Eppes in 1746. After the death of his third wife, John Wayles took his slave Elizabeth Hemings as his mistress, and was the father of six of her children. Sarah (Sally) Hemings was one of their daughters. The mixed-race children of John Wayles were kept in slavery. Virginia had a number of laws to ensure this rule obtained.

White males deciding the fates of everyone else in the Virginia House of Burgesses

The Virginia House of Burgesses was called upon in the late 1600’s to answer the question of “whether children got by an Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free” on account of challenges to enslaved status by mulattos (people of mixed race). Their response was to turn English law upside down by reaching back to an archaic Roman rule, partus sequitur ventrem (you are what your mother was). That is, Virginia passed laws establishing that the legal status of the mother, not the father, as stipulated in Britain, determined the legal status of the child. The author explains that this change from British law ensured that white masters could retain the value of “increase” when these female slaves gave birth, because as long as the child’s mother was a slave, it wouldn’t matter who the father was. Masters could therefore continue to exploit the popular option of using female slaves for sex without having to worry that this would cause them to lose their “property.” [Other states, particularly in the South, quickly followed suit. Further laws were passed to ensure that even “one drop” of “black blood” made the difference between slavery and freedom. You can read more about the history of the “one drop rule” (and its uniqueness to the U.S.) here.]

Jefferson’s Monticello Estate is in Albemarle County, Virginia

The legal degradation of blacks played a “useful” role in uniting the country as well. The sore point of inequalities of class, initially the cause of greatest tensions in the colonies, was superseded as the prime dividing line for status within the colony when race entered the picture: “Instead, poor whites, encouraged by the policies of the elites, took refuge in their whiteness and the dream that one day they, too, could become slave owners, though only a relative handful could ever hope to amass the land, wealth, and social position of the most prominent member of the Virginia gentry…”. (As historian Keri Leigh Merritt observes: “Throughout American history, the economic elite have used vile forms of racism to perpetuate the current hierarchy — politically, socially and economically. White supremacy is most commonly conceptualized as a way for lower-class whites to feel socially superior to people from other ethnic backgrounds.”)

Before long, “whiteness” came to signify the superiority of one socially and legally defined population over others, while simultaneously inculcating notions that character, intelligence, and other traits were associated with whiteness or non-whiteness. Thomas Jefferson himself contributed to that idea with his Notes on the State of Virginia, a book written by him in 1781, and updated and enlarged in 1782 and 1783. While the book also discussed Virginia’s natural resources and economy, it is remembered today primarily for Jefferson’s observations about slavery, miscegenation, and his beliefs that whites and blacks could not live together in a free society. Jefferson said he thought blacks were inferior to whites in terms of beauty (he cites such “superior” traits in whites as “flowing hair”) and reasoning intelligence. (He observes, for example, “They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present.”). But as Gordon-Reed often has cause to point out, the “public” and “rhetorical” Jefferson was quite a different man than the private Jefferson. The author sardonically observes: “White supremacy does not demand deep conviction. Ruthless self interests, not sincere belief, is the signature feature…”

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson in 1786 by Mather Brown

In fact in private, Jefferson had a long-standing relationship (38 years) with a mixed-race woman, Sally Hemings, who was, as noted above, Elizabeth Hemings’s daughter by a white father. (Elizabeth Hemings and her children arrived at Monticello around 1774 as part of Jefferson’s inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.) Sally (a nickname for Sarah), bore seven children by Jefferson, four of whom survived to adulthood, over the course of their liaison. Since Elizabeth herself was half white, Sally was one-fourth white, and by all accounts quite a beauty, “in spite of” (or because of) her part-black ancestry. Sally was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. When Martha married Jefferson, John Wayles had already died, and the whole Hemings family had moved with Martha to Monticello. Jefferson and Martha had two daughters that survived, and Sally became their ladies’ maid. Portentously, when Jefferson went overseas to serve as United States ambassador to pre-revolutionary France, he wanted his daughters to follow him, and Sally came along as a companion. But Jefferson’s daughters went away to attend a boarding school outside of Paris. Sally, then around 14, and Jefferson, in his early forties, began a sexual affair. [While this sounds egregious to us, “the age of consent in eighteenth-century Virginia was ten.”] By the time Jefferson was ready to return to the U.S., Sally was pregnant.

Site of Hotel d’Langeac, Jefferson’s residence in Paris.

The author explains how it was that Sally forwent the opportunity of freedom she could have had by staying in France. Rather, she opted (if that word even applies to a slave who was a young, impressionable, and inexperienced girl, not to mention one who was pregnant) to come back to Virginia with Jefferson, having apparently extracted a promise from him that their children would be freed when they came of age. [The author suggests that because Jefferson was both self-indulgent, ambitious, and anxious to make his mark on America without any mark on his reputation, Sally had a bit of “power” over Jefferson at that point since an affair with a slave would have sullied his image in America.] And note: the only promise she could apparently get was not that their children be freed immediately, but only at the age of 21. Sally herself could not be freed since “interbreeding” between whites and free blacks was illegal but having sex with a “slave” was not, and it seems Jefferson wanted to continue their “arrangement.” [As the author observes, as long as white men did not try to elevate slaves and the children they had with them to the “status” of white people or bestow upon them the privileges of whites, they were left alone to do with their “property” as they pleased.] But again, allegedly, Jefferson agreed to treat Sally well.

Thomas Jefferson in 1791 at 49 by Charles Willson Peale

The book is about more than Sally, however, and the author also goes into great detail about the other Hemings of Monticello, including the children Sally had with Jefferson, three of whom, being only one-eighth black, could apparently pass for white. While Jefferson was meticulous in recording even the smallest detail about most things and most slaves, including most Hemingses, his records are also notable for their omissions. The legacy-conscious Jefferson left out any information about Sally. When he had cause to refer to their children, it was only obliquely with no names, a markedly different practice than he used otherwise. His documentation of the minutiae of his life except as noted above allows us to know a great deal about the rest of this slave family.

There is no way to know whether the alleged affection and loyalty shown by slaves to Jefferson was genuine, but both his presence and his absence had serious consequences for them. As long as he lived, he endeavored to keep the Hemingses together and in a somewhat privileged position (vis-a-vis other slaves) at Monticello. But within six months of his death on July 4, 1826, the contents of Monticello and 130 slaves, including Hemingses, were auctioned off.


The slaves themselves had no control over who was sold, who purchased them, or where they went and for what purposes. Family members were separated to the great heartache of those affected. This included the Hern family. David Hern Sr. performed a multitude of tasks during his 50 years at Monticello.  He was a skilled woodworker and wheelwright. His son, David Hern Jr., was a wagoner who made regular solo trips to transport goods between Monticello and Washington during Jefferson’s presidency. Nevertheless, after Jefferson’s death, David Hern and his 34 surviving children and grandchildren were sold. Similarly, Joseph Fossett and his wife Edith served as the blacksmith and head cook at Monticello, respectively. Jefferson freed Joseph Fossett in his will, but Edith and seven of their children were sold.

This fact reminds us of an important point stressed throughout the book by the author. In spite of Jefferson’s relative “laxness” regarding his slaves, they were never totally free in any sense, because they were at all times living in a slave society under a regime of white supremacy. Thus “slavery was more than just the relationship between an individual master and an individual slave. The entire white community was involved in maintaining the institution and the racial rules that grew up around it…. ”

An Overseer Doing His Duty, Near Fredericksburg by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796.

(At the same time, as the author also shows, “The profanity of slavery does not define the entirety of lives of enslaved people.”)

Sally Hemings was 53 at the time Jefferson died. It was thought her disposition was made in oral requests by Jefferson, still loathe to mention her specifically in any document. Jefferson’s daughter Martha, who possibly had a great resentment for Sally ever since Jefferson took her as his “concubine,” granted Sally her “time” 8 years after Jefferson’s death. This was a way to grant freedom without formal emancipation, which would force the person to leave the state. (Martha did however permit Sally to leave Monticello after Jefferson died to go live with their sons in Charlottesville.]. Why did Martha wait 8 years? It is unclear. Thomas Jefferson did free all of Sally Hemings’s children: Beverly and Harriet were allowed to leave Monticello in 1822; Madison and Eston were released in Jefferson’s 1826 will.

Martha Jefferson Randolph

The Monticello website reports:

“[Sally’s] son Madison told a newspaperman in 1873 that ‘shortly after’ Jefferson’s death he and his brother Eston, who both had been freed in Jefferson’s will, took their mother to live in Charlottesville with them. Sally Hemings had not been freed in the will, yet she appeared with Madison Hemings as a free person of color in a special census in 1833 (and the census of 1830 also suggests she was considered free). In a superseded will of 1834, Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph wrote that ‘to Betsy Hemmings, Sally & Wormley I wish my children to give their time. If liberated they would be obliged to leave the state of Virginia.’ This was probably a written reinforcement of a previous verbal arrangement. If it was made at Jefferson’s recommendation before his death, no document has been found to confirm it.”

While, as stated previously, this book was not meant to be primarily about Jefferson, we get an excellent look at the man behind the legend from this story. As Roger Wilkins wrote in Jefferson’s Pillow: “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

Ironically, however, Annette Gordon-Reed paints Jefferson in rather a more positive light than other recent historians. While she mentions that he didn’t like to lose on any issue, she also emphasizes how much he disliked conflict, almost suggesting he would “give in” rather than have disagreement be a part of his life. She thereby downplays his consistent record of using often vicious tactics by operating sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. One could see him using every aspect of this trait to bend Sally to his will.

The author wants to confer agency on Sally, but the entire time she was his mistress, she did, after all, continue to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She moreover was relegated to a hidden room in Monticello, while Jefferson’s daughter served as the mistress of the estate.

Discussion: The Hemings and Jefferson family trees are a bit hard to follow, through no fault of the author’s. It seems there were a limited number of names in use by these intertwined families (in part because naming each other in honor of other family members was practiced). Besides having the same names, they had nicknames which bore no logical relationships to the names themselves. Access to charts detailing, for example, which Martha was which, is helpful. The hard copy of the book has a chart, and you can see a small portion of one below.

Evaluation:This is an excellent and detailed recounting of the complex nature and legacy of someone who was not only a seminal figure in the history of America, but the author of the founding credo “All men are created equal.” It explores the interrelationships between the man who wrote this, and the slaves he owned. It is also a story of slave family in greater detail than we often have access to; a story that has so many elements of tragedy, even while revealing occasional moments of triumph and joy.

Students of American history should not avoid this book because of its length. I found it consistently engaging and full of riveting details about the early years of America that are critical to understanding what our country was then, and what it has become.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by W. W. Norton & Company, 2008

Note: Literary Awards

Pulitzer Prize for History (2009)
National Book Award for Non-Fiction (2008)
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (2009)
George Washington Book Prize (2009)
Frederick Douglass Book Prize (2009)
SHEAR Book Prize
Frank L. and Harriet C. Owsley Award (2009)

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This very long book was narrated admirably by Karen White, whose soothing and mellifluous voice still managed to convey outrage at the story she read. It was a pleasure to listen to her.

Published unabridged on 25 CDs (approximately 31 and 1/2 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2008

April 13, 1743 – Jefferson’s Birthdate & Review of Jefferson’s Pillow by Roger Wilkins

I loved this book. Wilkins, former Afro-American historian at Virginia’s George Mason University, looks back at the achievements of four Virginian founding fathers – George Mason, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson – in light of their inability to divest themselves of slaves or even push for the abolition of slavery, all the while touting the virtues of liberty.


Rather than adhering to a dry academic approach, Wilkins welcomes you into his own world to share with you his private thoughts and his personal history as well as his insightful analyses. His descriptions of the complexities of the Founders are masterful.

George Mason, he observes, “ruled as a sovereign over an estate that depended, in virtually all respects, upon the perpetual subordination of the people whose freedom, labor, hope, and natural rights he was stealing.” Slaves were even required to kneel when they spoke to him. Yet Mason was a staunch abolitionist.

Washington, who decreed that his slaves should be freed after the death of both him and his wife, “was a disciplined member of the landed gentry. The aristocrat could be haughty and distant and overly fond of pomp. He could also be worshipful of wealth and jealous of his property – including his human property.”

Madison is famous of course for favoring any compromise that would keep the South tied to the North.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Of Jefferson, Wilkins notes: “[he] was a rather dreamy and self-indulgent rural aristocrat…” His slaves “gave him the leisure to study, to reflect, and to write.” …And also, to bear additional children, who, borne by slave Sally Hemings, were among the only slaves Jefferson freed upon his death. At the time Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he owned more than one hundred slaves. Many of Jefferson’s best ideas were rephrasings of Mason’s writing, but Wilkins finds no fault with this: “He didn’t have to be original; it was the elegance of his prose, fueled by his passion, that moved human spirits and made him immortal.” Wilkins writes, “He was a dizzying mixture of searing brilliance and infuriating self-indulgence, of idealism and base racism, of soaring patriotism and myopic self-involvement. He was America writ small.”

The founding generation was obsessed with the possibility of retaliatory violence from the slaves, and for good reason. Wilkins describes the conditions of eighteenth century slaves, including his own relatives, and takes us with him on his journey to reconcile his sorrow and anger with his pride and patriotism. He charges that the myths tying American virtue to American whiteness have wrought profound psychological damage on African-Americans, which Wilkins believes must be rectified.

Wilkins also explores the addiction of privilege, and how it could have easily afflicted the Founders. They themselves were all too aware of human weaknesses, but these do not gainsay the amazing accomplishments of these men.

Evaluation: If you are seeking a better understanding of how our Founding Fathers could be so favored and so flawed, and what our country owes to the contributions of the slaves who helped build it, this book will not disappoint. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Beacon Press, 2001

January 26, 1815 – Congress Authorizes the Purchase of the Library of Jefferson for the Library of Congress

When the invading British army burned the congressional library in Washington, D.C. in 1814, an outraged Jefferson promptly offered his own library to Congress to replace the one that was lost. (He did not simply donate the books as he was deeply in debt and could use the money.) At the time of the purchase, Jefferson’s collection contained 6,487 books in the fields of politics, history, science, law, literature, fine arts, and philosophy, and was recognized as one of the finest private libraries in the United States. The purchase was authorized by Congress on January 26, 1815, for the sum of $23,950. The handwritten catalog that Jefferson sent to Congress along with his books was retained by the Librarian of Congress, but was subsequently lost.


A fire at the Library of Congress in 1851 destroyed many of the Jefferson books (along with 30,000 other volumes and original portraits of the first five presidents). The remaining volumes have been assembled as a unit in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Many books bear Jefferson’s ownership markings as well as the original Library of Congress bookplates and classification.

In 1942, as part of the bicentennial commemoration of Jefferson’s birth, the Library of Congress commissioned E. Millicent Sowerby to compile an annotated bibliography of the 6,487 books Jefferson sold to Congress. A five-volume work, The Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, was published between 1952 and 1959, and a transcribed electronic version of Sowerby’s catalogue will soon be available.

On LibraryThing, you can see exactly what books Jefferson owned. Jefferson was added to the LibraryThing database as an honorary dead member. Currently, 5,653 titles from his library have been entered into the database. You can access his member profile here and see his catalog of books here. You can also learn more about the sale of his personal library to Congress on the Monticello website, here.

January 11, 1755 – Birthdate of Alexander Hamilton & Review of “Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation” by John Ferling

John Ferling, a respected scholar of the American Revolution, sets forth the ideological differences between two of our most influential Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton, and recounts the poisonous enmity between them that arose as a result. The story is relevant even today, since the bitter partisan divide America is now experiencing is quite similar to that which threatened to tear apart the fabric of the country apart in its infancy.


Ferling provides a more dispassionate (i.e., less hagiographic) portrait of the two men than many recent biographies. He is quite good at laying out the philosophies of these two great thinkers, and showing how much they both contributed to the tenor and construction of the new nation. Nevertheless, when it comes to dissecting the personal characteristics of the two men, Ferling goes easier on the shortcomings of Jefferson than he does on Hamilton, even making Hamilton sound a bit like he verged on insanity toward the end of his life.

Hamilton was certainly more volatile and impulsive than Jefferson, but the actions instigated by each of them ended up mirroring the other’s. The main difference, in my view, was that Hamilton was more open about his feelings and actions than Jefferson; Jefferson’s behaviors could be just as egregious, but he cleverly operated almost exclusively behind the scenes, using sycophantic lackeys to do his dirty work (most notably: Virginia Congressman William Branch Giles, newspaperman Philip Freneau, and future presidents James Madison and James Monroe). As Ron Chernow observed in his 2004 magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was a “proficient political ventriloquist” who was “skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed.” He used other men to hound Hamilton and discredit him, through whatever combination of truth and lies were necessary to accomplish that goal.

In spite of all the time and effort spent by each of these men in attacking the other, they also managed to make major contributions to the establishment of the American Republic. It was largely thanks to Hamilton that the nation was able to grow strong enough to overcome the defects it suffered when bound only by the Articles of Confederation. But Hamilton’s vision included the possibility of a nationstate bound to a plutocracy.

As for Jefferson, it was his radical egalitarian vision (at least in theory) that put into words the dream of equality of opportunity that still inspires those seeking freedom from oppression. (Nevertheless, no matter what interpretation later generations made of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a racist who “believed that blacks were slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race.” They were, however, suitable for sexual exploitation. Although he claimed he wanted to abolish slavery, he did not want blacks, once freed, to remain in the country.)

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Ferling devotes some space to trying to explain Jefferson’s hypocritical divide between his professions about slavery and the actions he did, or rather, did not, take. Like other historians, Ferling makes a number of excuses for Jefferson. He does, however, admit that Jefferson absolutely would not consider emancipation without expatriation of freedmen and that “he refused to denounce the spread of slavery, and in private he made it clear that if the Union was torn asunder over the issue, he would stand with the South in defense of slavery.” Still, Ferling suggests that Jefferson was no worse than Washington, writing: “Like Washington, Jefferson made a conscious decision to keep others enslaved so that he might live the sumptuous life.”

But there were crucial differences between Washington and Jefferson on slavery. Washington, even Ferling admits, stated that if the Union broke up, he would move to the North and side with them, not with his home state of Virginia. Ferling does not go into Washington’s position on slavery in depth, presumably because it is beyond the purview of the book. But Washington not only struggled more with how to deal with slavery during his life, but would have freed his slaves at or before his death if he had been able to do so. Under the dower laws of the time, many of his slaves either belonged to Martha, or were married to slaves belonging to Martha. He refused to break up slave families, and Martha had no inclination to free her slaves. (After her husband died however, the slaves, who knew that Washington arranged for them to be freed when Martha died, were looking a little too happy for Martha’s comfort level, and she became uneasy that they would try to advance the date of her death. After a year, therefore, she freed them herself.) In contradistinction, Jefferson stipulated that only five of his slaves be freed even upon his death (all of them were from the Hemings family).

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

Regarding the invective and undermining engaged in by each man against the other, it is my distinct impression that Jefferson was the more venomous of the two, and did the most damage. His tactics, however, allowed him to escape the judgment of his fellows (and of history) more unscathed than did Hamilton.

Evaluation: Ferling breaks no new historical ground, but he is a spritely writer about an endlessly fascinating subject. He gives a much more balanced view of Jefferson than many other biographers, and does an excellent job in condensing and illuminating the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. If you are interested in the contributions of these two powerful and formidable men to the American project, this book makes a great introduction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2013

August 27, 1796 – Jefferson on the Relationship Between Ignorant Electorate and Support of Despotism

The Founding Fathers were in favor of measures improving education in order for people to make wiser choices for their own governance. Benjamin Rush, for example, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, proposed in 1786 a tax-supported education system in Philadelphia on the grounds that “If the common people are ignorant and vicious, a republican nation can never be long free.”

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush

Thomas Jefferson also believed in the value of education. In 1776 he wrote an education bill for Virginia proposing a three-tiered system of state-supported primary, grammar, and university education. The bill ran into opposition over funding, however. Jefferson conveyed his disappointment in a letter to his former law professor, George Wythe, writing:

…the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance. . . .”

He expressed a similar sentiment again in a letter to Robert Pleasants, written on this day in history, in which he wrote:

Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other.”

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Times have changed. Now a candidate for president in 2016 (and the winner of that contest) found it useful to openly declare “I love the poorly educated.” And a majority of Republicans believe colleges are “bad for America.” To appropriate Hamlet’s line, “Oh, what a falling off was there!”