• February 2016

What Was the Relationship Between Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves? Historian Christa Dierksheide Explains

“The complex relationship between Thomas Jefferson and slavery has been extensively studied and debated by his biographers and by scholars of slavery,” explains Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).

In fact, Jefferson owned hundreds of African-American slaves throughout his life. He acquired them by inheritance, marriage, births of slaves, and trade.

  • It began when he was 21 in 1767, when Jefferson inherited 5,000 acres of land and 52 slaves by his father’s will.
  • In 1768 Jefferson began construction of his Monticello plantation, and through his marriage to Martha Wayles in 1772 and his father-in-law John Wayles inheritance in 1773 Jefferson inherited two plantations and 135 slaves.
  • By 1776 Jefferson was one of the largest planters in Virginia. However, the value of his property (land and slaves) was increasingly offset by his growing debts, which made it very difficult to free his slaves and thereby lose them as assets.

To learn more about Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slaves, Grateful American™ Foundation founder David Bruce Smith, interviewed an expert on the topic, Christa Dierksheide.

She explained:

1. Which slaves directly assisted Jefferson each day? Who were they and what kind of work did they do?
2. What were Jefferson’s interactions like with slaves around the plantation?
3. Monticello is known as one of the best documented plantations. Why is that?
4. Are there any accounts of what slaves thought of Jefferson or remembered about
him?
5. What did Jefferson think about slavery? How did his views change over his lifetime?

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About Christa Dierksheide

Christa Dierksheide specializes in the history of plantations in Age of Revolutions, with a special focus on Jefferson. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 2008. Her forthcoming book, “Improving Slavery or Ending Slavery in Jeffersonian America, 1770-1840″ (University of Virginia Press) interrogates planters’ visions of progressive slave societies in Virginia, South Carolina, and the British Caribbean. Since 2006, she has conceptualized and written exhibitions for Monticello, including “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty” and “The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.” She is also co-author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Worlds,” the introductory film at Monticello. Currently, she teaches in the U.Va. history department and works at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.

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