Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Much to Learn From Jefferson’s Diverse Family

By Zachary Diener

Some historians argue that Thomas Jefferson’s careful control over the activity of his slaves, and their constant occupation in labor, reflects profit-maximizing behavior. Others disagree, referencing the immense amount of debt he owed upon his death, as evidence that profit was not the primary object of his daily concern.

Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves in comparison to the rest of his immediate family reveals insight into this question. His treatment of his slaves shows that he viewed slaves as members of his “family,” albeit as subordinate components.

Jefferson structured the lives of his slaves in a way similar to how he structured the lives of the rest of his family; slaves were educated in a manner that suited their perceived abilities and had to balance obligatory labor duties with leisure time, much like other members of the household.

Jefferson’s obsession with keeping his slaves working does not equate to an insatiable profit-seeking drive. He strove to “make the most efficient use of his labor force,” and worked diligently to ensure “neither youth, age, illness, nor weather were allowed to stop the plantation machine,” according to Lucia Stanton in Jeffersonian Legacies.

Older workers formed his “senile corps” and “the sick who were not bedridden were treated with gentle does of alternative labor.”

Jefferson likely realized that little profit could be gleaned from these unproductive workers, and had an ulterior motive for keeping them active. Jefferson recognized that “slaves were both humans and property,” so while he kept his slaves busy, he would not allow them to “be at all overworked” resulting in the Monticello slaves being made “more comfortable in bondage than most of their fellows.” This suggests that while Jefferson kept his slaves constantly employed in labor, he was not motivated purely by a profit-maximization impetus.

Instead, Jefferson’s attitude towards the activity of his slaves reflects an effort to educate them, although in a manner that fit their standing as inferior household members.

Jefferson believed in the building of character and morals through education, exemplified by Virginia’s reflection “that [education] elevates the character as much as it does the mind.” While his slaves did not receive a formal education comparable to his granddaughters, Jefferson paid close attention to the dividing of his slaves’ activities that closely resembled his attention to the schedules of his “white family.”

For instance, “Jefferson gave his laborers a variety of skills,” and devised a detailed “script for the childhood of his slaves” that dictated a precise accumulation of abilities at specific ages. Thus, Jefferson equated skill accumulation in slaves to a form of education.

Whereas Jefferson “recommended the study of arithmetic, French, geography, grammar, ancient and modern history, and literature” to white women, he recommended that slave children “until 10 years serve as nurses. From 10 to 16 the boys make nails, the girls spin and at 16 go into the ground or learn trades.”

Thus, education could elevate the character of all, but education for whites differed dramatically from the physically intensive learning Jefferson arranged for his slaves. By keeping them busy and augmenting their labor skills, Jefferson facilitated the building of strong character and morals in his slaves.

Slaves at Monticello balanced their obligatory duties with free time, much like free members of Jefferson’s family. Slaves had daily work days which “grew from nine hours in the darkest winter months to fourteen hours in the longest days of June and July.” However, “without curfews, his slaves took advantage of the freedom of the night.” This reflects remarkable similarity to the balancing act performed by other members of the family.
Housekeeping and social duties impinged on the amusements of the white women of the house, as one complained that “My studies have been unavoidably relinquished for several weeks…because Maria Woodward and Martha Richardson have come up from Richmond on a visit…and next month I enter the duties of housekeeping again.”

Jefferson routinely described “public life as burden and a deprivation” and instead “link(ed) his happiness to his family” which awaited him at Monticello. Thus, each member of the household became burdened by their own distinct responsibility that often precluded their unobstructed leisure and happiness. Life for each was structured around the tradeoff between responsibility and pleasure.

While Jefferson employed hundreds of slaves, he did not treat them purely as a means of profit like many other slave owners. Instead, he educated them in a broad array of skills to augment their character and morals.

Much like other members of the household, slaves had to balance obligatory tasks with leisurely ones. Consequently, much can be learned about Jefferson’s diverse family by examining the parallel ways in which he sought to structure each of their lives.


Zachary Diener is a senior at the University of Virginia. He is the son of Falls Church business leader Michael S. Diener, CPA.