The lives of many American presidents contain lesser-known but fascinating facts that we seldom learn in school. Take Teddy Roosevelt. Before he became president, he felt burned out for a while and moved out west to become a rancher. There, an armed and dangerous bar bully picked on the bespectacled Teddy Roosevelt, called him “Four Eyes”, and tried to push him around. It did not end well for the lout. Following are thirty things about that and other lesser-known facts about American presidents.
30. The President Who Went From Sickly Child to Tough Hombre
America’s 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858 – 1919), was a sickly child whose frequent bouts of ill health made his parents fear that he would never make it to adulthood. The son of a Manhattan socialite and a businessman philanthropist father, young Teddy often suffered severe nighttime asthma attacks that the best doctors could do little about. As he described the bouts in later years, they felt as if somebody had sat on his chest and tried to smother him with pillows.
A born fighter, Teddy did not despair, and discovered a means to help him keep down the asthma and simultaneously keep up his spirits: vigorous exercise. When he was around eleven years old, Teddy traveled with his family to Europe, and as they hiked in the Alps, the sickly kid discovered that he could keep pace with his father. It felt pretty good, and from then on, Teddy adopted a regimen of strenuous exercise and outdoor activities. He also took up boxing in order to learn how to fight, after he got bullied by two older boys on a camping trip.
29. When Teddy Roosevelt Decided to Give Up Politics
Teddy Roosevelt went to Harvard, where he boxed and rowed. He was good enough at the former to make it to second place in a Harvard boxing tournament. After Harvard, Teddy spent a year at Columbia Law School, before he dropped out in 1881 to serve in the New York State Assembly. His political career showed early promise, and he made a name for himself, especially in his efforts against corporate corruption. Then came 1884, a truly terrible year for the future president.
On Valentine’s Day, February 14th, two days after she gave birth to their daughter Alice, his wife died. His mother followed her a few hours later. The only entry on his diary that day was an ‘X’, and the notation “The light has gone out of my life”. That summer, he attended the GOP National Convention in Chicago, but his candidate lost. The personal and political setbacks in quick succession caused Teddy to feel burned out, so he decided to quit politics and move out West. He had visited the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt buffalo and fell in love with the western lifestyle. So he invested $14,000 – a significant amount in those days – to become a rancher.
Teddy Roosevelt was more than just a rich guy from the East Coast who went out west to play cowboy. In the summer of 1884, he established the Elkhorn Ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri River in the Badlands, about 35 miles north of what is now Medora, North Dakota. He enthusiastically embraced his new occupation as a rancher and set out to learn the ropes – literally – of the profession. He learned to ride, rope cattle, and hunt, and wrote three books about his experience. Later that year, Teddy Roosevelt went on a days-long horseback ride to clear his head and take in the scenery, and eventually came across the Nolan Hotel in Mingusville, Montana.
The place looked like a seedy dive, and TR was reluctant to enter – especially after he heard a pair of gunshots coming from the bar. However, nightfall was near, and and it was cold outside, so he went in. He saw a “shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face”. Soon as he saw Teddy, who wore glasses, the lout hailed him as “Four Eyes”, and announced to the bar that “Four Eyes is going to treat!” The future president tried to play it off as a joke, but the loudmouth followed him around. As seen below, it did not end well – for the loudmouth.
As Teddy Roosevelt described his encounter with an armed bully in a Montana bar: “As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes‘, in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.
“As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees, but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed”. The next day, the humiliated lout left town on a freight train.
26. The Huge Events in President Lyndon Johnson’s Administration Obscured His Quirky Side
If it had not been for the Vietnam War, America’s 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, (1908 – 1973) might have gone down in history as one of the country’s greatest chief executives. He had spent decades in Congress, both in the House and Senate, whose Majority Leader he became in the 1950s. When fate elevated him from vice president to president after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, LBJ entered the Oval Office with an unequaled mastery of the legislative process.
He put that expertise to good use and pushed through landmark legislative accomplishments such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Both Medicare and Medicaid also began during his administration. Had Vietnam not derailed his ambitious “Great Society” program, LBJ would probably rank alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt as one of America’s most transformative presidents. The disastrous war in Southeast Asia and the great legislative accomplishments loom large in LBJ’s public perception. They obscure, as seen below, the lesser-known quirky – and sometimes seedy – side of the man.
25. The Intersection of LBJ’s Humor and His Amphibious Car
LBJ liked to depict himself as a simple a Good Ole Boy, and in many ways, he really was. A Good Ole Boy, that is… there was nothing simple about the smart-as-a-whip Lyndon Johnson. One way the Good Ole Boy side came out was in his humor. Not subtle salon or New Yorker type quips and bon mots, but down to earth – and quite often earthy – jokes and pranks, the darker the better. One of his favorites was to convince guests – whose numbers included important foreign dignitaries – that they were about to die.
He pulled it off with his Amphicar – a West German vehicle that was the only civilian passenger amphibious automobile to ever be mass-produced. About 4000 were made, and President Johnson was the proud owner of a baby blue one. When LBJ visited his Texas ranch, he often invited people down to spend some time with him as his guests. While there, the host would often take them for a drive in his Amphicar – without telling them what it was. As seen below, he would then convince them that they were about to drown.
24. One of President Johnson’s Favorite Practical Jokes Was to Convince People That They Were About to Die
As President Johnson drove guests around the Texas backcountry in his Amphicar, when he came close to a lake or pond, he would suddenly pretend to have lost control of the vehicle. Then, to the terrified guests’ consternation, he would drive straight into a body of water. As the car splashed into a lake and the terrified passengers screamed and perhaps soiled their pants as their lives flashed before their eyes, Johnson double over with laughter. As one mark of the practical joke described the experience: “The President, with [his secretary] Vicky McCammon in the seat alongside him and me in the back, was now driving around in a small blue car with the top down.
We reached a steep incline at the edge of the lake and the car started rolling rapidly toward the water. The President shouted, “The brakes don’t work! The brakes won’t hold! We’re going in! We’re going under!” The car splashed into the water. I started to get out. Just then the car leveled and I realized we were in an Amphicar. The President laughed. As we putted along the lake then (and throughout the evening), he teased me. “Vicky, did you see what Joe did? He didn’t give a damn about his President. He just wanted to save his own skin and get out of the car.” Then he would roar [with laughter]”.
Another lesser-known fact about President Johnson is that he was obsessed with his… well “Johnson”. Not as in he could not keep it in his pants – he could not, in more ways than one, but that is not the point. LBJ was always eager to let those around him know that he had an unusually large male member. That would not have sat well in the #MeToo era. A competitive womanizer, LBJ often banged the table and bragged that he had more women by accident than JFK ever had on purpose, whenever people mentioned his predecessor’s numerous affairs. Today, the sheer number of predatory assault allegations LBJ’s conduct invited would probably force a presidential resignation – at least if he was a Democrat president or a TV one.
From early on, Johnson was notorious for creepy mannerisms that skeeved out people, especially in Capitol bathrooms. If a colleague entered while he was at the urinal, LBJ would often swing around, with his privates still in his hand, and whirl it around as he hooted: “Whoo-eee! Have you ever seen something as big as this?!” Johnson would then begin to discuss pending legislation, even as he continued to brandish and shake his Johnson. The man simply had no humility when it came to his manhood, which he called “Jumbo”.
22. President Johnson Liked to Work His Johnson Into Every Conversation
LBJ was earthy in many ways. In an alpha male ritual of primacy assertion, he obliged aides, both male and female, to take dictation as they stood in the door of his office bathroom while he urinated or defecated. Even on the floors of the House or Senate, Johnson would often rummage away extravagantly at his crotch and frequently reached through his pockets to better position “Jumbo” so its outline could show beneath his pants. He constantly tried to work “size” boasts into conversations, as a clip from the LBJ Tapes, which recorded a phone call with his tailor illustrates: “Another thing, the crotch, down where your n**s hang – it’s always a little too tight. So when you make them up, gimme an inch that I can let out there because they cut me”.
Johnson had a special nozzle installed in his White House bathroom and had it positioned so it would shoot water directly at his privates while he showered. He refused to listen to arguments from the White House staff that the installation of the special nozzle would require a great deal of plumbing work, and insisted that it be done anyhow. As President of the United States, he of course had his way. As he told the staff: “If I can move 10,000 troops in a day, you can certainly fix the bathroom any way I want it”.
Abraham Lincoln, with his craggy features, lanky frame, and stovepipe hat, is probably America’s most recognizable chief executive, well known for many things. As The Great Emancipator, as the president who successfully navigated the United States through the Civil War; and as the author of the Gettysburg Address, recited by kids on school stages to this day. Less known is that in his youth, Lincoln was a lean, mean, wrestling machine, who performed feats of strength that became part of local legend and frontier lore.
His most famous fight took place shortly after Lincoln, in his early 20s, moved to Salem, Illinois, and was challenged by a local bully named Jack Armstrong. The bout was inconclusive for some time, but when Armstrong resorted to dirty tricks, an enraged Lincoln grabbed him by the neck. With arms extended, Honest Abe “shook him like a rag doll”, before he tossed him to the ground. He then stood over his rival, and challenged Armstrong’s followers: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come and whet your horns!” Armstrong admitted he’d been fairly beaten, and proclaimed Lincoln “the best feller that ever broke into this settlement”. The duo shook hands and became friends.
Republicans have been traditionally pro-business, and the GOPs have usually been a reliable ally of employers in disputes with labor unions and employees. Surprisingly, however, the party’s first president had some views about labor that could qualify him as a Marxist. In his first speech as an Illinois state legislator in 1837, Abraham Lincoln stated: “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people”. In his first Annual Message to Congress, on December 3rd, 1861, he wrote: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.
“Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them”.
It is most likely that Abraham Lincoln’s Marxist views came directly from Karl Marx himself. The author of The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital had been a prolific contributor to the New York Daily Tribune. It was the most influential Republican newspaper of the 1850s when the GOP was founded. In 1848, the Tribune’s publisher had invited Marx to become a correspondent, and over the decade that followed, Marx, sometimes with the help of Friedrich Engels, wrote over 500 articles for the Republican newspaper.
Unsurprisingly, since Marx detested labor exploitation, he became a huge Lincoln fan, and cheered him on as he wrecked slavery, the era’s most exploitative labor system. In 1864, Marx wrote a letter on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association, to congratulate Lincoln on his reelection and wish him success in the US Civil War. The president instructed the American ambassador in Britain, where Marx lived, to thank him and let him know that the United States: “derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies”.
Grover Cleveland (1837 – 1908) is best known today as the only chief executive to have served two non-consecutive terms in the White House. He was elected the 22nd president of the United States in 1884. He served his term, then won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College in the 1888 election. Cleveland then bounced back and was elected America’s 24th president in 1892. A Democrat reformer, Cleveland left his mark with his tireless efforts to fight the endemic political corruption of his era. That earned Cleveland a reputation for political integrity and honesty.
That is not the only thing he is known, for however. Cleveland was famous – or infamous – for scandals that would sink any Democrat today. With some exceptions, such as with Thomas Jefferson, further down this list, most presidential perversions and scandals involved consensual hanky-panky. That, or boorish conduct that amounts to workplace harassment. Inappropriate behavior, but not outright violent criminal conduct. Not so with Grover Cleveland: his biggest scandal involved straightforward sexual assault, and extraordinary levels of corruption and abuse of power to cover it up.
17. The Only President to Have Ever Personally Hanged Someone?
Grover Cleveland’s path to the White House began with a career in the law. He was admitted to the New York bar in 1859, worked in private practice, and became an assistant district attorney in Erie County, NY, in 1863. He ran for District Attorney in 1865 and narrowly lost. Five years later, he ran for Sheriff of Erie County, which included Buffalo, and won. The only remarkable thing about his two years as Sheriff is that he personally hanged two murderers sentenced to death, rather than pay a deputy the then-customary $10 fee to perform the task.
That made Cleveland the only US president known to have personally hanged a man. His most infamous scandal occurred after his term as Sheriff ended, and began on the evening of December 15th, 1873, with a chance street encounter in Buffalo. That was when Maria Halpin ran into the former Sheriff. Cleveland, a stocky six-footer who had courted Halpin for months, invited her to dinner at a restaurant, and she accepted. After a pleasant meal, he escorted her back to her boarding house, and there, the pleasantness stopped.
16. The Extraordinary Lengths Grover Cleveland Went to in Order to Cover Up a Scandal
As Maria Halpin stated in a sworn affidavit, the future president assaulted her “by use of force and violence and without my consent”. When she said that she would report the assault, she added, the former sheriff threatened her into silence. As her affidavit continued, Cleveland: “told me he was determined to ruin me if it cost him $10,000, if he was hanged by the neck for it. I then and there told him that I never wanted to see him again, and commanded him to leave my room, which he did”.
A few weeks later, Halpin discovered she was pregnant, and in September of 1874, she gave birth to a baby boy. When she declared that Cleveland was the father, the former Sheriff used his connections to shut her up. He had the child removed from his mother’s care and placed in an orphanage and had Halpin herself committed to a mental asylum. She was quickly released after an evaluation concluded that she was not insane, and had only been sent there in an egregious abuse of power by corrupt political elites.
15. A Candidate Elected President Despite an Epic Scandal
Because real life is not fair, and justice and karma are often a joke, Grover Cleveland got away with what he did to Maria Halpin and went on to bigger things after his failed attempt to have her committed to a mental asylum. The city of Buffalo had grown quite corrupt in the 1870s, and when Republicans nominated a ticket in 1881 that was exceptionally dirty even by the day’s low standards, Democrats saw an opportunity. They ran a reform ticket headed by Cleveland for mayor, that went on to win the 1881 elections.
From Mayor of Buffalo, Cleveland was next elected Governor of New York, before he ran for president in 1884. News of the Halpin scandal and his illegitimate child came out in the presidential campaign. Unsurprisingly, opponents attacked Cleveland for the contrast between his do-gooder public persona and his seedy private life. A chant by detractors that mimicked a baby’s cry “Ma! Ma! Where’s my Pa?!” dogged the Cleveland campaign. He won, however, and his supporters retorted with the counter chant: “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
John Quincy Adams, like his father and America’s second president John Adams, was a brilliant man. Before he became chief executive, John Quincy was an exceptionally skilled diplomat – perhaps America’s best diplomat ever. His accomplishments included a stint as ambassador to Russia and service in the delegation that negotiated an end to the War of 1812. JQ Adams also served as Secretary of State, in which capacity he negotiated the acquisition of Florida, and he played a key role in the creation of the Monroe Doctrine. He also served in both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate and became one of the early key opponents of slavery.
However, although he was clearly an intelligent man, JQ Adams had some blind spots. One such was his views about the Hollow Earth Theory – a theory that was considered ludicrous even back then. As the name indicates, Hollow Earth posited that our planet is not a solid rock, but more like a ball, with concentric layers separated by empty spaces, that were probably inhabited by people. Adams not only lent his support to advocates of that balderdash but actually wanted to help them prove it at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Hollow Earth craze was kicked off by a charlatan named John Cleves Symmes, Jr. A veteran of the War of 1812, Symmes moved to the frontier, where he reinvented himself as a scientist and became known as the “Newton of the West”. In 1818 he published Symmes Circular No. 1: “I declare the earth is hollow, and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking”.
Each concentric circle supposedly contained a subterranean world, and all of them were heated and illuminated by a sun-like object at the center of the planet. Symmes then hit the lecture circuit and lobbied the government for an expedition to the poles, where he claimed the entrances to the hollow earth’s interior were located. Educated people laughed off the idea, but it was taken seriously enough by many, and John Quincy Adams lent his support to the proposed Symmes expedition. Indeed, he promised to do just that in his successful 1824 presidential campaign.
John Quincy Adams lent his support to Symnes’ Hollow Earth theory and the assumption that the hollow planet’s internal concentric spheres must be inhabited by humans or human-like beings: de facto Mole Men. JQ Adams was interested in the natural resources beneath the earth, and like Symmes, he wanted to establish trade with the hollow earth’s inhabitants. Backed by heavyweights whose numbers included the president, Symmes’ expedition actually made it to the agenda of the US House of Representatives and came up for a vote. Fortunately, the proposal was defeated, 56 to 46.
On the other, the vote meant that roughly 44% of the country’s Congressmen wanted to spend taxpayer money to try and contact Mole People. The president did not give up. He tried to get Congress to reconsider and did all he could to gather support and resources for the expedition. However, like his father, JQ Adams served only one term. He lost the 1828 election to Andrew Jackson, and the newly elected POTUS canceled the expedition and abandoned his predecessor’s attempts to reach the center of the hollow earth. Which came as no surprise, since Andrew Jackson did not believe that the Earth was hollow: he thought it was flat.
As to John Quincy Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson was probably the toughest president in the history of the United States. Not necessarily a good person. As a general, Jackson had been all too eager to hang his men for disciplinary infractions at the drop of a hat. He was also the only American president to have made his wealth primarily as a wholesale slave dealer – a career that even many slave owners thought was disreputable. Additionally, he led crusades against the American Indians. All of that horrid behavior and morals aside, we begrudgingly admit Jackson could kick butt and take names. And in his era, that could take a man quite far.
Jackson began his career in the midst of the American Revolution when he enlisted in his local militia at age thirteen. A year later, a fourteen-year-old Jackson defiantly refused to shine a British officer’s shoes and got slashed with a sword across his face and hand as a result. That left the future president with a seething hatred of the British, and he paid them back in spades at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. There, Jackson’s men killed, wounded, and captured about 2,500 British, while they suffered only 300 casualties of their own.
Andrew Jackson was a prickly character who readily took offense, and would just as soon kill a man as look at him. In his official capacity, he led men into combat and slaughtered Redcoats by the hundreds. In his private life, Andrew Jackson was often found out back engaged in duels with somebody who had said the wrong thing in his presence. Literal duels, as in he ritually faced against opponents with loaded pistols, took aim and opened fire at a given signal. And not once, or twice, but many times. The total number of Jackson’s duels is unknown, but estimates range from a low of 13 to more than 100.
His most famous duel occurred in 1806 when he quarreled with a man named Charles Dickinson. Dickinson was reputed to be the best pistol shot in the country, but Jackson called him out anyhow. At the duel, Jackson stood stock still and allowed Dickinson the first shot. Dickinson took aim, and put a bullet in Jackson’s chest, which wounded, but did not kill him. Jackson recovered, took aim, and pulled the trigger, but the pistol stopped at half cock. By the rules, that did not count as a shot, so as a horrified Dickinson waited, Jackson cleared the pistol, then took deliberate aim once more, and fired a shot that mortally wounded his adversary. As to Jackson, he recovered and went on to greater things, but Dickinson’s bullet remained in his chest for another nineteen years.
9. The President Who Almost Beat His Would-be Assassin to Death
By the time he made it to the White House, Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a seriously dangerous dude to tick off was so well established, that only a nutjob would try to assault him. However, America has never had a shortage of nutjobs, and one of them became the first to attempt a presidential assassination when he took a shot at Jackson. Richard Lawrence, a house painter who thought he was King Richard III, often muttered angrily to himself about Andrew Jackson. He believed that he was unable to receive income from his royal estates in England because of Jackson. On January 30th, 1835, he sat in his shop and cackled to himself for some time, then suddenly got up and rushed out, with the exclamation: “I’ll be damned if I don’t do it!”
“It” was to kill Jackson, which Lawrence attempted when he ambushed the president outside the Capitol building. Lawrence waited behind a pillar, and when Jackson passed by, he took a shot at his back. The pistol misfired. Lawrence pulled out a second pistol and tried another shot, only to get another misfire. By then, Jackson realized what Lawrence was up to, and was understandably pissed off. Although 67-years-old at the time – pretty old by the day’s standards – an enraged Jackson fell upon the much younger Lawrence and bludgeoned him with his cane. People in the vicinity saved the would-be assassin from a fatal beating when they intervened to restrain the president and hustle Lawrence off into custody.
The brutal and heartless assault of Maria Halpin and the fathering of an illegitimate child upon her is the worst thing (or at least the worst thing that we know of) about Grover Cleveland. However, it was not his only seedy act. Another item from his personal life, which would amount to an icky scandal if it took place today, was the iffy relationship between Cleveland and the woman who became his eventual wife. The future First Lady, Frances Clara Cleveland Folsom (1864 – 1947).
Frances, who became and remains the youngest wife of a sitting president, was born in Buffalo, New York, the only child of Oscar Folsom, a lawyer and longtime close friend of Cleveland. When he was 27-years-old, the future president met his future wife shortly after she was born. Cooing over the newborn, Cleveland took an interest in baby Frances while she was still in swaddling clothes. He bought her a pram, used to babysit her as “Uncle Cleve”, and from the start, he doted on her.
Frances Folsom’s father was killed in an accident as he raced his carriage in 1875, and left no will. So a court-appointed Grover Cleveland to administer his deceased friend’s estate. That brought him in even closer and more frequent contact with Frances. Cleveland became her new father figure and her hero. Unlike Frances’ real father, who had been notoriously careless of both his life and his family, “Uncle Cleve” was dependable, quite attentive, and doted upon her. He continued to dote on her as she grew up, and at some point, he began to groom her.
Cleveland began to send Frances flowers, with notes that said things like “I am waiting for my bride to grow up”. People thought it was in jest, but Cleveland was in deadly earnest. After he was elected president and while Frances was in college, Cleveland sent her a letter in which he proposed marriage, and sweated her anticipated reply like a schoolboy. She agreed, and on June 2nd, 1886, as the Marine Band was conducted by John Philip Sousa, 21-year-old Frances Folsom wed the 49-year-old president in the White House’s Blue Room. To date, it is the only time a president was married in the White House or while in office.
America’s third president was a man of many contrasts. As a member of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote some of the most stirring words to have ever been penned in the cause of freedom, liberty, and equality. The phrase at the start of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries.
Yet, Jefferson pursued his happiness as the master of a plantation and led a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves. He called human bondage a “moral depravity” and “a hideous blot”, thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature by which every human being had a right to personal liberty, and told anybody who would listen that it was necessary to end the detested institution. Those views were quite radical in the environment in which he grew up and lived. However, despite whatever he stated against human bondage, Jefferson owned slaves throughout his life.
Thomas Jefferson owned over 600 chattel slaves during his life. About 400 of them lived and worked in Monticello, and in any given year around 130 toiled on the plantation. He constantly monitored his human property to extract the maximum labor out of them and strove to increase their numbers through procreation – sometimes with his own personal participation. As he put it: “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years … an addition to the capital”. Many details of the lives of the hundreds enslaved at Monticello are lost to history. Slaves were denied access to education and literacy – to teach a slave to read and write was criminalized. So they seldom wrote down their experiences, and the era’s educated people seldom bothered to record the lives of slaves.
Jefferson owned 5000 acres, around eight square miles, near Charlottesville in central Virginia. He divided the property into separate farms for ease of management. The main one where he lived was a mountaintop plantation, Monticello, whose name means “little mountain” in Italian. Jefferson further divided each farm into “quarter farms”, run by an overseer and an allotment of slaves placed under his command. He further sought to divide the farms and split them into agricultural fields of forty acres each. Jefferson rode around his property on horseback every day to inspect the land and the human-chattel upon whose toil his solvency rested, a routine he maintained until his death at age 83.
4. The President and His System to Introduce Children to a Life of Slavery
America’s third president was usually meticulous in what he did, and that meticulousness extended to how he brought up and accustomed the children he owned to the lives of bondage that awaited them. He detailed his strategy for child labor in his Farm Book. A firm believer in the need to maximize the returns on his investment in human property, Jefferson wanted to get the most work possible out of his slaves and to start them on their labors as early as practicable. In their earliest years, Jefferson put the tots to work as babysitters and nurses. When girls reached sixteen, they began to spin yarn and weave clothes, while boys from ages ten to sixteen made nails.
Jefferson also put his child slaves (both male and female) to work in the tobacco fields: children had the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. Eventually, Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which called for less manual labor. So he had the children taught trades as an alternative to field toil. As he put it, his slave children must “go into the ground or learn trades”. Not one to miss a trick, Jefferson used food as an incentive to make the children work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes.
Thomas Jefferson had a clock installed on an exterior Monticello wall that only had an hour hand. Jefferson, who believed that blacks were racially inferior and “as incapable as children,” figured that hour increments were all that the slaves could understand or needed to know. He built cabins for the house slaves about a hundred yards from the mansion. The blacks who worked the fields were housed at a further distance from his abode. That way, they and the slavery in which they toiled were out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses.
Jefferson’s slaves originally lived in two-room cabins, with one family per room and a single shared doorway to the outside. From the 1790s onwards, the slaves were housed in single-room cabins, each with its own door. By the dismal standards of American slavery at the time, the lives of Jefferson’s slaves at Monticello were less terrible than average (whatever that means in the context of slavery). Their lot was still bad, but not as bad as a lot of most other slaves with most other masters. As seen below, Jefferson’s relationship with his slaves went beyond matters of forced labor.
Grover Cleveland was not the only American president who engaged in what would count as clear-cut violent criminality today. Thomas Jefferson had a creepy relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835) – although to call what went on between the two a “relationship” would not be accurate. Today, it would be considered a straightforward assault. Hemings was an enslaved woman, kept in bondage by a brutal system in which violence, including deadly violence, was used to coerce its victims and secure their compliance.
She had little choice about whether or not to submit to Jefferson’s demands. No more choice than a modern kidnapped victim who finds herself chained for years in some psychopath’s basement. Even if she had not been a slave, there would still have been something super creepy about the age disparity between Hemings and the master of Monticello. Jefferson was forty-four when he took Sally for his concubine. She was all of thirteen or fourteen. Even if she had been a willing participant, it would be considered statutory rape today; children that young simply lack the maturity to consent.
To make things creepier yet, Thomas Jefferson’s child concubine was also his dead wife’s sister and lookalike. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a slave woman and John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law. That made her the biological half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748 – 1782). Sally, who was nine years old when her half-sister died, looked a lot like the deceased Martha, and the resemblance only increased as she grew up. Jefferson missed his dead wife, so when her lookalike sister was thirteen or fourteen, he began to sleep with her.
Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings would make for an epic scandal if it had happened today, as it hits just about every icky button there is. Pedophilia? Check. Incest? Check. Violence, coercion, and assault? Check, check, and check. To add yet another dark layer to it all, Jefferson fathered six children upon Sally and kept them as his slaves. He eventually got around to freeing his children, but he never freed his concubine: Hemings was still Jefferson’s slave when he died in 1826.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading