Thomas Jefferson’s child slaves toiled in his tobacco fields: children were the right height to reach and kill tobacco worms. When Monticello shifted from tobacco to wheat, which required less manual labor, Jefferson 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“. He used food to make the kids work harder: if they did a good job, they got more food. If they were particularly diligent, they might also get new clothes. Jefferson had a clock installed on a 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.
Jefferson had cabins built for the house slaves about a hundred yards from and facing the mansion. Blacks who worked the fields were housed further away. That way, they and their backbreaking labor would be out of his sight in both the literal and figurative senses. Originally, Jefferson’s slaves 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. Their lot was still quite horrible, but not as horrible as the lot of most other slaves with most other masters.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading