Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University
Interviewer: Thank you for consenting to this interview Mr. President.
Jefferson: I should thank you. I have been held incommunicado for 187 years as penance for failing to free my slaves.
Interviewer: Incommunicado? Then you must not know that President Lincoln abolished slavery by proclamation on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War.
Jefferson: Civil War?
Interviewer: Yes, just 34 years after your death. It concerned slavery. Ultimately, the pro-slavery states seceded and it took the pro-union, anti-slavery states five bloody years of war to defeat them.
Jefferson: The President can’t just abolish slavery. I don’t know who this Lincoln was, but his unilateral action far exceeds Presidential authority. What about Congress? What about the Constitution?
Interviewer: Two years and much maneuvering after Lincoln’s proclamation, the Congress backed Lincoln’s action by voting to amend the Constitution. The necessary majority of states then ratified it.
Jefferson: Were slave owners compensated?
Interviewer: No. But I have just been reminded that the rules for this interview require us to speak only about education.
Jefferson: I’m sorry. It’s just that there is so much I have missed. Anyway, I suppose you know that I championed public education all my adult life. Only an enlightened people can support a democracy. That is why I tried to establish universal male education in tax-supported schools.
Interviewer: I understand you wanted to use schooling to create a “natural American aristocracy.”
Jefferson: Yes, I much prefer a natural aristocracy based on brains and hard work to a pseudo-aristocracy based on wealth. I envisioned a selection process in which every free child would get three years of local free primary education. Families could pay for more. The academically talented few would move on to grammar schools free of charge. Parents willing and able to pay could send their children too. Then the best half of the grammar school class would have the opportunity to study for three more years at university at public expense.
Interviewer: Did you imagine these people rising to positions of leadership in the democracy?
Jefferson: Absolutely. That was the point of the graduated system —to rake the geniuses from the rubbish.
Interviewer: Why do you think your idea failed?
Jefferson: It was ahead of its time — although the Virginia legislature did approve my tax-supported university concept.
Interviewer: But what of their failure to support your basic education proposal?
Jefferson: Elementary education is more important than university education. It is safer to have the whole male population enlightened than only a select few, as in Europe. Their decision to raise the apex of the pyramid without the foundation was a big mistake.
Interviewer: You mentioned schooling only the male population. Why?
Jefferson: Women should be confined to a more rarefied and less contentious domain than men; and are properly excluded from public affairs, No effort need be made to educate them in any way that is not useful in their place as wives and mothers. Their interests should be chiefly housekeeping and childbearing.
Interviewer: I see. You also said you championed public schooling for every FREE child. I assume that means you excluded slaves?
Jefferson: Yes I did. In my experience, black people are in reason much inferior. I never knew of a black person capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid. But despite the imbecility of blacks and their general lack of foresight, I always favored their emancipation and thought such would eventually become a law in Virginia
Interviewer: Imbecility and general lack of foresight?
Jefferson: Yes, for example, though they receive blankets very thankfully on the commencement of winter, when the warm weather returns they frequently cast them off, without any thought as to what may become of them, wherever they happen to be at the time, and then not seldom lose them in the woods or fields from mere carelessness.
Interviewer: But your own records show that you only allowed them a blanket every three years and your overseers often failed to deliver those.
Jefferson: Well, no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I myself entertain and express on the grade of understanding allotted them by nature.
Interviewer: But you owned black men who learned to be skilled coopers, painters, smiths, glazers, gourmet cooks, and so forth. Some were even capable of building you a carriage and making real your house designs. In fact it was you who pioneered in the industrialization and diversification of slavery with your gristmill, textile mill, nailery, coopering shop, tin-smithing operation, and so forth. Your estate at Monticello was utterly dependent on this black talent.
Jefferson: Yes, thank you for reminding me of the many instances of respectable intelligence in that race of men. But learning a trade is different than managing one’s own life. In the 1770’s when the Quakers freed slaves the experiment failed miserably and it soon became obvious that they had set free a parcel of lazy, worthless, Negroes. Brought from their infancy without necessity for thought or forecast, negroes are by their habits rendered as incapable of children of taking care of themselves and raising young. In the meantime they are pests in society by their idleness, and the depredations to which this leads them. The march of emancipation takes time. Just abandoning persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children.
Interviewer: Perhaps they simply were too valuable to be set free. Your own calculations reveal how financially essential slavery was for maintaining Monticello’s profitability. And that Quaker experiment you label a failure actually proved successful. What is more, while in Philadelphia, you must have observed its prosperous community of free black Americans who had clearly mastered literacy, marketable skills and independent living.
Jefferson: Well I heard the Quaker experiment was an abject failure. And I am still waiting to find a natural aristocrat among the men of this race. It is not their condition but nature which has made them inferior. They are equal to whites in memory, but in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.
Interviewer: Do you recall, while you were Secretary of State, receiving a lengthy letter and a complex Almanac containing much astronomic data both written by a free black man named Benjamin Banneker? In the letter he tried to persuade you to stop publishing statements about the alleged inferiority of blacks, made a persuasive case for there being only one human family and scolded you and the other framers of the Declaration of Independence for hypocritically tolerating the “groaning captivity and cruel oppression” of his brethren.
Jefferson: Yes, I recall both, and frankly I think Banneker had help in developing the astronomical calculation for that almanac. So far as his letter is concerned, it shows him to have a mind of very common stature indeed.
Interviewer: Let’s turn to the hundreds of black children you owned, worked, used as collateral and sold for profit over your lifetime. How were they educated?
Jefferson: Most of the boys worked at my forge learning to turn iron rods into nails.
Interviewer: Yes, I read that the labor of the nail boys provided completely for the maintenance of your family.
Jefferson: It was a profitable enterprise.
Interviewer: Were the boys returned to their mothers at the end of the day?
Jefferson: No. Those who worked at the forge lived there. Initially I housed my slaves without regard for family ties. Later I allowed families to live together, but only until the children were put to work.
Interviewer: Was it difficult to teach children to forge nails?
Jefferson: Slaves of any age can often be a burden, and these boys were no exception. It took a stern hand to keep them in line. I recall my son-in-law complaining that the overseer was whipping the small ones. The 10, 11 and 12 year olds did not take kindly to beginning work an hour before dawn, so the overseer whipped them for truancy.
Interviewer: When you learned of them, did you stop these whippings?
Jefferson: I abhor that sort of thing. But some people require vigor of discipline to make them do reasonable work. Besides the small ones had to be kept busy; and building their character required them to be policed. So far as the overseer is concerned, I could never find a man who fulfilled my purposes as well as that fellow. I recall him asking his pay be based on nail production, and when I agreed production soared.
Interviewer: Were the nail boys taught to read and write?
Jefferson: No, they were taught to forge nails. But the most diligent could ultimately expect to be trained as artisans and not to become common field slaves.
Interviewer: What about the slave girls you owned? What were they taught?
Jefferson: From age 10 to 16 they learned to spin and weave; then most of them, the least skilled, would go into the ground.
Interviewer: When you were a young man you championed emancipation. But as your estate became more elaborate, your lifestyle more opulent and your slaves more plentiful, your ardor for emancipation cooled. In fact, when you became secretary of state, vice president and twice president you not only failed to use your great authority try to end slavery, you actually promoted its establishment in the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Was there a connection between your dimming enthusiasm for emancipation and the increasing weight slavery gave your pocketbook?
Jefferson: No, not at all. I favored emancipation all my life, but came to realize that it had to be very gradual in order to lessen the shock which an operation so fundamental could not fail to produce. Besides, American slaves were better fed and clothed than England’s workers and labored less.
Interviewer: Throughout your lifetime you repeatedly expressed an abhorrence of race mixing. Yet Jeff Randolph, your grandson, reported that you had a parallel family living on the mountain. He also said you made no effort to conceal the resemblance between yourself and the slave children being brought up as house servants at Monticello.
Jefferson: This interview is supposed to be about education; and I think we should bring it to a close.
Interviewer: Thank you Mr. President.
Jefferson’s actual quotes were used in the construction of this “interview.” While minor modifications were made to fit them to this format, his thoughts and sentiments remain intact. For a detailed treatment of Jefferson and his slaves see: Henry Wiencek. Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2012). For extensive bibliographies on Thomas Jefferson, race, and slavery, see “Thomas Jefferson and Slavery,” Monticello.org, The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.