JEFFERSON, Thomas. Autograph manuscript signed twice ("Th:Jefferson"), being a list of his "Property in Bedford and Campbell Counties taxed by the general government" (including slaves, land and furniture), the verso with a summary list of "Property in Bedford and Campbell taxed by the State" (including slaves, livestock, land and furniture). Monticello [Virginia], 11 February 1815. 1½ pages, 4to (251 x 203mm.), minor wear at two fold intersections (just catching a letter in signature on verso), oblong seal tear at bottom edge of the sheet, a few minor marginal defects (mended), otherwise in excellent condition.
THE THIRD PRESIDENT AS SLAVE OWNER AND TAXPAYER: JEFFERSON'S REGISTER OF LAND, FURNITURE, LIVESTOCK AND 85 SLAVES AT HIS POPLAR FOREST RETREAT
A DOCUMENT THAT FURNISHES A REMARKABLE WINDOW INTO THE MOST TROUBLING AND PERPLEXING ASPECT OF JEFFERSON'S LIFE: HIS OWNERSHIP OF SLAVES
A manuscript apparently drawn up by the retired President in order to calculate his liabilities to new Federal and state tax levies on land, slaves, livestock and household furniture imposed in the wake of the costly War of 1812. Jefferson owned property in Albemarle County, site of Monticello, and in Bedford and Campbell Counties, where his upland retreat, Poplar Forest, was situated. The present painstaking inventory may also have been part of a general review of assets undertaken at this time due to Jefferson's growing financial difficulties, national economic turmoil and bank failures in the wake of the recent war. (Only six days before he compiled this list, the retired President had learned that Congress had voted to accept Jefferson's offer to sell his library to the nation, providing badly needed funds that helped him discharge some of his most pressing debts.) This revealing, previously unpublished document provides a unique record of the Poplar Forest establishment and its slave population at this key period.
In it, Jefferson carefully enumerates the 85 slaves resident at Poplar Forest in three neat columns, arranging them in descending order by age, for tax purposes. At the top of the first column, he lists 71-year old James Hubbard (believed to have been employed in earlier years in Jefferson's nail-manufacturing enterprise), who is the only slave listed with both surname and given name. In the case of Abby, age 61, Jefferson carefully notes "(age unknown)." Nearly all the individuals under 18 years of age are listed by given name, followed by the name of their mother, to ditinguish individuals of the same name Several middle-aged slaves are similarly listed, beginning with 44-year-old "Hannah. Cate's" 38-year-old "Maria. Cate's" and 37-year-old "Sal. Will's." In column three the list ends with infants under one year of age, also with mothers' names: "Solomon. Cate's," "Ellen. Nanny's" and "Gabriel. Mary's." It is interesting to note the relative youth of Poplar Forest's slave population; no fewer than 39 individuals listed are aged 12 or under; 40 are below age 18. The inventory furnishes no details as to the trade or work performed by each of the slaves listed, although in many cases this information can be gleaned from other documentation, especially Jefferson's Farm Book, which records activities on Jefferson's plantations from 1774 to 1826 (Ms. in Massachusetts Historical Society, facsimile with commentary in Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book, ed. E.M. Betts, 1987). The list may be instructively compared to two other Poplar Forest slave inventories in the Farm Book, dated April 1810 and 1822 (pp.129, 131), with lists of food and clothing allocations, and with another, separate manuscript record of bedding distributions, ca.1811, in the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia.
After carefully listing Poplar Forest's slave population, Jefferson adds a line of decorative penwork, then itemizes his taxable land holdings: 2,184 acres containing Poplar Forest, plus five smaller, non-contiguous tracts: 214 acres of "Dan Robinson's patent," 29 acres "from Ben Johnson," 380 acres constituting "Callaway's patent," 183 acres for "John Robinson's patent," and finally 800 acres--probably a rough estimate--of land "on Buffalo waters," for a grand total of "3,790 acres in Bedford & Campbell" counties. After another line of penwork, Jefferson adds a note regarding taxes he may owe for the furniture at Poplar Forest: "Furniture tax. I have not seen the law of Congress imposing this. According to the newspaper statement beds, bedding & kitchen furniture is exempt, & where the rest of the furniture of a house does not exceed 200.D[ollars] it pays nothing. I consider my furniture at Poplar Forest as under that value. But of this the Assessor will judge for himself on an examination of the furniture."
On the verso, Jefferson has summarized "Property in Bedford and Campbell taxed by the State." Under both Virginia's and the Federal tax code, slaves were taxed at different rates, depending upon age, so Jefferson's tally lists "46 slaves of 12 years old & upwards @ 80. Cents," and  "of 9 years and under 12 @ 50 [cents]." After recording the totals for his slaves, which constitute the lion's share of property taxed by the state ($56.30 of a total $63.74), Jefferson tallies livestock: "12 horses and colts," "39 cattle"; and furniture: "4 bookcases with mahogany sashes," "3 parts of Dining tables mahogany," "4 Pembroke tables, say teatables, mahogany." (Poplar Forest, as might be expected, was more sparsely furnished than Monticello.) The grand total of these tax assessments comes to $63.74. Beneath, Jefferson notes that his holdings in Bedford and Campbell counties comprise "3790 acres of land @ 85 cents on the 100.D. value," and the Poplar Forest home itself: "a Dwelling house (of more than 500 D. value)."
THOMAS JEFFERSON'S 'WOLF BY THE EARS'
Despite strong moral objections to the institution of slavery--expressed in his 1781 Notes on Virginia and elsewhere--and his ringing phrases in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming man's "inalienable rights" and birthright of freedom, Jefferson's own lifelong acquiescence in slavery at Monticello and Poplar Forest remains paradoxical, perplexing and deeply discordant. Ironically, while Jefferson himself "asked to be judged by his acts rather than by his words, he emerges with greater luster if he is judged by his words rather than by his deeds." (J.C. Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, p.277). If, as another historian has observed, "Jefferson's record on slavery can only be judged by the values of his contemporaries and by the consistency between his own professed beliefs and actions" (David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823, p.183), then any evidence which sheds light upon the sizeable slave communities at Monticello or Poplar Forest takes on particular human and historical relevance.
In a famous letter of August 1814 to Edward Coles--a Virginian whose repugnance for slavery induced him to sell his Virginia lands, move to Ohio and emancipate his slaves--Jefferson wrote of those enslaved: "My opinion has always been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown in our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed willingly by freemen & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them." (Writings, ed. M.D. Peterson, Library of America, p.1346). And, "while he arraigned slavery before the bar of conscience as 'a hideous evil,' at Monticello [and at Poplar Forest] its aspect was, at least outwardly, benign" (Miller, p.105). Although the retired President declined Coles' persuasive urgings that he take an active role in opposition to slavery in Virginia--pleading that it was not a crusade for an elderly man but rather one for the rising generation--he confidently assured Coles that "the hour of emancipation is advancing, in the march of time. It will come," he added, "whether by bloody revolution, as in Santa Domingo," or else "by the generous energy of our own minds" (Writings, p.1345).
But while fellow slave-owner George Washington had manumitted his Mount Vernon slaves in his will, for Jefferson the opportunity to act according to the "generous energy of his own mind" never seemed to materialize, and he remained haunted both by the nightmarish vision of a bloody slave insurrection, and by the grim specter of bitter sectional conflict over the issue, his famous "firebell in the night." During his long retirement, Jefferson--for reasons that defy simplistic assessment, but perhaps due to a combination of political considerations, personal financial crises, and simple moral failing--freed only a handful of his own slaves (relatives of Sally Hemings) and moreover chose not to take an active, public role in opposing slavery and its spread. But he continued "to philosophize about the moral evil of slavery, to warn his countrymen of the divine chastisement they were inviting by their intransigence, and to plant ideas in his wide-ranging correspondence which he hoped others would bring to fruition."
Nevertheless, in the judgment of many "nothing was more telling than the fact that he remained a slaveowner all his life" (John Chester Miller, The Wolf by the Ears: Thomas Jefferson and Slavery, pp.277-278). Jefferson's evolving philosophical position on slavery, his racial attitudes and his dealings with his slaves have become in recent decades the subject of intense scrutiny, speculation and heated debate, with interpretations ranging from outright apologetics to scathing indictment. Most recently, the discussion has been intensified by the revival of old charges, now at least partially supported by DNA evidence, that Jefferson may have fathered a least one and perhaps more children by his slave, Sally Hemings (for recent considerations see Sally Hemings & Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture, ed. J.E. Lewis and P.S. Onuf, 1999).
For these reasons, any new evidence--whether derived from genealogical investigation, new archival sources (although Jefferson's slaves themselves left few written records) or archeological studies at Poplar Forest and Monticello--furnishes invaluable insights in our continuing efforts to understand and interpret Jefferson's convictions and actual practices as a slave owner. Documentation such as this new list of the slaves at Poplar Forest in 1815 also provides tantalizing views of the sparsely documented lives of those who actually worked, raised families and died--as slaves--at Monticello and Poplar Forest. (Christie's is grateful for the assistance of Jefferson Looney, editor of Jefferson's retirement papers, for advice in the cataloguing of this remarkable manuscript.)
Provenance: Walter R. Benjamin, New York, neatly pencilled price code in pencil -- A Virginia collector, acquired at a local auction in the mid-1970s -The present owner, gift of the preceding.