David K. Ronka is a historical interpreter and former manager of special programs at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
It’s wintertime at Monticello. North winds whip across Thomas Jefferson’s “Little Mountain” and whistle through the naked limbs of poplars and mulberry trees and stately elms. I long for the return of spring. For early blossoms fluttering like Wordsworth’s daffodils in a soft, fragrant breeze. For vacationing families posing for selfies, for laughing schoolchildren chasing classmates across the lush April lawn. I long for glorious springtime at Monticello, a time of rebirth and renewal.
But it’s winter, and I’m thinking once again of January 1827, a time of great upheaval on the Monticello plantation. Jefferson had died the previous summer, on July 4, 1826. On that day, the 83-year-old author of the Declaration of Independence held some 200 men, women and children in bondage, nearly two-thirds of them at Monticello. One enslaved man at Monticello, Israel Gillette, would later recall Jefferson’s death as “an affair of great moment and uncertainty for us slaves,” because just five enslaved people would be freed in Jefferson’s will, he recalled, and “the rest of us were sold from the auction block.”
And so it was that on a bitter cold January day in 1827, six months after Jefferson’s death, 130 of those enslaved at Monticello — “130 VALUABLE NEGROES,” the bill of sale published in a local newspaper proclaimed in boldface — were put up for auction on Monticello’s grand West Portico.
Not all of Monticello’s enslaved workers stood at auction that day. The carpenter John Hemmings, for example, was one of five slaves set free in Jefferson’s will, and his wife, Priscilla, owned by Jefferson’s daughter Martha, also escaped the auction block. But I picture the two of them embracing each other for warmth as they grimly watched friends and loved ones separated from each other by their new owners. The head gardener, Wormley Hughes, also owned by Jefferson’s daughter, escaped the auction block, but his wife, Ursula, and eight of their children did not. So Hughes could only stand by and watch his family members be sold, one by one, to the highest bidders. And enslaved blacksmith Joseph Fossett, set free in Jefferson’s will, looked on as strangers competed for the chance to own his wife and his children.
Israel Gillette’s time of “great moment and uncertainty” indeed came to pass. And in the end, after frightened children had been separated from mothers, wives from husbands, sisters from brothers, to vanish from the mountaintop in so many horse-drawn carts bound for as many scattered destinations, the few enslaved people who remained behind in the frigid twilight could only await the coming of an ominous spring bereft of old friends and loved ones, bereft of joy, bereft of the sweet laughter of children.
Today’s visitors to Monticello often ask, “Was Jefferson a good slave owner?” Jefferson professed to hate the institution of slavery, calling it “an abominable crime” and a “hideous evil,” even while believing that he bestowed a kind of paternalistic benevolence upon his own slaves, whom he called “souls in my family.” Did Jefferson think of himself as a “good” slave owner? Almost certainly. But had he been alive on that January day in 1827 to witness the anguish of more than a hundred of the “souls in his family” sold, tallied and carted off his “Little Mountain” as commodities, I wonder if he might then have at last wept at the misery he had wrought.
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