In my continuing discussion of Edmund Bacon (1785-1866), long-time manager of Thomas Jefferson’s slave-labor plantation Monticello, I quoted how Hamilton W. Pierson, author of Jefferson at Monticello, understood Bacon said he had started work:
I went to live with him [Jefferson] the 27th of the December before he was inaugurated as President; and if I had remained with him from the 8th of October to the 27th of December, the year that I left him, I should have been with him precisely twenty years.Monticello records show that Bacon managed the slave-labor plantation until October 1822. Jefferson was inaugurated as President in March of 1801, meaning the previous December was in 1800. That adds up to slightly less than twenty-two years, not slightly less than “precisely twenty.”
How do we account for that discrepancy? Bacon obviously had a lot of pride in having worked for Jefferson for “twenty years.” That figure shows up over and over in Pierson’s book. Yet in the passage above, Bacon was scrupulous about acknowledging that he was short of two full decades.
If Bacon had actually worked for Jefferson for nearly twenty-two years, then he would have had no reason to mention that 8 October–27 December gap. On the other hand, if Bacon had actually come to Monticello in 1806 (the earliest his name appears in its account books) and was exaggerating about having worked there “twenty years,” why did he pull back and say it was actually nineteen years and nine months? As long as he was lying about it, why not claim the whole twenty?
Another possible piece in this puzzle is in the University of Virginia library: Bacon’s memoranda book, which has been dated as “1802-22.” Not having seen that document, I’m not certain it contains notes about Monticello that can be firmly dated to 1802. But if it does, it’s obviously a strong clue about Bacon’s arrival.
I suspect Bacon’s count of the years was exact, but he had a faulty understanding or memory of what was going on when he arrived at Monticello, or didn’t communicate it clearly to Pierson. I would guess that Bacon started work for Jefferson on 27 Dec 1802, when he was seventeen years old. The President was then preparing to return to Washington, D.C., for the new congressional term. Young Bacon might have mistaken that activity for Jefferson’s preparations to be “inaugurated as President,” or Pierson might have gotten that impression from the older Bacon’s remarks. (Jefferson at Monticello never states when Bacon left the site, so Pierson apparently didn’t realize when the twenty years had ended.)
From 1803 to mid-1806, I would guess, Bacon worked as an apprentice of sorts around Monticello, gradually taking on larger responsibilities. According to his recollection of the schoolboys’ brawl in the garden (which I estimate as taking place around 1804, though it could have been later), Bacon was then working at the mill and had custody of the keys to the main house and garden. Within months after he came of age, Bacon was in charge of the whole place.
COMING UP: What all this has to do with Sally Hemings’s children.