J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 08, 2012

New Light on Childhood at Monticello

The latest issue of Smithsonian magazine features Henry Wiencek’s article “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson,” which can be read online here.

The article focuses on the management of the nail-making forge at Monticello, one of the new ways Jefferson sought to build his wealth through enslaved labor in the 1790s and afterward. Wiencek writes:
A letter has recently come to light describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work in Jefferson’s nail factory, whose profits paid the mansion’s grocery bills. This passage about children being lashed had been suppressed—deliberately deleted from the published record in the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, containing 500 pages of plantation papers. That edition of the Farm Book still serves as a standard reference for research into the way Monticello worked. . . .

It was during the 1950s, when historian Edwin Betts was editing one of Colonel [Thomas Mann] Randolph’s plantation reports for Jefferson’s Farm Book, that he confronted a taboo subject and made his fateful deletion. Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”

Betts decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed, omitting this document from his edition. He had an entirely different image in his head; the introduction to the book declared, “Jefferson came close to creating on his own plantations the ideal rural community.” Betts couldn’t do anything about the original letter, but no one would see it, tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The full text did not emerge in print until 2005.
This article is no doubt adapted from Wiencek’s new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. Wiencek is so far best known for An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, which I’ve found useful.

2 comments:

G. Lovely said...

Having recently done some work with the foundation that runs Monticello today, it's clear the struggle to present a factual story about both the man and the place continues. Beyond question a great man, but in many ways just a man of his times. Those that seek to present a fuller picture of the plantation's history are making progress, but is has been, and continues to be, a challenging effort.

J. L. Bell said...

My impression from a distance is that the professionals at Monticello are open to new evidence and interpretations based on it, but that some volunteers and some visitors resist such change. As in scientific revolutions, shifts in thinking occur gradually over the whole population and can be affected by factors beyond the evidence alone.