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, August 18, 2008

Edmund Bacon Takes the Job

I’ve been examining the burning question (really, you wouldn’t believe how much this means to some folks) of when Edmund Bacon (1785-1866) started working for Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. According to documents from that slave-labor plantation, Bacon was definitely its “manager,” or overseer, from September 1806 to October 1822. But Bacon’s recollections, published in Jefferson at Monticello in 1862, say he arrived some years before.

Here’s how Bacon said that happened, from chapter 2 of that book:

I was born March 28, 1785, within two or three miles of Monticello, so that I recollect Mr. Jefferson as far back as I can remember anybody. My father and he were raised together, and went to school together.

My oldest brother, William Bacon, had charge of his estate during the four years he was Minister to France [1784-89]. After he was elected President, he told my father he wanted an overseer, and he wished to employ my brother William again. But he was then quite an old man, and very well off, and did not wish to go.
William Bacon’s name does not appear in Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book or the original document on the list of top “stewards,” managers, and overseers of the Jefferson properties in the 1780s . I wonder if he had some lower job. His little brother Edmund wasn’t even born until 1785, so he might well have misremembered William’s role.

William Bacon was born in 1763. If he worked at Monticello in the mid-1780s, then he would just have reached his majority at age twenty-one when Jefferson went to France. It looks to me like helping to run a big plantation was a way for a young man to earn money to invest in his own farm, and to gain experience managing slaves and crops before doing so.

That expectation would explain why Edmund Bacon recalled his brother as being “quite an old man” when Jefferson was seeking a new overseer in the early 1800s. William Bacon was then only in his late thirties—but he might have felt himself to be too old to go back to working for someone else. By that time, over ten years after he had reportedly worked at Monticello, William Bacon had a wife, a son, and a farm of his own.

So, according to Edmund Bacon’s account, Jefferson went with his second choice:
He then inquired of my father if he could not spare me. He replied that he thought I was too young. I was his youngest son, and not of age yet. Mr. Jefferson requested him to send me to see him about it. . . .

When my father told me Mr. Jefferson wanted to employ me, I was keen to go; and I determined that if he employed me, I would please him, if there was any such thing. When I went to see him, he told me what he wanted me to do, gave me good advice, and said he would try me, and see how I would get along. I went to live with him 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.
Jefferson at Monticello therefore dated the start of Bacon’s work to 27 Dec 1800. But it didn’t say that he was hired as a “manager.” He was “employed” as Jefferson thought appropriate for a teenager, “not of age yet.”

As a minor, Bacon couldn’t sign contracts. Any wages he earned legally belonged to his father, and adolescents usually worked only for room, board, and clothing anyway. Those circumstances might explain why Edmund Bacon’s name doesn’t appear in Monticello’s accounts regularly until 1806, the year in which he turned twenty-one.

It seems significant that less than half a year after Edmund Bacon came of age, Jefferson definitely made him manager of all of Monticello—in the middle of his second presidential term, when he knew he himself would be busy in Washington. Jefferson put a lot of faith in young Bacon, faith which might have come from having employed him at lesser responsibilities for a while.

So do I accept the date of 27 Dec 1800 as when Edmund Bacon came to Monticello, not as manager but as a lower-level employee? Nope.

TOMORROW: Did you notice that Bacon’s own dates don’t add up?

(The thumbnail image above is a portrait of Steven Edenbo as a young Thomas Jefferson, painted by Pamela Patrick White. Bigger image here. I saw some notecards and prints of this image on the Boston Common on Saturday, and thought people might like to know where to order their own.)

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