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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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Edmund Bacon’s Twenty Years

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting book is forthcoming: William Hyland's IN DEFENSE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON: Unravelling the Sally Hemings Sex Scandal, proving beyond every reasonable doubt that that the evidence against Thomas Jefferson is not only lacking, but in fact Jefferson was entirely innocent of the charge of having sexual relations with his servant, Sally Hemings, Thomas Dunne Books, for publication in Spring 2009.

J. L. Bell said...

That’s the same language used to announce this book deal through Publishers Lunch this week.

Late summer 2008 to spring 2009 is a fast turnaround for a book, indicating that the manuscript is complete. Cville, linked above, suggests it comes from material Hyland prepared for a mock “trial.” I’ve seen a couple of attempts at such legal approaches, and find it silly to try to apply courtroom standards to the history of private behavior of 200 years ago. There’s a reason we have statutes of limitation and other timers in the legal system; as decades pass, evidence that meets trial rules is harder to find. By courtroom standards, it would be difficult to “prove” many events of the Revolutionary War happened.

Hyland published a “brief” arguing one side of the issue—which is what a brief is supposed to do. Will his book be a complete consideration of the evidence by equitable standards? Hyland seems to have taken on an especially heavy burden, not only arguing that the evidence for a Jefferson-Hemings affair is inconclusive, but that the evidence shows Jefferson was “entirely innocent.”

One common trait of many books and other writings trying to respond to the evidence in favor of a Jefferson-Hemings sexual relationship is the authors’ belief that there would be something wrong with such a relationship—more wrong than him just keeping his wife’s half-sister in bondage. Thus, we get book titles like In Defense of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson Vindicated, and rhetoric about “guilt,” “suspects,” and so on.

Books arguing that the evidence for a relationship is strong tend not to be so judgmental about the possibility of sex between Jefferson and Hemings, though they might be more quick to condemn the slavery system overall. (I can’t help but note that the description of this book calls Hemings a “servant” rather than “slave.”)

On Boston 1775 I’m happy to see news of upcoming books of interest, but I do like to know if that news comes from someone involved in the books. And to keep commenters sorted out I ask people to sign their comments or use a pseudonym, eighteenth-century style. Thank you.