When you do the math, slavery was legal in Virginia for longer than it has been illegal. The ‘peculiar institution’ was such a defining force in the history of the state that even today, scar tissue is everywhere.
The exploitation began ludicrous early—the first record of Africans being sold to Virginia colonists is 1619, and Virginia was one of the first states to acknowledge slavery in its legal charter, enacting a code of slavery laws in 1661. By 1680, slavery was Virginia’s dominant labor system and by the mid-eighteenth century, slaves made up 40% of Virginia’s population.
Slave owners of this era typically described their human chattel as docile, content and loyal, but it’s fair to say that this was rhetoric: The fear of a slave rebellion could never have been far from their thoughts. The first recorded slave uprising happened in Hispaniola in 1522, and throughout the subsequent centuries, a number of revolts took place, including a particularly bloodthirsty one in 1712 that began (of all places) on Broadway in Manhattan, in what today is the Financial District.
Predictably, the colonists did not take kindly to this sort of back-talk, and in the wake of the 1712 New York rebellion, seventy African Americans were arrested, and the ensuing executions were as pathologically cruel as they come: Twenty convicted slaves were burned at the stake, a few were starved to death, and at least one was ‘broken on the wheel’—a particularly gruesome death wherein the victim is lashed to a large wheel and beaten with an iron cudgel; the gaps between the spokes allow the limbs to break more easily.
Swift retaliation and merciless punishment was not enough to dissuade Nat Turner from staging what was perhaps the most famous slave rebellion since Spartacus. Turner was born in Southampton County, Virginia in 1800, and was known to have been a remarkably intelligent man; he learned to read at an early age—rare for a slave—and displayed a profound and unshakable faith in Christianity. As a young adult, Turner believed that God spoke to him through visions that often appeared to him while he was fasting. One such revelation instructed Turner to ‘slay enemies with their own weapons’, and a solar eclipse on February 11, 1831 convinced him that the time to act was nigh.
At that time, Southampton was predominantly black, and in the subsequent months, Turner began to purchase muskets and enlist a gang of disgruntled slaves and a handful of freed blacks, many of whom had been congregants at the Baptist church where he preached. Locally, he was known as ‘The Prophet’. A second solar phenomenon occurred on August 21, 1831—the sun turned green in what may have been an atmospheric condition linked to an eruption of Mount St. Helens. In any case, Turner took it as a shot from some celestial starting pistol, and over the next few days, Turner and Co. did what every white slave owner throughout the South harbored as a primal fear: They murdered them in their beds.
Turner’s rebellion was the most savage slave revolt in American history; over the next two days, the gang slaughtered about sixty white slave-owning families, sparing only those local sharecroppers too poor to own slaves.
As might have been expected, once the revolt was quashed by hastily mustered militia, Turner and about seventy of his cohorts were summarily executed, and at least two hundred black men and women were slain over the next few weeks regardless of their involvement in the uprising.
This was the beginning of the end for slavery in America, though: The following year, the future of the institution was debated by the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond, and a number of delegates voted for emancipation. Ultimately, the legislation failed to pass, and instead, new laws were enacted that made it a crime for slaves to assemble in a church without the presence of a licensed white minister. The handwriting, written in blood, remained on the wall, and thirty-two years later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Turner would have been 63 years old.
All that would seem to be slumbering in some distant haze of history, but evidently, the fear of pissed-off black people remains alive and well in white Richmond. When I was arranging to meet my guide to Shockoe Hill Cemetery in downtown Richmond, the final resting place of Dr. Daniel Norton, I suggested 10 AM as a time to meet.
“We better make in noon,” he replied hastily. “That’s a bad part of town.”
I interpreted that (correctly) as meaning ‘There are a lot of black people there’.
Why noon is a distinctly safer time to be around black people than 10 AM I do not know and didn’t ask, but I reminded my guide that I’m from Detroit. There was a pause on the other end of the phone before he responded, oozing with sarcasm: “In that case, I’ll meet you there at midnight.”
Despite the neighborhood, I have little reason to assume that there are any black bodies interred at Shockoe. Until about 1970, private cemeteries like Woodland and Evergreen Cemeteries were the only cemeteries open to African Americans in the city of Richmond. The last frontier of Jim Crow, we can assume that when George Wallace said in his 1963 inaugural address, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrah, and segregation fo’ evah,” he really did extend the concept into eternity.
‘White Only’ graveyards in the land of the free and the brave are one thing, but nowhere is the Great American Dichotomy seen more poignantly and tragically than at Thomas Jefferson’s quintessential mansion-on-the-hill, Monticello. The man who penned the words, ‘All men are created equal’ as a self-evident truth and described ‘liberty’ as an unalienable right was (as we all know), a slave holder who—through inheritance, marriage, births and trade—owned more than six hundred slaves over the course of his life.
Many modern scholars refer to Jefferson’s relationship with slavery as ‘complex’—probably because ‘complex’ rolls off the tongue better than ‘hypocritical’. Apologists point out that, through Jefferson’s leadership, slave importation was banned in Virginia, making it one of the first jurisdictions in the world to ban the sale of human beings. But a closer look reveals that this was primarly an economic declaration, not a humanitarian one: It was a protest against the ‘taxation without representation’ Townshend Acts of 1767, meant to raise revenue for the bankrupt British Empire. One can argue that any decision that limited the importation and sale of African slaves was a positive, but the truth is, in the years following the Revolutionary War, slavery became more entrenched as an institution in Virginia, not less.
It’s also true that as President, Jefferson led the effort to ‘prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States from any foreign kingdom, place, or country’. He signed The Slave Trade Ban into law on March 2, 1807. In Notes on the State of Virginia, published in 1785, he purported that that slavery corrupted ‘both masters and slaves alike’ and supported the returning and colonization of freed slaves in Africa. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really emancipating a wrongly-enslaved American, it’s cranking the dial back to zero hour and pretending it never happened in the first place.
In any case, the reasons Jefferson had for not freeing his slaves in his lifetime may have been complex (he referred to slavery as ‘an abomination’ and the trade as ‘piratical warfare’) and they may been simple (notoriously inept in personal finance, his slaves were a vital asset he needed to list when he applied for a loan), but the fact is that he upon his death, he freed only five of his plantation load of slaves. And, in fact, he died so deeply in debt—more than a million dollars worth in today’s terms—that shortly afterwards his slaves and his beloved Monticello were sold off anyway. Whereupon, Jefferson’s grandson Jeff Randolph was legally obligated to assume the rest of the debt. In the end, the magnanimous and wholly progressive gesture of manumission—an archaic term for ‘freeing your slaves’—ultimately eluded the man who was willing to die for his own liberty and pursuit of his own happiness; a man who, if not the father of our country, is certainly our uncle.
In 1789, the first presidential election in the United States took place; the only election ever held in a year not a multiple of four. George Washington soundly defeated six other candidates, one of whom, ironically, was named Lincoln: Throughout the South, dozens of counties and towns and streets named ‘Lincoln’ are in honor of this Lincoln, not the other one. In Washington’s first cabinet, Thomas Jefferson accepted the post of Secretary of State and proceeded to quarrel incessantly with Alexander Hamilton over the establishment of a national bank.
That same year, twenty miles south of Washington in Charles County, Maryland, Josiah Henson was born. In 1789 there were around a million slaves in the United States, and Josiah was, in the most clichéd sense of the phrase, one in a million. His narrated memoirs were published in 1849, and although they initially received little public attention, ‘The Life of Josiah Henson’ was far more instrumental in bringing an end to slavery than Nat Turner’s ill-advised brouhaha. That’s because among Henson’s handful of groupies was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who turned his narrative into the anti-slavery blockbuster ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. The book went on to become second most popular book of the nineteenth century, surpassed only by the Bible. It sold over 300,000 copies in its first year, and—having been translated into all major languages—wound up swaying public opinion against slavery to such an extent that when Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Stowe in 1862, he is reported to have said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.”
The only known photograph of Josiah Henson depicts a noble-looking old gentleman with ebony skin and a ring of snow-white hair circling his head and chin. Yet he is an archetypal Uncle Tom in appearance only; far from being a shuffling lackey eager to do his master’s bidding, Stowe’s Tom stands up for his righteous anti-slavery cause and is admired even by his enemies. Josiah Henson escaped north, and aided by Native Americans, made it to Canada in 1830 where he lived the rest of his life as a free man.
By all accounts, Tom Jefferson’s Tom was named Bob. Prior to Jefferson leaving for France in 1784, Bob Hemings was Jefferson’s ‘bodyservant’, meaning that he shaved and dressed his Monticello master, attended him on horseback, waited on his table and drove his phaeton when it needed driving. Bob was also the brother of the most renowned of Jefferson’s slaves, Sally Hemings, with whom the randy old red-head had six children.
Thomas Jefferson may rightly be regarded as a literary whiz-bang—a polymath who wrote scholarly pieces about science, architecture, music, agriculture, law, education, geography, and music—but naming slaves does not appear to have been among his core competencies: A roster collected by Sylvest-Sarah Heritage Oak, dedicated to ‘promoting a better understanding of the African American experience’ shows that Jefferson owned ten slaves named Sarah, eleven named Suckey and twenty named Sally.
Tours of the Monticello estate, which sits in the center of Virginia wine country, are offered on the hour. It is, to liberty lovers (especially of the brand that listen to Right Wing radio and preachers who are closet Republicans) what Graceland is to rock and rollers: Mecca.
I took the tour primarily because I was interested in seeing Jefferson’s lauded vineyards, but I was equally curious about how the National Historic Landmark would handle the inconvenient but unavoidable fact that the neoclassical hilltop villa, filled with both architectural antecedents and Jefferson’s own design solutions, meant to introduce a new style of architecture to a new style of nation, was built almost entirely by slaves.
To their credit, the estate’s current caretakers (the non-profit Thomas Jefferson Foundation) neither dodge the issue nor ballyhoo it. A highlight of the tour is Mulberry Row, a thousand foot walkway lined with slave cabins (including Sally Heming’s) and a number of business enterprises that Jefferson launched in a never-ending attempt to make the plantation profitable. Still standing is a nail-making hut adjacent to the smithery for which Jefferson held out high hopes: As many as fourteen young men, aged ten to 16, hammered out nails ranging in size from six-pennies to twenty-pennies or used the nail-cutting machine to make four-penny brads from hoop iron, and it did, apparently, generate sufficient income to make it a key industry for Monticello. The weaver’s cottage also survives, as does the tall chimney of the joinery. Everywhere, on the plaques in front of these landmarks, the folks who once labored here as referred to as ‘enslaved artisans’; a touching conciliation both to their status and their skills.
Down the slope from the slave cabins, beneath the garden wall, are Jefferson’s grape vines—at least, the site where he originally planted them. The restored vineyard, replanted in 1983, is under the care of Gabriele Rausse, who also produces wine from grapes grown on the estate. Rausse is considered one of the founding fathers of Virginia’s wine renaissance, and when asked if his Italian heritage had anything to do with his choice of grafts, including Mammolo Toscano, Trebbiano, Malvasia Bianca and Sangiovese, he replied, “Actually, these are among the 24 varieties that Jefferson planted here in 1807, which he obtained from the American consul in Livorno, Italy. The American consul went to the Botanical Garden in Florence, asked the director to get some vines for him. About half of them were of Italian origin. When the consul asked the director of the Botanical Garden which cultivar would make the best wine, he was told, ‘Any of them, if you have a good winemaker.’”
As it happened, you also need a good botanist on board the ship for the return voyage, because by the time the vines arrived at Monticello, most of them were already dead. At least, of the 287 vines and cuttings Jefferson planted, (the most ambitious of his seven major vineyard experiments with vinifera cultivars), few took root.
Another irony within Jefferson’s life here stands out: Although he was an avid wine drinker—the closest America has ever had to a wino president, a man who spent 13% of his salary on wine every year he was in office—as well as a collector of Europe’s finest Bordeaux and Burgundies, and although he was also an avid gardener who spent decades trying to cultivate various vines for winemaking, he never made a single bottle of wine.
The reasons for Jefferson’s viticulture failures may be as complex as his attitude toward slavery: In the the early nineteenth century, there was no real fix for the insects that ravage vines in the humid Virginian climate, with berry moths and flea beetles above ground and aphid like phylloxera below. Also, he may have underestimated the number of vines he’d have to grow to make any appreciable quantity of wine. Thirdly, and perhaps most interesting, there have been several ‘Little Ice Ages’ in America’s recorded history, and the NASA Earth Observatory notes three particularly cold intervals: One began around 1650, another about 1770 and the last in 1850, each separated by intervals of slight warming. In the winter of 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. In London, the Thames River froze annually throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and never since.
Beneath Monticello, there is a 256 square foot ice house which Jefferson used to store ice cut from the Rivanna River. Records indicate that the annual caravan carrying ice blocks to the cellar was often 60 wagons long, and yet, in the forty years that Gabriele Rausse has been hanging around the plantation, he claims he has never seen the river freeze—not even once. Although a mini ice age may mean an overall drop in mean temperature of only a few degrees, in terms of agriculture, that’s significant, and could easily mean the difference between a vine surviving and not.
On the other hand, according to Frank Morgan, a Virginia-based wine writer who has read Jefferson’s extensive agriculture notes, the reason Jefferson never made wine may be, like his attitude toward slavery, rather simple: It may not have been that important to him.
Said Frank, “We may have overstated Jefferson’s drive to make wine; his charts and tables are those of a plant collector, not a winemaker. He was experimenter rather than a serious vintner. When the 1807 scheme failed, probably because the vines were dead or not planted properly, he became more committed to the possibilities of native American vines, always on the lookout for the ‘right’ grape for Virginia’s microclimate.”
Further irony: It may have been, quite literally, under his nose all along. In the final years of Jefferson’s life, when he was deep in retirement and scrambling to cover debts, in nearby Richmond, Dr. Daniel Norton was experimenting with crossbreeding grapes with the selfsame mission statement as the Sage of Monticello. In 1824, two years before Jefferson died, his Richmond agent Bernard Peyton sent him a box of cuttings from a remarkable hybridized cultivar then called ‘Virginia Seedling’, describing it as ‘perhaps the best stimulus to Virginia viticulture.’
Alas, although Dr. Norton had first developed the grape in 1815, it was a decade late in getting to Monticello and Jefferson died before he could prove it out.
In the end, a dying Jefferson held a personal clock-watch beginning around the first of July, 1826. He was under the supernatural impression that he was destined to die on Independence Day. Throughout the course of his fascinating life, Thomas Jefferson had gotten many things right and many things wrong, but never so piteously and simultaneously as was revealed in his final words, “This is the fourth…?”
In fact, he’d woken up in the late evening of July 3 and believed that he’d slept into the morning of the following day. Nicholas Trist, the husband of Jefferson’s granddaughter Virginia Randolph, claimed that he nodded in assent, even though he considered the gentle lie to be ‘repugnant’.
Satisfied, Jefferson slid into a coma, but manage to survive until 4 AM on the Fourth of July.
Slavery managed to survive for another forty years, but the death knell had begun to toll during Jefferson’s tenure on earth. It remains spilled ink on our Declaration of Independence, and spilled blood on our national conscience, but the Thomas Jefferson Foundation handles the truth with grace and candor, giving credit where credit is due and placing blame where it belongs: On a man who wrote eloquent prose in opposition to the most peculiar of institutions, who could win converts by the poetry of his politics but couldn’t quite bring himself to practice what he preached.