Jefferson and Slavery: A Response to David Barton on the Glenn Beck Show, Part Three

UPDATE: David Barton made many of the same defenses in his World Magazine article dated January 22, 2013. Barton concluded:

Simply put, Jefferson did not have the financial resources necessary to free his 260 slaves.

In these three articles about Jefferson and slavery we anticipate and address the rebuttal Barton offered in his World article. Barton claims that Jefferson didn’t have the money to free his slaves. However, Jefferson had enough money to buy and sell slaves over the course of his life while other owners were freeing their slaves. Barton changed his argument a bit in the World article putting more emphasize on Jefferson’s financial status. Jefferson’s spending deserves a book but suffice to say that Jefferson spent money freely on fine goods and continual renovations to Monticello. The truth is that Jefferson had financial resources (slaves, lands, goods, etc.) very few other Virginians had. His choices about how to use them is at issue.

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In parts one and two of this response to David Barton’s appearance on Glenn Beck’s show, we looked at Barton’s defense of The Jefferson Lies on the subject of Jefferson’s record on slavery. In this post, we look at the remaining claims regarding slavery made by Barton last week. Here again is the video:

Barton claimed that Jefferson inherited 187 slaves when he was 14 years. On the clip at about 4:37, Barton says:

He [Jefferson] inherited 187 slaves when he’s 14 years old. So why didn’t he just release them? Because Virginia law says if you’re an adolescent, you cannot free any slave you’ve been given, you cannot emancipate any slave. So now he’s got 187 slaves he’s not been allowed to free.

It is true that Jefferson inherited slaves at age 14, but Barton gets the number of slaves wrong. Jefferson inherited 20 slaves at that time. In Getting Jefferson Right, we address this matter and get our information right from Jefferson’s Farm Book.

To get the proper accounting, we turn to the primary source of Jefferson’s notes in his Farm Book. In it, Jefferson delineated three categories of slaves he owned as of January 14, 1774. Jefferson titled the entire section, “A Roll of the proper slaves of Thomas Jefferson. Jan. 14. 1774” and then listed forty-one slaves that came through inheritance from his father along with those slaves who were purchased or born before his inheritance from his mother [20 slaves plus 21 who were added via birth and purchase]. He then listed eleven “slaves conveyed by my mother to me under the power given her in my father’s will as an indemnification for the debts I had paid for her.”  Finally, he listed the “roll of the slaves of John Wayles which were allotted to T. J. in right of his wife on a division or the estate. Jan. 14. 1774.” Here Jefferson listed the 135 slaves he received by inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.* Adding these lists together, Jefferson owned 187 slaves by age thirty.

It may seem like a small point but for some reason Barton persists in saying Jefferson inherited the 187 when he was 14. Jefferson’s Farm Book (which you can see here; the total of 187 in 1774 is on page 18 at the bottom) says otherwise. While it is true that Jefferson was unable to free slaves when his father died in 1757, this was in part due to the fact that the only reason at that time allowed for emancipation was meritorious service on the part of a slave. The law allowing owners to emancipate slaves was not passed until 1782 (click here to see the text of the act to authorize the manumission of slaves).Barton then says on Beck’s show that someone told him that Jefferson could not free his slaves because they were collateral for his debts. While it is true that the Virginia legislature added a specific requirement in 1792 that freed slaves were required to work off any debts of the emancipator, this requirement actually could have made it an advantage for Jefferson to free his slaves. While the slaves would have had emancipation postponed until Jefferson’s debts were paid, they would have been free afterwards with Jefferson’s debt paid.  In other words, Virginia law allowed such emancipations but with rules in place to protect creditors.

Also, on the program, Barton states that we failed to discuss other laws that  were related to slavery. On the program, he said that there were a “whole bunch of laws that Jefferson had to deal with.” He then speaks of laws passed in 1778, 1791, 1793, 1795, 1798 and 1802. We are not the only ones not to refer to all of those laws. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton only cites the 1782 and 1806 laws regarding emancipation. We cite the 1782, 1806 and 1816 laws in Getting Jefferson Right.

On the program, Barton didn’t identify what the particular content of those laws were and how they related to slavery, or in what way that those laws might have prevented Jefferson him from freeing even some of his slaves. Our review of those laws do not support Barton’s contention. Male slaves younger than 21, female slaves younger than 18, all slaves older than 45 and slaves not of sound mind and body needed the financial support of their emancipator. All others did not. These parameters were still in place when Virginia amended slave laws in 1819. The bottom line is that we would like to see the Virginia statute or court case that Mr. Barton relies on to make his claim. In his book, the reference he cites concerns Massachusetts law, not Virginia.

Manumission deeds are available for review online. A review of these finds that some emancipators provided deeds for minor children with a promise of freedom at adulthood. Some slaves purchased their freedom. We encourage readers to read through some of the deeds of manumission. See the end of this post for links.

A couple of final points: When Glenn Beck introduced the segment, he said, “They say Jefferson was not against slavery.” I don’t know who “they” are, but we do not make that claim. Jefferson clearly did oppose slavery in principle and he took steps to eliminate the slave trade. However, his personal slave trade continued. In principle, Jefferson favored emancipation connected to deportation away from white society, rather than immediate abolition of the practice.

Last, those reviewing the evidence should ask why Barton omitted a section of Virginia law which would have undercut his basic argument. He mentioned it on the Beck show but did not give any explanation for the omission. Simply listing dates without specifics does nothing to address why Barton did not tell listeners that emancipation of slaves was legal, was done by many slave holders in the period between 1782 and 1806, and that Jefferson emancipated two slaves while he was alive.

Next we move to the segment on the Jefferson Bible.

Links to deeds of manumission:

Lists of slaves freed after 1782 in eight Virginia counties

Searchable links to those same eight counties

Manumissions in Isle of Wight County, VA

James Hemings manumission papers signed by Thomas Jefferson

Francis Drake deed of manumission

Deed of manumission drawn up by Robert Carter for his 452 slaves

Farm Book, 1774-1824, pages 9-13, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition]. Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003. http://www.thomasjeffersonpapers.org/

Comments

  1. Night-Gaunt says:

    The only good things I see coming out of all this is a frank and open discussion of that period of time and slavery that is normally not covered in this kind of detail. Something that should be in school, Elementary school onward. I thank you both for doing so. Too bad there isn’t a syndicated radio show you can get on equal to Beck’s shows. But the Internet saves again.

    • Warren Throckmorton says:

      Night-Gaunt – Thanks, we think we have raised the issues in ways that have helped and are happy about that.

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