Jefferson valued efficiency and effectiveness, and those values are reflected in his performance as a slaveholder. In 1776, Jefferson made a census of the “Number of Soul in [his] Family,” which numbered 117 people. Excluding his own white family and the white overseers, 83 of those people were enslaved. The enslaved people of Monticello took on a variety of roles and were sold and gifted to other people as the need for them diminished.[1] Jefferson, however, was aware of their desire to stay in one location and not be moved around from location to location or from person to person. He attempted to keep families together; however, his motive behind this decision was economical. He knew that separating families tended to have harm in their ability to work. There was a limit to his willingness to keep families together. Nonetheless, when an enslaved child turned ten years old they were considered an adult and were susceptible to being sold or transferred if they were not needed; he did not consider them as a part of a family unit anymore. [2]

Jefferson was actively involved in the daily workings of Monticello. Every day, he would measure the nail roads at the Nailery. He recorded each nailer’s average amount of iron wasted in the nail-making process. He meticulously kept track of enslaved people’s production to eliminate idleness and maximize profit. Joe Fossett, one the workers at the Nailery, was recorded as being the most efficient while others like Burwell and James were said to be the least efficient. [3]

Every enslaved person worked at Monticello. When they could not work in the fields they would work in the textile factory. Older adults would work in the vegetable garden. If people were sick, they would be kept inside and given the job of shelling corn or making shoes and baskets. Jefferson even created a schedule to follow for the enslaved children.  He wrote that children under 10 years old would work as nurses. From ages 10 to 16, boys would work in the Nailery and girls would spin. From 16 years and up, enslaved young adults would train in a certain trade. Joe Fossett was one of the boys who grew up working first in the house as a servant till he was 10, then worked in the Nailery, and at 16 years old he became a blacksmith apprentice. This shifting of work positions was not decided by Fossett, but by Jefferson.[4] Additionally, he only recorded the productivity of enslaved people. He would describe the trustworthiness, intelligence, sobriety, unreliability and stupidity level of each individual person. His interaction in the lives of most the enslaved people on his plantation was in order to deem someone’s productivity or efficiency.[5]

The whippings at Monticello were rarely done by Jefferson, but whenever he did he would use this form of punishment to discourage lack of productivity and ideas of running away. The focus was to scare the witnesses and not so much to punish the person. He wanted to use people as examples. Most of the day-to-day punishments were left to the overseers. Some of the cruelest overseers were William Page, William McGehee, and Gabriel Lilly. Jefferson wrote about how Lilly had whipped a boy three times in one day and later praised Lilly for fulfilling his job Jefferson was not against this form of punishment and would use it to decrease idleness on his plantation. [6]

Jefferson valued efficiency and effectiveness and those same values were used in his handling of enslaved people at Monticello. He used values that he is often praised for to exploit other human beings for his own gain. Jefferson’s role as a slaveholder was all about maximizing profit and that drive to perform to his standard was a constant present in the lives of his captives. The next section shows the individual lives of a few enslaved people at Monticello.


Source: [A page from a record book listing the names of Jefferson’s slaves over the years. They numbered roughly 600 in his lifetime. From Massachusetts, Historical Society]. (2012, January 27). Retrieved April 2, 2017, from

[1] Stanton, L. (1993) Slavery at Monticello. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation: 7-13.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 22-24

[4] Ibid., 24-25

[5] Ibid., 31-35

[6] Ibid., 28-29

Header Image based off of Portrait of Thomas Jefferson [Painting] (1800) by Rembrandt Peale.