Thomas Jefferson’s Dark Side: Four Damning Secrets

Published June 30, 2017
Updated July 24, 2019
Published June 30, 2017
Updated July 24, 2019

Today, he is a great president. In his own time, he was described as "a liar, whoremaster, debaucher, drunkard, gambler, and infidel." And that was just by one man -- a preacher.

Thomas Jefferson

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Even 190 years after Thomas Jefferson’s death, there’s a lot to celebrate about the man. Perhaps one of the last true Renaissance men, Jefferson has a list of accomplishments that reads like a short history of politics, statecraft, and science of the 18th century.

But there was a darker side of Thomas Jefferson, one that doesn’t always play as prominent a role in biographies as it should. In public, Jefferson was Mister Enlightenment, coining the phrase “all men are created equal” and even advocating the abolition of slavery early in his career. In private, however, well…read on to see.

Slavery At Monticello


Jefferson’s estate, Monticello, today. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with slavery. Everyone knows Jefferson was a slave owner, though few people understand the scope of his operations at Monticello, his own private plantation and mountain. At its peak, around 1817, Jefferson’s elegant palace on a hill was home to around 140 slaves. Some of these slaves lived very well — Jefferson wrote of paying some house servants and shop managers “gratuities” — while others lived under conditions that were appropriate to a gulag.

Monticello was more than a farm; it was a miniature town where forced labor made all the wheels turn. At the heart of the enterprise was the nail factory. In letter after letter, Jefferson burbled about how profitable the place was. Monticello’s annual grocery bill ran to around $500, and the nail factory made that much in just two months. At several points in Jefferson’s life, it made the difference between profitability and bankruptcy, since Jefferson was terrible with money and spent his life one hop ahead of creditors.

Thomas Jefferson Nail Kit

Jefferson’s nail kit. Image Source: Flickr

The shop thrived for another reason: child labor. The nailery, as it was called, was a kind of selection stage in a young slave’s life. Those who did well there, making around 10,000 nails a day, got special uniforms, extra food rations, and various privileges around the plantation.

Those who did badly, making fewer than 5,000 nails a day, were forced to work in rags, whipped for slowness, and saw their rations cut. At age 16, the boys would be split between the promising smart ones, who would be apprenticed for a trade, and the dull ones, who would work as laborers. Similar conditions prevailed at the girls’ spinning shop.

Historically, Jefferson’s treatment of his slaves has seldom appeared in descriptions of Monticello. According to one adoring biography written for young adults in 1941:

“In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master…The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.”

One such “prank” involved a boy losing a bundle of nail blanks. He and another boy quarreled and came to blows over it. One boy was whipped hard by the overseer, the other was sold South as a warning to the rest.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.