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Haggling over the value of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved girl as ‘damaged property’ | Column
Here’s what happens when enslaved men, women and children are no more than ‘chattel property’ in the eyes of the law.
 
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington commemorates the third president of the United States and main author of the Declaration of Independence. But living beyond his means had dreadful consequences for the enslaved people he owned when his estate was settled after his death.  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington commemorates the third president of the United States and main author of the Declaration of Independence. But living beyond his means had dreadful consequences for the enslaved people he owned when his estate was settled after his death. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File) [ CAROLYN KASTER | AP ]
Published Dec. 7, 2023

Anyone who has spent a fair amount time studying the history of slavery in the American South has experienced this moment: You are sitting in a manuscript reading room when a document crosses your desk that seems almost beyond comprehension, one that reflects the depravity of human bondage in such a stark manner that the experience of that revelatory moment never leaves you.

Charles B. Dew
Charles B. Dew [ Provided ]

Thomas Jefferson provided me with such a moment. It was not directly his doing. He was recently deceased when the incident in question occurred, but he still bore responsibility for what transpired, and for one simple reason: He had made no effort to provide for the emancipation of his slaves in the wake of his death.

Jefferson lived large, and well beyond his means. He had two stately Virginia residences, Monticello, near Charlottesville, and a summer home, Poplar Forest, across the Blue Ridge Mountains, near Lynchburg. When he died on July 4, 1826, his staggering debts made it necessary to auction off his entire property, and that included his houses, his lands and, of course, the enslaved men, women and children living at both Monticello and Poplar Forest.

It was the auction at Poplar Forest on Jan. 1, 1827, that set up the circumstances that have haunted me since I first read about them. I know “haunted” is often an exaggeration, but it is the only word that fits the lingering awareness of what I am about to describe.

The story unfolded in a letter, dated Jan. 11, 1827, written by a Lynchburg man named P.H. Leuba to Thomas J. Randolph, the executor of Jefferson’s estate. Leuba had sent his son to attend the Poplar Forest auction, and young Leuba had purchased a 14-year-old girl named Jeanette for $290. He had not removed her from the property, however, probably to allow time for the financial aspects of this transaction to be completed, and this delay had horrific consequences for Jeanette.

Leuba’s letter opens with these words. “On Saturday & Sunday last, I sent my son … to inform you, that the girl named Jeanette … is burned from the right shoulder to the foot, particularly her breast & she is so burned as to have but little use of her right arm & leg & of several fingers, which she cannot use.” He went on to say that a doctor who examined Jeanette predicted that “… she will have a cancerous breast.”

How has this unspeakable tragedy occurred?

“She says that all this was caused by the Overseer, who, in an angry fit, threw her twice in the fire which had caught accidently, to a stack of straw, from a fire that she & a little boy had lighted in the night, while they were feeding the cattle, for which purpose they had been sent.”

Leuba’s first thought was to cancel the sale. “I informed her, that I should be obliged to send her back; she then implored me not to do it, for she would not find her mother, brothers & sisters & that he (the overseer) would punish her for having made public his treatment towards her.”

So how does this atrocity end?

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“I now propose (to) you, Sir, … to choose a gentleman & I shall name another, who will proceed together to estimate how much she is worth & and I make you the offer to keep her at the price she will be valued by our joint appraisers,” Leuba wrote. “This is all I can do, being guided by humanity for the unhappy creature & being the most just offer I can make. I am willing to keep her to attend to my child,” he concluded, “for she cannot do much else.”

All he can do. He demands no consequences for the overseer. Such a thing is not even discussed. What we are reading here is essentially a business letter, one between a buyer and a seller calling for a reevaluation of the price for what are now “damaged goods.” This is what happens when enslaved men, women and children are no more than “chattel property” in the eyes of the law. There will be no justice for Jeanette, that “unhappy creature,” only the prospect of a life lived in bondage, and, in all likelihood, brought to a painful and premature end.

Is there a place for this history in our Florida classrooms? Don’t all of our students deserve to know the tragic consequences of our centurieslong embrace of the institution of slavery? Would they not profit from this knowledge and be in a better position to become constructive citizens in a world where whites, by mid-century, will be a demographic minority in the United States? To every one of these questions, my answer would be an emphatic “yes.” Perhaps one day our elected officials, on every level in this state, will agree.

Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, emeritus, at Williams College. This letter is discussed at greater length in his book “The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade.”