Monticello was the primary plantation and home of our third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. He was a self-trained architect and started designing Monticello when he was 14 years old, inheriting the land from his father. This vast piece of land was about 5,000 acres, or 20 square kilometers, and was built and managed by Jefferson’s vast team of over 600 slaves in his lifetime. Today, we drove out to Monticello, which is just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and took the Highlights tour, which showed us the inside of the house, as well as different parts of the grounds. He had quite an elaborate garden full of beautiful flowers and a large variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables. I lost count of the number of different fruit trees that lined the property, as well as all the different types of tomatoes and squash.
When I learned U.S. history in high school, because I grew up in liberal San Francisco, one of the very first things I learned about Jefferson was that not only did he own and love having slaves as free labor, but he even had sex with many of them and infamously impregnated one of them multiple times (Sally Hemmings). None of this was ever sugar coated to me in my U.S. history classroom. I would guess that Jefferson likely raped and had many children with other slaves that just aren’t confirmed, but I suppose we’ll never know the full story around that. However on this tour, I was completely shocked and disgusted to find out that despite having over 600 slaves serve him and his property over his lifetime, Jefferson still managed to die in debt. At the time of his death when he was 83 years old, he owed more than $107,000 USD, which is the equivalent of over $3 million USD today! Can someone please explain how you can possibly have that much debt when you never had to pay for any labor your entire life…?!
It’s really amazing what you can build when you have access to totally free, enslaved labor. But it’s also amazing how much you can take all that for granted and still push for an even more lavish life that would leave you in that much debt when you die. It’s pretty sickening to think about.