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Jefferson and Slavery

Slavery was integral to Jefferson’s life. Despite his public stance on abolition, he owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime and only freed seven. An enslaved valet normally accompanied him on his travels and drove his carriage. When Jefferson first landed in France in 1784, James Hemings rode ahead of him to arrange Jefferson’s stay in hotels. Imagine the difficulty of the task- unlike Jefferson, Hemings had not had the opportunity to study French. Did he temporarily feel free, riding alone in this strange land?

Jefferson’s journey to the south of France and Italy was one of the rare trips he took without the assistance of a slave. But slavery was essential to all of his journeys, even when a slave was not present with him, for that’s where his wealth came from.

While Jefferson rambled across Europe, two enslaved servants worked back at his Paris residence. Jefferson apprenticed James Hemings to learn the art of French cooking. Hemings’ sister Sally labored in the household. Jefferson likely impregnated her in 1789. (For a nuanced treatment of this painful chapter of history, see

Even though Hints to Americans Traveling in Europe doesn’t mention the word slavery, it recommends visiting French sea ports, which at the time were still engaged in a brisk trade in humans. I travel to one of them, Nantes, which has a groundbreaking memorial to the abolition of slavery, honoring the people trapped in this inhumane system. While so many of my trips on Jefferson’s trail are light-hearted, this one is deadly serious.

The memorial is built in the shape of the hold of a slave ship. Light wafts in below. A recording plays the sounds of creaking timbers, dripping water, and spiritual songs of hope. Quotes on the cruelty of the slave trade cover the wall.

Coming to terms with how Thomas Jefferson could be a bold Enlightened traveler at the same time he was an unyielding slaveowner becomes a challenge on my own journey.


Pictured above: enslaved Monticello blacksmith Isaac Granger; me at the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery.          

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