Book Review: Those Who Labor For My Happiness

Those Who Labor For My Happiness:  Slavery At Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, by Lucia Stanton

Lucia Stanton is one of the most noted scholars of slavery as it relates to Thomas Jefferson (it is a very small world), and this book serves as a collection of her writings about the relationship between slavery and Thomas Jefferson over time that indicates at least a few aspects of interest about the record of slavery in Monticello.  For one, there are not very many primary sources on the subject, and so the same few sources (a handful of recollections recorded in the mid-19th century, Jefferson’s own writings on the subject, and some writings by visitors to Monticello) are examined and tortured and interpreted for insight over and over again.  For another, there is a clear transition over the course of the essays from more tentative early explorations to more pointed later ones once DNA evidence confirmed that Thomas Jefferson was indeed the father of Sally Hemings’ children, at which point Jefferson’s ambivalent role in freedom became greatly important and his white descendants’ unwillingness to acknowledge that complexity all the more problematic to those whose interest in history is combined with a strong sense of social justice.  A strong sense of social justice is not hard at all to find here.

The roughly 300 pages of this book consist of a series of essays about the complex relationship between Thomas Jefferson and slavery, divided into three sections.  The first section contains five essays that wrestle with the Jefferson as a slaveowner:  an essay that discusses his slaves in considerable detail, one that discusses the criticism that some Brits subject him to, one on domestic servants in the White House, one on Jefferson’s “people,” and another one on rational plantation management at Monticello.  The second section looks at families in slavery, with two essays, one on Jefferson as seen through the perspective of his slaves and the other on the African American families found in Monticello.  The last section of the book examines the lives of descendants of Monticello slaves in freedom, with essays on the Hemings family in Charlottesville, Identity and the Hemings family, Hemings descendants in the Civil War, and a discussion of notable descendants of Monticello’s African families.  Together these essays not only give a picture of Jefferson’s own behavior as a slave master (in which he used the developments of contemporary prison design to gain a subtle but pervasive oversight of his slaves) but also look at the way in which association with Jefferson and principles of freedom shaped the families of Monticello longer after the end of slavery.

Admittedly, there is a great deal of interest to me.  As someone who is (like Jefferson) fascinated by prison design, I find it deeply intriguing that Jefferson seemed to conceive of his plantation as a prison for its black inhabitants, with himself as the panopticon, the all-seeing eye of the warden.  But for what crime, apart from their ancestry, were Jefferson’s “people” imprisoned?  Clearly this is a matter that deserves a great deal of further consideration and I am surprised that more has not been written about the interaction between prison design and philosophy and the experience of slavery, and also the continuing experience of prison in the experience of freed slaves and their descendants.  I might have to examine this subject deeper myself.  Although I found it disappointing that there were so few primary sources that must undergird our own understanding of Thomas Jefferson as a slaveowner, any book that gives me research ideas must ultimately considered to be a good book, even if I lack the personal connection with Thomas Jefferson as a slaveowner that many of the book’s ideal audience has.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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