Independence and Contradiction: Our Founding Slaveholders

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Michael Aubrecht. A biography of Mr. Aubrecht is attached below. 

In 2011 an exhibit titled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” started running at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum from January 27, 2012 – October 14, 2012. This somewhat controversial exhibition explored slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s plantation and was a collaborative effort between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello and the African American History and Culture Museum in Washington DC. It helped to instigate public discussion about the dichotomy between the Founders and freedom. The paradox of course is that Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an “abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. The exhibition provides a glimpse into the lives of 6 slave families living at Monticello and reveals how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime.

Founders, presidents, slave-owners

Of course Jefferson is not alone in this regard. Four of the first five presidents (three of them, ‘officially’ recognized Founding Fathers) of the United States were lifelong slaveholders. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was incredibly pervasive as 28% of the American population was enslaved in 1790. There was a time, not so long ago, when the issue of slavery was glossed over when presenting the lives and legacies of the nation’s Founders. Today, it is recognized as a vital part of what made up their complicated and contradictory lives and many historical sites, to include Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Montpelier are working diligently to include the enslaved African experience in their interpretations. Here is a brief overview:

George Washington
Estate: Mount Vernon
Est. Slaves: 216 +/-

“I hope every necessary care and attention was afforded him. I expect little from (Overseer) McKoy, or indeed from most of his class, for they seem to consider a Negro much in the same light as they do the brute beasts on the farms, and often treat them as inhumanely.” – G. Washington, 1794

When George Washington took over the Mount Vernon estate at age 22 there were approximately 18 documented slaves on the premises. After his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis he gained control of 200 more slaves which technically belonged to the estate of his wife’s first husband. By 1786 Washington claimed 216 slaves. While he was serving as president in Philadelphia a Pennsylvania law was passed freeing slaves whose owners had been citizens of the state for six months. Washington promptly sent his two most valuable slaves home, telling them it was for his wife’s convenience. In 1796 Oney (or Ona) Judge ran away to New Hampshire. She was one of the Washington family’s most valued slaves and Martha’s personal servant. The then President Washington asked the Treasury Secretary and a customs agent for help in getting her back, supposedly by force if necessary, but she never returned. When he left the presidency Washington is said to have left some house slaves behind in Philadelphia, knowing that under state law they would be quietly freed by having spent a certain amount of time in Pennsylvania. Following his death in 1799 his will called for his manservant William Lee to be freed immediately, and given a pension. All other Washington-owned slaves were to be freed when his widow died. Martha however chose to free them two years later. According to Abigail Adams this was because she feared her life might be in danger, since her death meant freedom for the slaves. Neither Washington nor his wife could legally free the dower slaves which still belonged to the Custis estate.

An image of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate

Thomas Jefferson
Estate: Monticello
Est. Slaves: 141 +/-

“I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” – T. Jefferson, 1787

Thomas Jefferson inherited many slaves who lived and worked on Mulberry Row at his mountaintop estate at Monticello. His wife had brought a dowry of more than 100 slaves, and Jefferson went on to purchase many more throughout his life. At some points he was one of the largest slave-owners in Virginia. In 1790 Jefferson gave his newly married daughter and her husband 1,000 acres of land and 25 slaves. In 1798 he claimed 141 slaves, many of them elderly. Two years later he only owned 93. One of Jefferson’s slaves was a young house girl named Sally Hemings, allegedly the half-sister of his deceased wife. During his presidency a rumor appeared in print that she was his mistress. Jefferson vehemently denied this story, which was also passed on as Hemings family tradition. The youngest of Heming’s six children (and the only one whose paternity can be traced through DNA) definitely descended from the Jefferson line, presumably either through him, his brother Randolph, or one of Randolph’s sons. All were in the vicinity of Sally during each period of conception. Jefferson eventually freed one of Heming’s children and allowed another to run away unpursued. Both of them were light enough to successfully pass for whites. He also freed five slaves in his will, all members of the Hemings family. Surprisingly, Sally was not among them. Due to the immense debt that he had accumulated, over 130 slaves were sold when Jefferson’s estate was auctioned off. His daughter Martha freed Sally Hemings a few years later.

Isaac Jefferson, circa 1845

James Madison
Estate: Montpelier
Est. Slaves: 66 +/-

“But we must deny the fact that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true case is, that they partake of both these qualities; being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects, as property.” – J. Madison, 1788

As another Virginia planter – turned politician James Madison grew up in a slave-owning family and owned slaves all his life. From 1723 to 1844, during the Madison family’s ownership, hundreds of African and African-American slaves called the family estate at Montpelier home. Five, six, and possibly seven generations of African Americans were born into slavery at Montpelier. The Madisons were not the only residents of Montpelier, but they were the masters of the land and its enslaved people. Enslaved individuals also served in many domestic capacities, such as cooks, gardeners, butlers, and maids. In 1769, when Madison Jr., went away to the College of New Jersey in Princeton, he took a “personal servant” with him, a slave named Sawney. Sawney remained with the Madisons through his life, and in the 1820s is mentioned in letters and a journal as waiting on “Mother Madison.” In the prime of his life, Sawney worked as overseer of a Montpelier quarter (larger plantations were often subdivided into two or more “quarters,” each with its own overseer and labor force), called “Sawney’s tract” or “Sawney’s.” Later in life, Sawney often sold Nelly and Dolley Madison produce, eggs, and chickens from his own small plot of land. In 1833 Madison sold several of his farms but not his slaves.  A year later he sold 16 slaves to a relative – with their permission. Madison did not free his slaves in his will 

NOTE: Other slaveholding presidents include: James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant.

The controversy over these issues continues to burn today. Recently the Episcopal Church in Alexandria instigated public discourse after deciding to remove a plaque commemorating George Washington’s patronage there. This came in conjunction with the decision to remove a similar plaque commemorating Robert E. Lee’s attendance. The plaques hung on either side of the altar at the historic church since 1870 and had quietly been the subject of debate. As the motion to remove Confederate monuments across the country spilled over to noteworthy slave owners, iconography celebrating individuals like Washington and Jefferson have been challenged by activists. In response, the homes of these three presidents remain dedicated to include the interpretation of slave life at these residences. This has broadened the public’s understanding of the disappointing truth of the lives of these three presidents and their peers.


Rob Lopresti, “Which U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?”
James Madison’s Montpelier, The Enslaved Community
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation @
Historic Alexandria Church Decides to Remove Plaques Honoring Washington, Lee, Lori Aratani, The Washington Post (October 28, 2017)


Michael Aubrecht is an author and historian from Fredericksburg Virginia. He is the author of several books to include The Historic Churches of Fredericksburg and The Civil War in Spotsylvania County. Michael also co-wrote and produced the documentary The Angel of Marye’s Heights. Michael is a regular guest contributor to the Emerging Civil War blog and has written many articles for Patriots of The Revolution and Civil War Historian magazines.


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