Over the course of his life, Thomas Jefferson owned about 600 people. He also wrote that slavery was an “abominable crime” and a “deplorable entanglement.” When the author of the Declaration of Independence died, his will freed only five slaves (and informally emancipated two more, including the likely mother of four of his children, Sally Hemings). The rest were sold to pay his debts.
The third American president was a meticulous record keeper. An exhibit running through October 14 at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., takes advantage of a deep archive of letters, books, and artifacts to tell the stories of Jefferson’s slaves.
Much of the enlivening detail comes from Jefferson’s pen, which means we learn of his “perfect confidence” in Monticello farm hand Edward Gillette and his opinion that David Hern Sr. had the “best hands” to blast rock. Inevitably, there is too little in the voices of the men and women themselves.