In prior posts, I have demonstrated that Thomas Jefferson was allowed by Virginia law to emancipate his slaves. Barton says he couldn’t do it, but we demonstrate in Getting Jefferson Right that Barton omitted from The Jefferson Lies the citation to Virginia law that proves Jefferson could have done so.
In a June 14 podcast of The Bill Martinez radio show, Barton compounds the problem by distorting the situation even more. About Jefferson and his slaves, Barton tells Martinez starting at 11:10 –
…he [Jefferson] inherited 187 slaves when he was back at 13 years old. Guess what? Virginia state law makes it illegal to free your slaves, period. So Jefferson has 187 slaves he’s inherited, he cannot free them. Now George Washington found a loophole and freed his slaves on his death and the legislature said, ‘would you look at that, we missed that’ and they came back and fixed the loophole so you could not free your slaves on your death. So a lot of Thomas Jefferson’s neighbors moved out of Virginia, took their slaves with them, cause they wanted to free slaves and you couldn’t do it in Virginia, and Jefferson choose not to leave Virginia, so he stayed with family, he stayed there. What he did was he had these slaves working for, he paid them, if they caught fish, if they hunted game, he paid them, which is one of the reasons he died broke. Find me another slave owner who paid slaves.
Nearly everything said there is wrong. Jefferson inherited 20 slaves at age 14 when his father died. He acquired the remainder of his slaves via inheritance from his father-in-law and additional purchases and births throughout the remainder of his life. By 1822, Jefferson had 267 slaves. We have all the details in Getting Jefferson Right.
The loophole Barton refers to is the 1782 law on manumission which allowed owners to free slaves while the owner was alive and at death. As we have pointed out, Barton omitted from The Jefferson Lies the section which allowed owners to free slaves, but on the Martinez show, he says the rest of the law was a “loophole.” The Virginia legislature knew what was in the law, and they encountered many petitions from slave owners to revoke the law over the years it was in effect. However, the law was used by owners like George Washington at death and Robert Carter while alive to free their slaves. Even in 1806 when the law was tightened, emancipation was still possible. However, freed slaves were required to leave the state within a year after their freedom. With that restriction, some slaves preferred to remain near family rather than become emancipated.
Barton says Jefferson was broke because he paid his slaves. I just returned from Monticello and agree with the many historians who point out that Jefferson’s lifestyle was most likely the reason he was chronically in debt. Jefferson bought and sold slaves during the period of time when he could have freed them. While he was a kinder master than many, he certainly viewed his slaves as property.
Rather than expose a myth, Barton elaborated one that he first told in his book.