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Thomas the Slav Attacks Constantinople - History
T he ancient city of Constantinople, located in modern Turkey and today known as Istanbul, was founded by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 330 who made it the seat of his reign. When the western portion of the Roman Empire disintegrated in the fifth century (see The Fall of Rome) Western Europe was propelled into the Dark Ages. However, vestiges of the glory of the Roman Empire lived on in the city-state of Constantinople for over one thousand years.
By the middle of the fifteenth century, the prominence of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire that it ruled had suffered a dramatic decline. The city found itself entirely surrounded by an Ottoman Empire eager to expand its domain. The final blow came in the spring of 1453 when the Ottoman Turks, led by the Sultan Mehmed II, besieged the city for fifty-seven days. On May 29 the Sultan led an over-whelming force that successfully breached the walls of the city and proceeded to massacre the citizenry. Following his victory, the Sultan moved the Ottoman capital from Adrianople to Constantinople. The last vestige of the ancient Roman Empire was no more.
"Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle."
An observer describes the scene:
"Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge.
|A contemporary depiction of the battle |
The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions . . . There were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury. This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses, dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonored them, raped them at the cross-roads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages. It is even said that at the mere sight of them many girls were so stupefied that they almost gave up the ghost.
Old men of venerable appearance were dragged by their white hair and piteously beaten. Priests were led into captivity in batches, as well as reverend virgins, hermits and recluses who were dedicated to God alone and lived only for Him to whom they sacrificed themselves, who were dragged from their cells and others from the churches in which they had sought refuge, in spite of their weeping and sobs and their emaciated cheeks, to be made objects of scorn before being struck down. Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers' breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened. . .
Temples were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated. Ornaments were burned, broken in pieces or simply thrown into the streets. Saints' shrines were brutally violated in order to get out the remains which were then thrown to the wind. Chalices and cups for the celebration of the Mass were set aside for their orgies or broken or melted down or sold. Priests' garments embroidered with gold and set with pearls and gems were sold to the highest bidder and thrown into the fire to extract the gold. Immense numbers of sacred and profane books were flung on the fire or tom up and trampled under foot. The majority, however, were sold at derisory prices, for a few pence. Saints' altars, tom from their foundations, were overturned. All the most holy hiding places were violated and broken in order to get out the holy treasures which they contained . . .
When Mehmed (II) saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. 'What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed'! His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits."
This eyewitness account appears in: Routh, C. R. N. They Saw It Happen in Europe 1450-1600 (1965).
Istanbul’s (Constantinople) 6th Century Basilica Cistern
By Aigerim Korzhumbayeva –
Amid the teeming bustle of exotic Istanbul’s overall population of 13 million people there is yet a darkly quiet place to find serenity. Much of the time you must turn your head sideways to view Istanbul’s impressive architecture in entirety if close around the thoroughfares you strain your eyes upward your ears are filled with the sounds of many languages and the calls to prayer. You enjoy athan, the powerful and melodic call to prayer, emanating from imposing mosques with endless domes and minarets. You hear street sellers shouting “sıcak simit” (hot simit) at the top of their lungs. You delight in the smell of simit – a coiled sesame bread ring like a bagel (and maybe its inspiration – and a plethora of other foods sold all around this great city. Everywhere you come across a myriad of tourists, strolling around the city, with their mouths half-open out of sheer amazement, taking zillions of photos, and exploring the overwhelming history of this city continuously occupied for almost 2,000 years, from the time when it was Constantinople, named after the Roman emperor because this city became the new capital of Rome. You must look very much like one of the tourists even though you are living here for months.
I’ve recently had extended time to visit and even revisit many popular Istanbul sites such as Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace previously. The Basilica Cistern, however, was unknown to me until this summer. Located within a stone’s throw from the Hagia Sophia, visiting, let alone hearing about the Basilica Cistern for the first time a month ago left a nagging question in my mind “Why have I not been here before?”
You will likely agree with me that on a hot summer day at some point, almost any visitor to Istanbul will wish for shelter from the summer heat, the din of a metropolis, and the crowds of shoppers and tourists in the many bazaars. After a trip to the Basilica Cistern I found that it was an ideal shelter contradicting many conditions of the outside world: it was cool, dark, tranquil, and mysterious.
Basilica Cistern is an underground cistern built by the late Roman or early Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great in Constantinople during the 6th century. It was constructed under a large public square, the Stoa Basilica, after which it was named. Some call it “The Sunken Palace” (Yerebatan Sarayi in Turkish) due to its underground magnificent marble columns rising out of the water. Constantinople is now abbreviated to Istanbul in Turkish since the Byzantine capital fell in 1453 to Ottoman ruler Mehmet II. But it has nearly always held prime a attraction for superpowers for its mix of East and West at the exotic crossroads of Europe and Asia. In the early Byzantine Period, emperors built cisterns around the interior of the walled city to meet the water needs of residents, particularly during wars where sieges were a dire threat. According to some historical texts, as many as 7,000 slaves were employed in the construction of the Cistern. Water was brought from the hills of Belgrade Forest located 12 miles away. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans used the Cistern water to irrigate the gardens of Topkapi Palace. After they installed their own relatively modern water system, however, the Ottomans stopped using the Cistern’s water.
Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723) Engraving of the Basilica Cistern from his 1721 “A Plan of Civil and Historical Architecture” (Photo in public domain)
This Cistern went unrecognized by the Western world until P. Gyllius, a Dutch traveler, discovered it during his visit to Istanbul in 1544-1550. Gyllius came to Istanbul to conduct research on its Byzantine remains. While he was around Hagia Sophia, he was surprised to see people getting water with buckets from some well holes, and even catching fish. P. Gyllius decided to explore this well. To his amazement, during his boat trip to the large well, he ended up discovering a historical cistern. Ever since that Renaissance discovery, many travelers have longed to visit Basilica Cistern.
Here are a few facts and measurements to better visualize the grandeur of the Basilica Cistern, underground by around 52 steps from the surface. The length of the Cistern is 453 feet, its width 212 feet. It is a large rectangular underground structure supported 336 columns spread in 12 vaulted rows with the height of 30 feet. The view of columns from the entrance gives an impression that it is endless with its over 100,000 square feet of interior space. These columns resemble the columns in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba in Spain: a row of graceful columns similar to a row of palm trees. The ceiling gravity is distributed among the columns through the arched cross vaults. Some columns reflect Corinthian style capitals others reflect Ionic or Doric style because they are spolia: reused here from somewhere else earlier. One column draws special attention due to engraved pictures resembling eyes and tears. As ancient texts suggest, these tears pay tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during the construction of the Basilica Cistern. The cistern can store up to 100, 000 tons (almost 3 million cubic feet) of water underground and still holds a few feet of water with fish swimming around the columns. Since the Cistern is very dark, strolling in the Cistern in the daytime gives an impression that one is walking at night around a pond with fish.
Medusa Heads as Guardians
One of the most attractive features of this Cistern are two Medusa heads positioned as pedestals for columns located at the end of the Cistern. I was struck by the Medusa heads after passing the rows of columns. These two Medusa heads are masterpieces of Late Roman art. It is almost impossible not be curious about the origin of the Medusa heads here. According to one of the myths referenced here, Medusa was one of the three Gorgon sisters, female monsters in underground realm, who could turn people who looked at them into stone. According to another myth, Medusa was enamored with Perseus, Zeus’s son. Athena was also Perseus’s heroic protection from any harm. Envious Athena turned Medusa’s hair into snakes, and Medusa could turn people who looked at her into stone. However, according to custom, Medusa heads were often placed on monuments, in this case watching over the Cistern as apotropaic guardians, since large Gorgon images were frequently used to protect important places in the Classical world. One of the Medusa heads is positioned upside down, and the other sideways. According to some interpretations, these heads were positioned as such in order to cancel out the power of the Gorgon’s petrifying gaze. Throughout the Cistern the columns are wet and smooth in touch and water drops harmoniously, producing a sound that reminds of Medusa’s melody to the visitors.
Medusa Head “Guardian” in the Basilica Cistern (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva 2012)
Legacy of the Cistern
I am by no means alone in finding the Cistern a marvelous place. The Basilica Cistern has attracted many visitors around the globe, including leaders like Bill Clinton, Ex-Prime Minister of the Netherlands Wim Kok, the 75 th Prime Minister of Italy Lamberto Dini, Ex-Prime Minister of Sweden Goran Persson, and tenth President of Austria Thomas Klestil. The ancient Cistern has attracted film directors as well. The 1963 James Bond movie From Russia with Love, directed by Terence Young the 2009 movie The International directed by Tom Tykwer, recorded some vignettes in this Cistern. Clive Cussler’s 2010 book Crescent Dawn (with Dirk Cussler), portions of it set in Istanbul, also has a chapter with a gun battle inside and an escape scene from the cistern.
Apart from being a major Istanbul touristic attraction, the cistern has also been used to hold various concerts. To name just a few, Sufi Jazz concerts, Poem reading nights, and Ney concerts during Ramadan’s month of fasting are fairly frequent uses. One relatively early visitor wrote down his indelible impression. Edmondo De Amicis, an Italian author who visited Istanbul in 1874 described the Basilica Cistern in his work Constantinople as follows:
“I entered the garden of a Muslim’s house, descended to the end of dark, humid steps and found myself under the domes of the Great Basilica Cistern of the Byzantium, which was unknown by the Istanbulers how it ended. The greenish water that is partly enlightened by washing-blue light – which further increases the horror of the darkness – vanishes under the dark domes while the walls shine with the water running down thereon thus dimly discovering the endless rows of columns everywhere like the trunks of trees in a pruned forest.”
De Amicis’ description of the Cistern two centuries ago still matches the current state of the Cistern in the 21st century. The Cistern is a perfect escape from a hot summer day and a tranquil respite from the busy city above. Its ancient site is full of history and mystery it can be both an unusual concert hall and a puzzling place with a venerable atmosphere that leaves many questions in visitors’ minds about antiquity and how some monuments survive when others do not. In this case, it’s likely because the basilica Cistern was underground rather than on the surface, and this dark location provides much of its haunting visuality.
The author (Aigerim) in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul (Photo Aigerim Korzhumbayeva 2012)
A Society Dependent on Slavery
Slavery made the world Thomas Jefferson knew. The colonial society into which he was born would not have existed without it. The profits from slave-based agriculture made his parents’ household and lifestyle, and his education and exposure to the colonial capital of Williamsburg, possible. Though Jefferson came to abhor slavery, his livelihood depended on it.
Ancient History: Walls of Constantinople
The art of fortification has existed ever since man first came to realize the value of natural obstacles to his common defense, and evolved as he sought to invoke his own methods to fully exploit that advantage. The building of barriers rapidly evolved from the simple mud parapets and mountaintop abodes of the Neolithic Age to the construction of linear and point stone obstacles of the Bronze Age, best represented by the Hittite capital of Hattusas. The Greco-Roman world was the proving ground for medieval fortifications. When Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome to the sleepy port town of Byzantium in AD 324, the opportunity to make full use of the state of the art in the construction of fortifications was at hand. The results of what followed shaped the course of world history.
Located on a horn-shaped peninsula astride the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, the renamed imperial capital of Constantinople dominated the narrow waterway that divides Europe from Asia. The complexities of that geography provided both advantages and challenges to the site’s defense. A steep and rugged shoreline and the Sea of Marmara’s swift currents protected the southern coast. To the north the Golden Horn, an inlet that bordered the peninsula, was a natural anchorage and harbor. The ancient Lycus River ran diagonally northwest to southeast across the peninsula, forming a narrow valley that sectioned the city into two distinct areas-a chain of six hills running along the Golden Horn to the north, and a single, larger hill to the south. A coherent urban defense had to address those considerations. For the most part, the many leaders and builders of the city succeeded in mastering the terrain. The ruins that still enclose what is now the Turkish capital of Istanbul are the remnants of centuries of evolution. Awe inspiring even in decay, they are a testament to the glory of Greco-Roman military art.
The despair of its enemies, the walls of Constantinople were the most famous of the medieval world, singular not only in scale, but in their construction and design, which integrated man-made defenses with natural obstacles. Their principal composition was mortared rubble, faced with blocks of fitted limestone and reinforced by courses of layered red brick. To enhance the integrity of the overall network, the towers and walls were built independently of one another. The entire city was enclosed in a defensive circuit of 14 miles of walls, reinforced by more than 400 towers and bastions, and several strong points and fortresses. The strongest construction faced west, against an approach by land. There, along a four-mile stretch of rolling land, stand the legendary Theodosian Walls, their depths blending together, the merlons overlapping like teeth in the mouth of an Olympian shark. There an enemy had to attack a linear obstacle of four belts, each ascending above the other, with a depth of some 200 feet.
The main line of defense was the Inner Wall, 40 feet in height and 15 feet thick, with a battlemented parapet five feet high that was accessed by stone ramps. Along its course at 175-foot intervals run 96 massive towers, each once capable of mounting the heaviest military engines of the day. A second, Outer Wall, approximately 30 feet high, is joined to this main wall by an elevated 60-foot terrace. The Outer Wall is also equipped with 96 bastions, each offset from the towers of the Inner Wall to avoid masking their fires. Subterranean passages run from many of those points back toward the city-avenues that presumably provided the defending troops with secure movement to and from a threatened area. From the Outer Wall extended another 60-foot terrace, ending in a 6-foot high parapet. This bordered a great moat, some 60 feet wide and 15 to 30 feet deep, supplied by an aqueduct system. To compensate for the rolling terrain, the moat was sectioned by a number of dams, which enabled it to retain an even distribution of water along its length. The five public gates that traversed the moat by way of drawbridges were set narrowly into the walls and were flanked by towers and bastions. Any assault made on the outer gates would be attacking into the strength of the defense. The belts were constructed at a tiered elevation, starting at 30 feet for the Inner Wall and descending to the moat. This, and the distance between strong points, ensured that an attacker, once within the network, was in range from all immediate points in the defense. The Land Walls were anchored at both extremities by two great fortresses. Along the Sea of Marmara, the Castle of the Seven Towers secured the southern approach, while in the north, along the Golden Horn, the salient that was the quarter of the Blachernae Palace, residence of the later Byzantine emperors, was gradually transformed into one massive fortress. To those two fortified points were adjoined the Sea Walls, similar in construction to the Outer Wall, of which little remains today.
The Golden Horn posed a certain challenge for the Byzantine engineers, since the five miles of sea walls in that area were comparatively weak and the calm waters there could provide a safe anchorage to an enemy fleet. Emperor Leo III provided the tactical solution in the form of the famous barrier chain. Made of giant wooden links that were joined by immense nails and heavy iron shackles, the chain could be deployed in an emergency by means of a ship hauling it across the Golden Horn from the Kentenarion Tower in the south to the Castle of Galata on the north bank. Securely anchored on both ends, with its length guarded by Byzantine warships at anchor in the harbor, the great chain was a formidable obstacle and a vital element of the city’s defenses.
While the Land Walls glorify the name of Theodosius I (408-450), the reigning Roman emperor at the time their construction began, it is to one of history’s dim figures, Anthemius, to whom they owe their genesis. Anthemius, as prefect of the East, was the head of state for six years during the minority of Theodosius and it was he who conceived and carried out a massive and defining expansion of the city defenses. His vision would provide a durable framework for a citadel that the new capital would need to become to weather the challenges that lay ahead. The cornerstone of those new fortifications was a massive land wall, represented by the Inner Wall, built in 413. The Theodosian system was completed in 447 with the addition of an outer wall and moat-a response to a near calamity, when a devastating earthquake seriously damaged the walls and toppled 57 towers at the very moment that Attila and his Hunnic armies were bearing down on Constantinople. Over the centuries many emperors improved the city fortifications. Their names can be seen to this day engraved on the stone-roughly 30 of them covering more than a millennium, clearly illustrating the importance of these defenses to the empire. While Attila drew away from Constantinople to pursue easier prey, later invaders were not so easily discouraged. Persians, Avars, Sacracens, Bulgarians, Russians and others tried to take the citadel in their turn. Far from serving as a deterrent, Constantinople’s formidable reputation seemed to attract enemies. As the capital of a mighty empire, and at the crossroads of two continents, Constantinople represented to the early medieval world what Rome and Athens had meant to classical times. The ‘Queen of Cities,’ she was a magnet for pilgrim, trader, and conqueror alike. None were wanting. The citadel turned back besieging armies 17 times in the course of a millennium. With each succeeding onslaught, Constantinople became ever more the final stronghold of Greek civilization. Behind her bulwark in the east, Christian Europe also took shelter.
Undoubtedly, Constantinople’s finest hour came when it turned back a series of determined Arab attacks during the initial period of Islamic expansion. In 632, the Muslim armies burst forth from the desert confines of the Hejaz and into the Levant. Benefiting from a power vacuum in the region, the Arabs made stunning advances. Both the Byzantine and Sassanid Persian empires, nearly prostrate from 25 years of mutual warfare (fighting that cost the Greeks alone some 200,000 men, an enormous drain of manpower in that age) were unable to hold back the tide. In a little more than a decade the Byzantines were driven from Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The Persians fared worse. Arab armies invaded the Persian highlands and destroyed the Sassanid kingdom. By 661, the standard of the Prophet Mohammed reached from Tripoli to India.
On two occasions, from 674 to 677, and again in 717-18, Arab armies besieged Constantinople by land and sea. Superior military organization, the leadership of Leo III (the Isaurian) and the timely intervention of one of history’s most decisive weapons, a medieval form of napalm dubbed ‘Greek fire,’ enabled the Byzantines to weather the storm. The cost to both sides was high. Byzantium lost most of her territory south of the Taurus Mountains and much of the remainder of the empire lay devastated. The Arabs lost untold thousands of men through futile attacks against Constantinople’s defenses, as well as a series of disastrous defeats on land and sea. Many more perished of disease and cold in dire encampments before the Land Walls. Of the 200,000 Muslims who laid siege to Constantinople in 717, only 30,000 crossed back into Syria the following year.
The impact of Constantinople’s successful defense at that time cannot be overstated. Not only did it save the Byzantine Empire from the same fate as Sassanid Persia, but spared a fractured and chaotic Europe from Muslim invasion for another eight centuries. One can only wonder of the consequences for Europe and Christendom had Muslims armies marched unchecked into Thrace in the late 7th or early 8th centuries. What is certain is that the Muslim tide, broken at it shortest approach, was channeled to Europe via another, much longer axis-North Africa. Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, a Muslim army of 50,000 traversed Spain, crossed the Pyrenees and penetrated into the French heartland before finally being overcome by Charles Martel at Tours in 732. With its expansion stemmed, the Muslim world turned its energies to internal disputes that splintered the caliphate, providing medieval Europe a much-needed period of growth and consolidation. In the end, the same spirit of ingenuity that created Constantinople’s fortifications would prove their undoing. The weaknesses of the defenses must have been obvious, since a series of attackers, beginning with the Avars, had tried to exploit them. Interestingly, the salient problems lay along the strongest point-the Land Walls. At a point just south of the Blachernae quarter, a section called the Mesoteichion, the walls dip sharply into the Lycus Valley, exposing that area to enfilading fire from higher ground on the enemy side. Apparently, the trace of the walls owed itself more to the need to accommodate a growing population than a regard for the natural lines of terrain. Another problem, far more perplexing, was the region of the Blachernae Palace, a neglected salient in the original Land Walls. The fortifications there, while often improved, were never equal to those elsewhere in that area. Finally, the construction of the Sea Walls as a single-wall circuit reflected a reliance on natural obstacles and a navy. As long as the Byzantine fleet commanded the narrows of the Hellespont and the Bosphorus, an attack from that quarter was not to be feared. That situation changed dramatically, however, after 1071, the year that the Seljuks of Rum inflicted a decisive defeat upon the Greeks at Manzikert. As the empire passed into decline, the Byzantine emperors could no longer maintain an effective navy, and gradually had to rely on the protection of friendly maritime powers. As the Byzantine navy withered, Constantinople lay exposed to an assault from the sea.
The challenge was not long in coming. The first Crusades were a marriage of convenience for a Christendom divided between the rival Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches. During the Fourth Crusade that enmity erupted into open warfare when the Latins sought to exploit one of Byzantium’s many dynastic squabbles. While en route to Palestine, the leaders of the crusade, cash-strapped and never opposed to a little profiteering, took up an offer by Alexius, the son of the deposed and imprisoned Emperor Isaac II, to restore their throne. In exchange for overthrowing the usurper, Alexius promised 200,000 marks, generous trade concessions and troops for the coming campaign. The deal was struck and on July 17, 1203, the Crusaders attacked Constantinople by land and sea. That night, the usurper Alexius III, fled and the next day Isaac was crowned with his son as co-emperor Alexius IV. Their restoration would be short lived. In January 1204, resentful Byzantine nobles toppled the puppet rulers and brought Alexius III’s son-in-law, Alexius Ducas Mourtzouphlos, to the throne as Alexius V. With no hope of securing Byzantine cooperation for the campaign to the Holy Land from the defiant new emperor and seeing little chance of success without it, the Crusaders determined once more to take Constantinople. The Latins, with a decisive naval advantage thanks to the financial support and powerful fleet put at their disposal by Venice, decided to make a major effort at the Sea Walls. To provide an assault platform, they erected siege towers on their ships from which long spars were rigged as a kind of suspended bridge. As a ship approached the wall or tower to be attacked, the bridge was lowered and the knights would shimmy across. The task of leading such an assault must have been daunting. A knight, grasping for balance moving down a narrow platform high above a ship rolling at anchor, then lifting himself over the parapet, all while evading the arrows, cuts and thrusts of the defenders, was at the mercy of his circumstances. When their first attempt failed, the Latins launched a second assault with two ships tied together. That provided a more stable platform and the possibility of assaulting a tower at two points. A witness, Robert de Clari, described how the attackers gained a foothold: ‘The Venetian who entered first in the tower was on one of these suspended bridges with two knights, and from there, with the aid of his hands and feet, he was able to penetrate the level where the bridge provided access. There he was cut down it was there that Andr d’Urboise penetrated in the same way when the ship, tossed by the current, touched the tower a second time.’
Once the Crusaders had made the critical penetration of the defenses, another witness, Henri de Villehardouin, described how they exploited their success: ‘When the knights see this, who are in the transports, they land, raise their ladders against the wall, and scale to the top of the wall by main force, and so take four of the towers. And all begin to leap out of the ships and transports and galleys, helter-skelter, each as best he can and they break in some three of the gates and enter in and they draw the horses out of the transports and the knights mount and ride straight to the quarters of the Emperor Mourtzouphlos.’
Most historians point to the Latin conquest of Constantinople on April 13, 1204 as the practical end of the Byzantine Empire, which disintegrated into a number of feudal fiefdoms and kingdoms under the elected Latin Emperor Baldwin I until his defeat and capture by Tsar Kaloyan’s Bulgarian army near Adrianople on April 14, 1205, and his subsequent execution by his captors. Although the Greeks, who had established a rival kingdom across the Bosphorus in Nicea, returned to reclaim their capital in 1261, they would find it plundered and most of their territory lost forever. The Fourth Crusade, which never came near to the Holy Land, had shattered the citadel of Christendom in the east.
Although treachery and resourcefulness could overcome the strongest of medieval fortifications, it was the cannon that would render them obsolete. The Hundred Years’ War witnessed the emergence of this weapon as the decisive instrument of war on land. The Ottoman Turks, who emerged in the late 14th century as the next great challenge to Byzantium, were in the forefront of this early technology. In 1451, 19-year-old Mehmet II ascended the Turkish throne with a burning desire to succeed where his father, Murad II, had failed 29 years before-to capture Constantinople and make it the capital of his empire. By that time the Ottoman Empire had absorbed most of Byzantium’s territory and engulfed its capital as it expanded outward from Asia Minor into the Balkans. In his quest, Mehmet would not be limited to traditional methods of siegecraft, for the sultan’s armies had by that time acquired a large number of cannon. Combining that technology with superior energy and vision, Mehmet would go further than others in exploring tactical solutions to the formidable obstacle that Constantinople’s defenses still presented.
Reports circulating around the courts of Europe in the winter of 1452-53 spoke of unprecedented Turkish preparations for an assault upon the city. In fact, the Turkish army that appeared before Constantinople on April 6, 1453, was singular in only one respect. With 80,000 soldiers-including 15,000 of the Sultan’s elite Janissary corps-Serbian miners, various siege engines, and a fleet of some 300 to 400 ships, it was a formidable force, though hardly anything the city had not seen many times before. It was artillery, however, that made this a potent threat, especially a new generation of massive siege artillery developed by a Hungarian cannon founder named Urban.
Abandoning the meager pay and resources of the Byzantines, Urban found an eager sponsor in Mehmet, who set him to work casting large-caliber cannon to breach the city walls. The Hungarian went about his work with equal enthusiasm, promising the sultan that ‘the stone discharged from my cannon would reduce to dust not only those walls, but even the walls of Babylon.’ The resultant cannon was titanic, requiring 60 oxen and 200 soldiers to haul it across Thrace from the foundry at Adrianople. Twenty-seven feet long, 2 l/2 feet in bore, the great weapon could hurl a 1,200-pound ball over a mile. When it was tested, a Turkish chronicler wrote that a warning was sent out to the Ottoman camp so that pregnant women would not abort at the shock. Its explosions, he said, ‘made the city walls shake, and the ground inside.’ The cannon’s size, however, was also its liability. Crewed by 500, it took 2 hours to load and could only fire eight rounds per day. Fortunately for the Turks, Mehmet had many more practical and more proven pieces-2 large cannons and 18 batteries of 130 smaller caliber weapons.
Against traditional siege engines and complemented by adequate land and sea forces, the walls of Constantinople had proven impregnable for centuries, but times had changed. Destitute and depopulated, the city had never recovered from its sack by the Latins in 1204. In spite of Emperor Constantine XI’s efforts to rally volunteers, few answered the call. To make matters worse, the defenders’ resolve was undermined by deep divisions caused by the emperor’s decision to reunify the Orthodox with the Catholic Church in a desperate attempt to give the Pope incentive to aid him against the Turks. The empire was at the end of its resources, its defenses left primarily to Italian mercenaries. Greeks commanded only two of the nine sectors of the defense. Gunpowder was in short supply and the walls had fallen into disrepair the overseers had embezzled the funds for their maintenance. The fleet, long the critical arm of the Empire, now consisted of just three Venetian galleasses and 20 galleys.
The 4,973 Greek soldiers and volunteers, and the 2,000 foreigners who had come to assist them, had to defend 14 miles of fortifications. With 500 men detailed to defend the Sea Walls, that would have left only one man every four feet at the Outer Land Walls alone. With many of the garrison manning the engines, towers, bastions and other points, the distribution of soldiers along the walls was undoubtedly much thinner. The demands on each man grew precipitously as the battle progressed and as casualties, sickness, and desertion reduced their numbers, and substantial breaches appeared in the walls. That such a scant force managed to defend one of the largest cities of the medieval world for seven weeks was a remarkable testament to both the fortifications and the men who defended them.
For weeks Turkish guns relentlessly battered the Land Walls, in the words of witness Nicol Barbaro, ‘firing their cannon again and again, with so many other guns and arrows without number…that the air seemed to split apart.’ The high masonry walls made an easy target for long-range enemy guns, and at the same time could not long withstand the recoil of the Byzantine cannons mounted upon them. Although Urban’s monster cannon exploded on its fourth round, killing its builder and many of the crew, the Turks discovered a more effective technique for employing their artillery. Following the advice of a Hungarian envoy, Turkish gunners concentrated their fire against points on the wall in a triangular pattern-two shots, one each to the base of the a 30-foot section, then a toppling shot to the top center. In that way, the Turks gradually breached sections of the Outer Walls, exposing the Inner Wall, which too began to crumble. The defenders fought off Turkish attempts to assault the inner defenses by day, and crept forward each night to fill in the widening holes with rubble and palisades.
If the ultimate outcome of the siege of Constantinople was ever in doubt, Mehmet’s solving the problem of the barrier chain made it inevitable. Unable to force a passage through the chain and past the Christian warships, the sultan resolved to bypass it by hauling his ships overland, behind Galata and into the Golden Horn. To his engineers, who had hauled Urban’s cannon across Thrace, that posed little problem. Using greased windlasses and buffalo teams, the first ships made the trip on the night of April 22. The next morning the defenders awoke to find a squadron of Turkish vessels in the Horn and themselves with another five miles of sea walls to defend. Before the Greeks and their allies could effectively counter this new threat, Mehmet had the Horn sealed to the west, in front of his ships, by building a floating bridge of giant oil casks and planks. The Christian ships were now bottled up in the Horn between two arms of the Moslem fleet. The final blow came on May 29, 1453. The Turks attacked three hours before dawn, concentrating their effort on the Mesoteichion and the western half of the Sea Walls along the Horn. After seven weeks of heroic resistance, the defenders had reached the limits of endurance. In any case, their numbers were no longer sufficient to defend the Land Walls, sections of which were reduced to rubble. A large breach was opened in the walls in the Lycus Valley and the Turks pressed the attack. Barbaro described the final moments: ‘One hour before daybreak the Sultan had his great cannon fired, and the shot landed in the repairs which we had made and knocked them down to the ground. Nothing could be seen for the smoke made by the cannon, and the Turks, under the cover of the smoke, and about 300 of them got inside the barbicans.’ While the defenders beat back that attack, the next succeeded in penetrating the Inner Wall. As Turkish soldiers appeared in the garrison’s rear, the defense swiftly collapsed. Word spread that the defenses had been breached and panic ensued. Those who did not take flight were overwhelmed at their posts. Constantine went to a hero’s death, struck down in the final melee near the great breach. A few managed to escape aboard the Christian ships most of the rest, including 90 percent of the populace, were sold into slavery. After nearly 1,000 years, the Eastern Roman Empire ceased to exist.
Constantinople was reborn as Istanbul, and as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, its fortunes were reversed. Many of its splendors, old and new, still beckon, though the broken, overgrown remnants of its ancient defenses attract little interest. It is pertinent today, as historians look upon the tragic history of the Balkans, to recognize the consequences for the West and the implications for the world had it not been for Constantinople’s role as the citadel at the gate of Europe, which for critical centuries held the East at bay through the long night of the Dark Ages.
This article was written by U.S. Army Lt. Col. Comer Plummer III, a Middle East Foreign Area officer with degrees in history and international relations, writes from Springfield, Va. For further reading, he highly recommends Byron Tsangadas’ The Fortifications and Defense of Constantinople, noting: ‘For a scholarly examination of the defenses of the city, it is unsurpassed. It also contains an excellent account of the defense of Constantinople in the Seventh and Eight Centuries.’
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A Relentless Bombardment
On April 6, the huge guns began blasting the formidable walls of Constantinople to rubble. The defenders repelled attackers at the holes in the walls, and tried to repair those holes at night. They fired their own, much smaller cannons, too.
The defenders of Constantinople held out for six weeks.
They repelled the Ottoman ships at the boom (chain) across the harbor for a time. But the Ottomans built a railed road during the siege and got 70 of their ships into the harbor from the road. They began bombarding the weaker walls facing the sea.
Impact of the Trade of Enslaved People
Historian Nathan Nunn has conducted extensive research on the economic impacts of the massive loss of population during the trade of enslaved people. Prior to 1400, there were several Iron Age kingdoms in Africa that were established and growing. As the trade of enslaved people ramped up, people in those communities needed to protect themselves and began procuring weapons (iron knives, swords, and firearms) from Europeans by trading enslaved people.
People were kidnapped first from other villages and then from their own communities. In many regions, the internal conflict caused by that led to the disintegration of kingdoms and their replacement by warlords who could not or would not establish stable states. The impacts continue to this day, and despite great indigenous strides in resistance and economic innovation, Nunn believes the scars still hinder the economic growth of countries who lost large numbers of populations to enslavement and trade compared to those that did not.
Jefferson's Attitudes Toward Slavery
Thomas Jefferson wrote that &ldquoall men are created equal,&rdquo and yet enslaved more than six-hundred people over the course of his life. Although he made some legislative attempts against slavery and at times bemoaned its existence, he also profited directly from the institution of slavery and wrote that he suspected black people to be inferior to white people in his Notes on the State of Virginia.
Throughout his entire life, Thomas Jefferson was publicly a consistent opponent of slavery. Calling it a &ldquomoral depravity&rdquo1 and a &ldquohideous blot,&rdquo2 he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new American nation.3 Jefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty.4 These views were radical in a world where unfree labor was the norm.
At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery&rsquos abolition.5 In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.6 In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest territories.7 But Jefferson always maintained that the decision to emancipate slaves would have to be part of a democratic process abolition would be stymied until slaveowners consented to free their human property together in a large-scale act of emancipation. To Jefferson, it was anti-democratic and contrary to the principles of the American Revolution for the federal government to enact abolition or for only a few planters to free their slaves.8
Although Jefferson continued to advocate for abolition, the reality was that slavery was becoming more entrenched. The slave population in Virginia skyrocketed from 292,627 in 1790 to 469,757 in 1830. Jefferson had assumed that the abolition of the slave trade would weaken slavery and hasten its end. Instead, slavery became more widespread and profitable. In an attempt to erode Virginians&rsquo support for slavery, he discouraged the cultivation of crops heavily dependent on slave labor&mdashspecifically tobacco&mdashand encouraged the introduction of crops that needed little or no slave labor&mdashwheat, sugar maples, short-grained rice, olive trees, and wine grapes.9 But by the 1800s, Virginia&rsquos most valuable commodity and export was neither crops nor land, but slaves.
Jefferson&rsquos belief in the necessity of ending slavery never changed. From the mid-1770s until his death, he advocated the same plan of gradual emancipation. First, the transatlantic slave trade would be abolished.10 Second, slaveowners would &ldquoimprove&rdquo slavery&rsquos most violent features, by bettering (Jefferson used the term &ldquoameliorating&rdquo) living conditions and moderating physical punishment.11 Third, all born into slavery after a certain date would be declared free, followed by total abolition.12 Like others of his day, he supported the removal of newly freed slaves from the United States.13 The unintended effect of Jefferson&rsquos plan was that his goal of &ldquoimproving&rdquo slavery as a step towards ending it was used as an argument for its perpetuation. Pro-slavery advocates after Jefferson&rsquos death argued that if slavery could be &ldquoimproved,&rdquo abolition was unnecessary.
Jefferson&rsquos belief in the necessity of abolition was intertwined with his racial beliefs. He thought that white Americans and enslaved blacks constituted two &ldquoseparate nations&rdquo who could not live together peacefully in the same country.14 Jefferson&rsquos belief that blacks were racially inferior and &ldquoas incapable as children,&rdquo15 coupled with slaves&rsquo presumed resentment of their former owners, made their removal from the United States an integral part of Jefferson&rsquos emancipation scheme. Influenced by the Haitian Revolution and an aborted rebellion in Virginia in 1800, Jefferson believed that American slaves&rsquo deportation&mdashwhether to Africa or the West Indies&mdashwas an essential followup to emancipation.16
Jefferson wrote that maintaining slavery was like holding &ldquoa wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.&rdquo17 He thought that his cherished federal union, the world&rsquos first democratic experiment, would be destroyed by slavery. To emancipate slaves on American soil, Jefferson thought, would result in a large-scale race war that would be as brutal and deadly as the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791. But he also believed that to keep slaves in bondage, with part of America in favor of abolition and part of America in favor of perpetuating slavery, could only result in a civil war that would destroy the union. Jefferson&rsquos latter prediction was correct: in 1861, the contest over slavery sparked a bloody civil war and the creation of two nations&mdashUnion and Confederacy&mdashin the place of one.
What Was America's First Terrorist Threat?
So great was the problem posed by the state-sponsored piracy that the Barbary nations are mentioned explicitly in the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, a 1778 pact between France and the United States [source: Yale]. The treaty calls on France to use its diplomatic powers to protect captured sailors and persuade the leaders of the Barbary nations to refrain from capturing American ships.
This treaty was hammered out largely by Benjamin Franklin. He served as one of the United States' first diplomats and was succeeded as America's ambassador to France by Thomas Jefferson in 1785 [source: National Archives]. The U.S. was deeply allied with France because its relations with another superpower -- England -- were shaky at best. It was from Paris that Jefferson began a campaign against the Barbary States.
Jefferson tried to assemble a confederation of nations to take action against the Barbaries. His plan failed, however, because it lacked consent from France and England [source: Gawalt]. He would have to wait until he became president to enjoy enough autonomy to take on the Barbary States. In the meantime, the U.S. and Europe continued to pay tribute and lose citizens and goods to the pirates. In one case, an American vessel bringing tribute to Algiers was forced to sail on to Constantinople to deliver Algiers' tribute to the king there -- with the humiliating command to fly the flag of Algiers en route [source: Fremont-Barnes].
Just before Jefferson's inauguration in 1801, the pasha (Turkish ruler) of Tripoli released the crew members of two recently captured American ships on the condition that the U.S. increase its tribute. If America refused, the Barbary States would declare war on the United States. Jefferson ordered a naval expedition to the Mediterranean, resulting in the First Barbary War (1801-1805). In the war, Tunis and Algiers broke their alliance with Tripoli. For four years, the U.S. fought with Tripoli and Morocco. The battles were mostly naval, including Lt. Stephen Decatur's daring raid on the Tripoli harbor to demolish a captured American ship, removing it from enemy hands.
But it was on land -- through military action and diplomacy -- that the U.S. won the war with the Barbary States. Using tactics similar to those of the Green Berets today, a contingent of American Marines landed in Tripoli (which gave rise to the first line in the Marines' anthem) and identified groups in opposition to the pasha. These opposition groups were amassed into an insurgency that threatened the pasha's throne. As a result, Tripoli agreed to a treaty ending the war in 1805 [source: Gawalt].
The Second Barbary War (1815), under President James Madison's term, was more ham-fisted than the first. In this war, U.S. vessels bombarded Tunis and Algiers, captured prisoners and demanded treaties that freed the U.S. from both Barbary threat and extorted tribute [source: The New American]. The Second Barbary War lasted less than a year, and following its show of naval strength, the U.S. discontinued paying tribute to the Barbary States. This caused a ripple effect among the European nations. Within the next decades, the coast of North Africa and the Barbary rulers fell to European imperialism [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].
For more information on pirates and other related topics, visit the next page.
The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson
With five simple words in the Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—Thomas Jefferson undid Aristotle’s ancient formula, which had governed human affairs until 1776: “From the hour of their birth, some men are marked out for subjection, others for rule.” In his original draft of the Declaration, in soaring, damning, fiery prose, Jefferson denounced the slave trade as an “execrable commerce . this assemblage of horrors,” a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” As historian John Chester Miller put it, “The inclusion of Jefferson’s strictures on slavery and the slave trade would have committed the United States to the abolition of slavery.”
From This Story
Conceived by Jefferson as an agrarian idyll, Monticello (seen today) “operated on carefully calibrated brutality.” (Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, Photograph by Leonard Phillips) (Illustration by Charis Tsevis) A 1950s editor of Jefferson’s Farm Book (a ledger page) withheld a revelation that young slave boys in the nailworks were whipped. (The Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts at the Massachusetts Historical Society) Sewing tools attest to the slave labor that funded luxury and ease. (Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello) Nailmaking implements from Thomas Jefferson's nailery at Monticello. The young boys known as nailers hammered out 5,000 to 10,000 nails per day. (Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello) As a young man at Monticello, Isaac Granger (a freedman by 1847) produced a half ton of nails in six months. (Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, VA)
The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia
That was the way it was interpreted by some of those who read it at the time as well. Massachusetts freed its slaves on the strength of the Declaration of Independence, weaving Jefferson’s language into the state constitution of 1780. The meaning of “all men” sounded equally clear, and so disturbing to the authors of the constitutions of six Southern states that they emended Jefferson’s wording. “All freemen,” they wrote in their founding documents, “are equal.” The authors of those state constitutions knew what Jefferson meant, and could not accept it. The Continental Congress ultimately struck the passage because South Carolina and Georgia, crying out for more slaves, would not abide shutting down the market.
“One cannot question the genuineness of Jefferson’s liberal dreams,” writes historian David Brion Davis. “He was one of the first statesmen in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.”
But in the 1790s, Davis continues, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” And later, Davis finds, Jefferson’s emancipation efforts “virtually ceased.”
Somewhere in a short span of years during the 1780s and into the early 1790s, a transformation came over Jefferson.
The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America’s national enterprise.
We can be forgiven if we interrogate Jefferson posthumously about slavery. It is not judging him by today’s standards to do so. Many people of his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him. When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified it felt like praying to a stone. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”
Thomas Jefferson’s mansion stands atop his mountain like the Platonic ideal of a house: a perfect creation existing in an ethereal realm, literally above the clouds. To reach Monticello, you must ascend what a visitor called “this steep, savage hill,” through a thick forest and swirls of mist that recede at the summit, as if by command of the master of the mountain. “If it had not been called Monticello,” said one visitor, “I would call it Olympus, and Jove its occupant.” The house that presents itself at the summit seems to contain some kind of secret wisdom encoded in its form. Seeing Monticello is like reading an old American Revolutionary manifesto—the emotions still rise. This is the architecture of the New World, brought forth by its guiding spirit.
In designing the mansion, Jefferson followed a precept laid down two centuries earlier by Palladio: “We must contrive a building in such a manner that the finest and most noble parts of it be the most exposed to public view, and the less agreeable disposed in by places, and removed from sight as much as possible.”
The mansion sits atop a long tunnel through which slaves, unseen, hurried back and forth carrying platters of food, fresh tableware, ice, beer, wine and linens, while above them 20, 30 or 40 guests sat listening to Jefferson’s dinner-table conversation. At one end of the tunnel lay the icehouse, at the other the kitchen, a hive of ceaseless activity where the enslaved cooks and their helpers produced one course after another.
During dinner Jefferson would open a panel in the side of the fireplace, insert an empty wine bottle and seconds later pull out a full bottle. We can imagine that he would delay explaining how this magic took place until an astonished guest put the question to him. The panel concealed a narrow dumbwaiter that descended to the basement. When Jefferson put an empty bottle in the compartment, a slave waiting in the basement pulled the dumbwaiter down, removed the empty, inserted a fresh bottle and sent it up to the master in a matter of seconds. Similarly, platters of hot food magically appeared on a revolving door fitted with shelves, and the used plates disappeared from sight on the same contrivance. Guests could not see or hear any of the activity, nor the links between the visible world and the invisible that magically produced Jefferson’s abundance.
Jefferson appeared every day at first light on Monticello’s long terrace, walking alone with his thoughts. From his terrace Jefferson looked out upon an industrious, well-organized enterprise of black coopers, smiths, nailmakers, a brewer, cooks professionally trained in French cuisine, a glazier, painters, millers and weavers. Black managers, slaves themselves, oversaw other slaves. A team of highly skilled artisans constructed Jefferson’s coach. The household staff ran what was essentially a mid-sized hotel, where some 16 slaves waited upon the needs of a daily horde of guests.
The plantation was a small town in everything but name, not just because of its size, but in its complexity. Skilled artisans and house slaves occupied cabins on Mulberry Row alongside hired white workers a few slaves lived in rooms in the mansion’s south dependency wing some slept where they worked. Most of Monticello’s slaves lived in clusters of cabins scattered down the mountain and on outlying farms. In his lifetime Jefferson owned more than 600 slaves. At any one time about 100 slaves lived on the mountain the highest slave population, in 1817, was 140.
Below the mansion there stood John Hemings’ cabinetmaking shop, called the joinery, along with a dairy, a stable, a small textile factory and a vast garden carved from the mountainside—the cluster of industries Jefferson launched to supply Monticello’s household and bring in cash. “To be independent for the comforts of life,” Jefferson said, “we must fabricate them ourselves.” He was speaking of America’s need to develop manufacturing, but he had learned that truth on a microscale on his plantation.
Jefferson looked down from his terrace onto a community of slaves he knew very well—an extended family and network of related families that had been in his ownership for two, three or four generations. Though there were several surnames among the slaves on the “mountaintop”—Fossett, Hern, Colbert, Gillette, Brown, Hughes—they were all Hemingses by blood, descendants of the matriarch Elizabeth “Betty” Hemings, or Hemings relatives by marriage. “A peculiar fact about his house servants was that we were all related to one another,” as a former slave recalled many years later. Jefferson’s grandson Jeff Randolph observed, “Mr. Js Mechanics and his entire household of servants. consisted of one family connection and their wives.”
For decades, archaeologists have been scouring Mulberry Row, finding mundane artifacts that testify to the way that life was lived in the workshops and cabins. They have found saw blades, a large drill bit, an ax head, blacksmith’s pincers, a wall bracket made in the joinery for a clock in the mansion, scissors, thimbles, locks and a key, and finished nails forged, cut and hammered by nail boys.
The archaeologists also found a bundle of raw nail rod—a lost measure of iron handed out to a nail boy one dawn. Why was this bundle found in the dirt, unworked, instead of forged, cut and hammered the way the boss had told them? Once, a missing bundle of rod had started a fight in the nailery that got one boy’s skull bashed in and another sold south to terrify the rest of the children—“in terrorem” were Jefferson’s words—“as if he were put out of the way by death.” Perhaps this very bundle was the cause of the fight.
Weaving slavery into a narrative about Thomas Jefferson usually presents a challenge to authors, but one writer managed to spin this vicious attack and terrible punishment of a nailery boy into a charming plantation tale. In a 1941 biography of Jefferson for “young adults” (ages 12 to 16) the author wrote: “In this beehive of industry no discord or revilings found entrance: there were no signs of discontent on the black shining faces as they worked under the direction of their master. The women sang at their tasks and the children old enough to work made nails leisurely, not too overworked for a prank now and then.”
It might seem unfair to mock the misconceptions and sappy prose of “a simpler era,” except that this book, The Way of an Eagle, and hundreds like it, shaped the attitudes of generations of readers about slavery and African-Americans. Time magazine chose it as one of the “important books” of 1941 in the children’s literature category, and it gained a second life in America’s libraries when it was reprinted in 1961 as Thomas Jefferson: Fighter for Freedom and Human Rights.
In describing what Mulberry Row looked like, William Kelso, the archaeologist who excavated it in the 1980s, writes, “There can be little doubt that a relatively shabby Main Street stood there.” Kelso notes that “throughout Jefferson’s tenure, it seems safe to conclude that the spartan Mulberry Row buildings. made a jarring impact on the Monticello landscape.”
It seems puzzling that Jefferson placed Mulberry Row, with its slave cabins and work buildings, so close to the mansion, but we are projecting the present onto the past. Today, tourists can walk freely up and down the old slave quarter. But in Jefferson’s time, guests didn’t go there, nor could they see it from the mansion or the lawn. Only one visitor left a description of Mulberry Row, and she got a glimpse of it only because she was a close friend of Jefferson’s, someone who could be counted upon to look with the right attitude. When she published her account in the Richmond Enquirer, she wrote that the cabins would appear “poor and uncomfortable” only to people of “northern feelings.”
The critical turning point in Jefferson’s thinking may well have come in 1792. As Jefferson was counting up the agricultural profits and losses of his plantation in a letter to President Washington that year, it occurred to him that there was a phenomenon he had perceived at Monticello but never actually measured. He proceeded to calculate it in a barely legible, scribbled note in the middle of a page, enclosed in brackets. What Jefferson set out clearly for the first time was that he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children. The enslaved were yielding him a bonanza, a perpetual human dividend at compound interest. Jefferson wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.
In another communication from the early 1790s, Jefferson takes the 4 percent formula further and quite bluntly advances the notion that slavery presented an investment strategy for the future. He writes that an acquaintance who had suffered financial reverses “should have been invested in negroes.” He advises that if the friend’s family had any cash left, “every farthing of it [should be] laid out in land and negroes, which besides a present support bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by the increase in their value.”
The irony is that Jefferson sent his 4 percent formula to George Washington, who freed his slaves, precisely because slavery had made human beings into money, like “Cattle in the market,” and this disgusted him. Yet Jefferson was right, prescient, about the investment value of slaves. A startling statistic emerged in the 1970s, when economists taking a hardheaded look at slavery found that on the eve of the Civil War, enslaved black people, in the aggregate, formed the second most valuable capital asset in the United States. David Brion Davis sums up their findings: “In 1860, the value of Southern slaves was about three times the amount invested in manufacturing or railroads nationwide.” The only asset more valuable than the black people was the land itself. The formula Jefferson had stumbled upon became the engine not only of Monticello but of the entire slaveholding South and the Northern industries, shippers, banks, insurers and investors who weighed risk against returns and bet on slavery. The words Jefferson used—“their increase”—became magic words.
Jefferson’s 4 percent theorem threatens the comforting notion that he had no real awareness of what he was doing, that he was “stuck” with or “trapped” in slavery, an obsolete, unprofitable, burdensome legacy. The date of Jefferson’s calculation aligns with the waning of his emancipationist fervor. Jefferson began to back away from antislavery just around the time he computed the silent profit of the “peculiar institution.”
And this world was crueler than we have been led to believe. A letter has recently come to light describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work in Jefferson’s nail factory, whose profits paid the mansion’s grocery bills. This passage about children being lashed had been suppressed—deliberately deleted from the published record in the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, containing 500 pages of plantation papers. That edition of the Farm Book still serves as a standard reference for research into the way Monticello worked.
By 1789, Jefferson planned to shift away from growing tobacco at Monticello, whose cultivation he described as “a culture of infinite wretchedness.” Tobacco wore out the soil so fast that new acreage constantly had to be cleared, engrossing so much land that food could not be raised to feed the workers and requiring the farmer to purchase rations for the slaves. (In a strangely modern twist, Jefferson had taken note of the measurable climate change in the region: The Chesapeake region was unmistakably cooling and becoming inhospitable to heat-loving tobacco that would soon, he thought, become the staple of South Carolina and Georgia.) He visited farms and inspected equipment, considering a new crop, wheat, and the exciting prospect it opened before him.
The cultivation of wheat revitalized the plantation economy and reshaped the South’s agricultural landscape. Planters all over the Chesapeake region had been making the shift. (George Washington had begun raising grains some 30 years earlier because his land wore out faster than Jefferson’s did.) Jefferson continued to plant some tobacco because it remained an important cash crop, but his vision for wheat farming was rapturous: “The cultivation of wheat is the reverse [of tobacco] in every circumstance. Besides cloathing the earth with herbage, and preserving its fertility, it feeds the labourers plentifully, requires from them only a moderate toil, except in the season of harvest, raises great numbers of animals for food and service, and diffuses plenty and happiness among the whole.”
Wheat farming forced changes in the relationship between planter and slave. Tobacco was raised by gangs of slaves all doing the same repetitive, backbreaking tasks under the direct, strict supervision of overseers. Wheat required a variety of skilled laborers, and Jefferson’s ambitious plans required a retrained work force of millers, mechanics, carpenters, smiths, spinners, coopers, and plowmen and plowmen.
Jefferson still needed a cohort of “labourers in the ground” to carry out the hardest tasks, so the Monticello slave community became more segmented and hierarchical. They were all slaves, but some slaves would be better than others. The majority remained laborers above them were enslaved artisans (both male and female) above them were enslaved managers above them was the household staff. The higher you stood in the hierarchy, the better clothes and food you got you also lived literally on a higher plane, closer to the mountaintop. A small minority of slaves received pay, profit sharing or what Jefferson called “gratuities,” while the lowest workers received only the barest rations and clothing. Differences bred resentment, especially toward the elite household staff.
Planting wheat required fewer workers than tobacco, leaving a pool of field laborers available for specialized training. Jefferson embarked on a comprehensive program to modernize slavery, diversify it and industrialize it. Monticello would have a nail factory, a textile factory, a short-lived tinsmithing operation, coopering and charcoal burning. He had ambitious plans for a flour mill and a canal to provide water power for it.
Training for this new organization began in childhood. Jefferson sketched out a plan in his Farm Book: “children till 10. years old to serve as nurses. from 10. to 16. the boys make nails, the girls spin. at 16. go into the ground or learn trades.”
Tobacco required child labor (the small stature of children made them ideal workers for the distasteful task of plucking and killing tobacco worms) wheat did not, so Jefferson transferred his surplus of young workers to his nail factory (boys) and spinning and weaving operations (girls).
He launched the nailery in 1794 and supervised it personally for three years. “I now employ a dozen little boys from 10. to 16. years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself.” He said he spent half the day counting and measuring nails. In the morning he weighed and distributed nail rod to each nailer at the end of the day he weighed the finished product and noted how much rod had been wasted.
The nailery “particularly suited me,” he wrote, “because it would employ a parcel of boys who would otherwise be idle.” Equally important, it served as a training and testing ground. All the nail boys got extra food those who did well received a new suit of clothes, and they could also expect to graduate, as it were, to training as artisans rather than going “in the ground” as common field slaves.
Some nail boys rose in the plantation hierarchy to become house servants, blacksmiths, carpenters or coopers. Wormley Hughes, a slave who became head gardener, started in the nailery, as did Burwell Colbert, who rose to become the mansion’s butler and Jefferson’s personal attendant. Isaac Granger, the son of an enslaved Monticello foreman, Great George Granger, was the most productive nailer, with a profit averaging 80 cents a day over the first six months of 1796, when he was 20 he fashioned half a ton of nails during those six months. The work was tedious in the extreme. Confined for long hours in the hot, smoky workshop, the boys hammered out 5,000 to 10,000 nails a day, producing a gross income of $2,000 in 1796. Jefferson’s competition for the nailery was the state penitentiary.
The nailers received twice the food ration of a field worker but no wages. Jefferson paid white boys (an overseer’s sons) 50 cents a day for cutting wood to feed the nailery’s fires, but this was a weekend job done “on Saturdays, when they were not in school.”
Exuberant over the success of the nailery, Jefferson wrote: “My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe.” The profit was substantial. Just months after the factory began operation, he wrote that “a nailery which I have established with my own negro boys now provides completely for the maintenance of my family.” Two months of labor by the nail boys paid the entire annual grocery bill for the white family. He wrote to a Richmond merchant, “My groceries come to between 4. and 500. Dollars a year, taken and paid for quarterly. The best resource of quarterly paiment in my power is Nails, of which I make enough every fortnight [emphasis added] to pay a quarter’s bill.”
In an 1840s memoir, Isaac Granger, by then a freedman who had taken the surname Jefferson, recalled circumstances at the nailery. Isaac, who worked there as a young man, specified the incentives that Jefferson offered to nailers: “Gave the boys in the nail factory a pound of meat a week, a dozen herrings, a quart of molasses, and peck of meal. Give them that wukked the best a suit of red or blue encouraged them mightily.” Not all the slaves felt so mightily encouraged. It was Great George Granger’s job, as foreman, to get those people to work. Without molasses and suits to offer, he had to rely on persuasion, in all its forms. For years he had been very successful—by what methods, we don’t know. But in the winter of 1798 the system ground to a halt when Granger, perhaps for the first time, refused to whip people.
Col. Thomas Mann Randolph, Jefferson’s son-in-law, reported to Jefferson, then living in Philadelphia as vice president, that “insubordination” had “greatly clogged” operations under Granger. A month later there was “progress,” but Granger was “absolutely wasting with care.” He was caught between his own people and Jefferson, who had rescued the family when they had been sold from the plantation of Jefferson’s father-in-law, given him a good job, allowed him to earn money and own property, and shown similar benevolence to Granger’s children. Now Jefferson had his eye on Granger’s output.
Jefferson noted curtly in a letter to Randolph that another overseer had already delivered his tobacco to the Richmond market, “where I hope George’s will soon join it.” Randolph reported back that Granger’s people had not even packed the tobacco yet, but gently urged his father-in-law to have patience with the foreman: “He is not careless. tho’ he procrastinates too much.” It seems that Randolph was trying to protect Granger from Jefferson’s wrath. George was not procrastinating he was struggling against a workforce that resisted him. But he would not beat them, and they knew it.
At length, Randolph had to admit the truth to Jefferson. Granger, he wrote, “cannot command his force.” The only recourse was the whip. Randolph reported “instances of disobedience so gross that I am obliged to interfere and have them punished myself.” Randolph would not have administered the whip personally they had professionals for that.
Most likely he called in William Page, the white overseer who ran Jefferson’s farms across the river, a man notorious for his cruelty. Throughout Jefferson’s plantation records there runs a thread of indicators—some direct, some oblique, some euphemistic—that the Monticello machine operated on carefully calibrated brutality. Some slaves would never readily submit to bondage. Some, Jefferson wrote, “require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work.” That plain statement of his policy has been largely ignored in preference to Jefferson’s well-known self-exoneration: “I love industry and abhor severity.” Jefferson made that reassuring remark to a neighbor, but he might as well have been talking to himself. He hated conflict, disliked having to punish people and found ways to distance himself from the violence his system required.
Thus he went on record with a denunciation of overseers as “the most abject, degraded and unprincipled race,” men of “pride, insolence and spirit of domination.” Though he despised these brutes, they were hardhanded men who got things done and had no misgivings. He hired them, issuing orders to impose a vigor of discipline.
It was during the 1950s, when historian Edwin Betts was editing one of Colonel Randolph’s plantation reports for Jefferson’s Farm Book, that he confronted a taboo subject and made his fateful deletion. Randolph reported to Jefferson that the nailery was functioning very well because “the small ones” were being whipped. The youngsters did not take willingly to being forced to show up in the icy midwinter hour before dawn at the master’s nail forge. And so the overseer, Gabriel Lilly, was whipping them “for truancy.”
Betts decided that the image of children being beaten at Monticello had to be suppressed, omitting this document from his edition. He had an entirely different image in his head the introduction to the book declared, “Jefferson came close to creating on his own plantations the ideal rural community.” Betts couldn’t do anything about the original letter, but no one would see it, tucked away in the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society. The full text did not emerge in print until 2005.
Betts’ omission was important in shaping the scholarly consensus that Jefferson managed his plantations with a lenient hand. Relying on Betts’ editing, the historian Jack McLaughlin noted that Lilly “resorted to the whip during Jefferson’s absence, but Jefferson put a stop to it.”
“Slavery was an evil he had to live with,” historian Merrill Peterson wrote, “and he managed it with what little dosings of humanity a diabolical system permitted.” Peterson echoed Jefferson’s complaints about the work force, alluding to “the slackness of slave labor,” and emphasized Jefferson’s benevolence: “In the management of his slaves Jefferson encouraged diligence but was instinctively too lenient to demand it. By all accounts he was a kind and generous master. His conviction of the injustice of the institution strengthened his sense of obligation toward its victims.”
Joseph Ellis observed that only “on rare occasions, and as a last resort, he ordered overseers to use the lash.” Dumas Malone stated, “Jefferson was kind to his servants to the point of indulgence, and within the framework of an institution he disliked he saw that they were well provided for. His ‘people’ were devoted to him.”
As a rule, the slaves who lived at the mountaintop, including the Hemings family and the Grangers, were treated better than slaves who worked the fields farther down the mountain. But the machine was hard to restrain.
After the violent tenures of earlier overseers, Gabriel Lilly seemed to portend a gentler reign when he arrived at Monticello in 1800. Colonel Randolph’s first report was optimistic. “All goes well,” he wrote, and “what is under Lillie admirably.” His second report about two weeks later was glowing: “Lillie goes on with great spirit and complete quiet at Mont’o.: he is so good tempered that he can get twice as much done without the smallest discontent as some with the hardest driving possible.” In addition to placing him over the laborers “in the ground” at Monticello, Jefferson put Lilly in charge of the nailery for an extra fee of 㾶 a year.
Once Lilly established himself, his good temper evidently evaporated, because Jefferson began to worry about what Lilly would do to the nailers, the promising adolescents whom Jefferson managed personally, intending to move them up the plantation ladder. He wrote to Randolph: “I forgot to ask the favor of you to speak to Lilly as to the treatment of the nailers. it would destroy their value in my estimation to degrade them in their own eyes by the whip. this therefore must not be resorted to but in extremities. as they will again be under my government, I would chuse they should retain the stimulus of character.” But in the same letter he emphasized that output must be maintained: “I hope Lilly keeps the small nailers engaged so as to supply our customers.”
Colonel Randolph immediately dispatched a reassuring but carefully worded reply: “Everything goes well at Mont’o.—the Nailers all [at] work and executing well some heavy orders. . I had given a charge of lenity respecting all: (Burwell absolutely excepted from the whip alltogether) before you wrote: none have incurred it but the small ones for truancy.” To the news that the small ones were being whipped and that “lenity” had an elastic meaning, Jefferson had no response the small ones had to be kept “engaged.”
It seems that Jefferson grew uneasy about Lilly’s regime at the nailery. Jefferson replaced him with William Stewart but kept Lilly in charge of the adult crews building his mill and canal. Under Stewart’s lenient command (greatly softened by habitual drinking), the nailery’s productivity sank. The nail boys, favored or not, had to be brought to heel. In a very unusual letter, Jefferson told his Irish master joiner, James Dinsmore, that he was bringing Lilly back to the nailery. It might seem puzzling that Jefferson would feel compelled to explain a personnel decision that had nothing to do with Dinsmore, but the nailery stood just a few steps from Dinsmore’s shop. Jefferson was preparing Dinsmore to witness scenes under Lilly’s command such as he had not seen under Stewart, and his tone was stern: “I am quite at a loss about the nailboys remaining with mr Stewart. they have long been a dead expence instead of profit to me. in truth they require a vigour of discipline to make them do reasonable work, to which he cannot bring himself. on the whole I think it will be best for them also to be removed to mr Lilly’s [control].”
The incident of horrible violence in the nailery—the attack by one nail boy against another—may shed some light on the fear Lilly instilled in the nail boys. In 1803 a nailer named Cary smashed his hammer into the skull of a fellow nailer, Brown Colbert. Seized with convulsions, Colbert went into a coma and would certainly have died had Colonel Randolph not immediately summoned a physician, who performed brain surgery. With a trephine saw, the doctor drew back the broken part of Colbert’s skull, thus relieving pressure on the brain. Amazingly, the young man survived.
Bad enough that Cary had so viciously attacked someone, but his victim was a Hemings. Jefferson angrily wrote to Randolph that “it will be necessary for me to make an example of him in terrorem to others, in order to maintain the police so rigorously necessary among the nail boys.” He ordered that Cary be sold away “so distant as never more to be heard of among us.” And he alluded to the abyss beyond the gates of Monticello into which people could be flung: “There are generally negro purchasers from Georgia passing about the state.” Randolph’s report of the incident included Cary’s motive: The boy was “irritated at some little trick from Brown, who hid part of his nailrod to teaze him.” But under Lilly’s regime this trick was not so “little.” Colbert knew the rules, and he knew very well that if Cary couldn’t find his nailrod, he would fall behind, and under Lilly that meant a beating. Hence the furious attack.
Jefferson’s daughter Martha wrote to her father that one of the slaves, a disobedient and disruptive man named John, tried to poison Lilly, perhaps hoping to kill him. John was safe from any severe punishment because he was a hired slave: If Lilly injured him, Jefferson would have to compensate his owner, so Lilly had no means to retaliate. John, evidently grasping the extent of his immunity, took every opportunity to undermine and provoke him, even “cutting up [Lilly’s] garden [and] destroying his things.”
But Lilly had his own kind of immunity. He understood his importance to Jefferson when he renegotiated his contract, so that beginning in 1804 he would no longer receive a flat fee for managing the nailery but be paid 2 percent of the gross. Productivity immediately soared. In the spring of 1804, Jefferson wrote to his supplier: “The manager of my nailery had so increased its activity as to call for a larger supply of rod. than had heretofore been necessary.”
Maintaining a high level of activity required a commensurate level of discipline. Thus, in the fall of 1804, when Lilly was informed that one of the nail boys was sick, he would have none of it. Appalled by what happened next, one of Monticello’s white workmen, a carpenter named James Oldham, informed Jefferson of “the Barbarity that [Lilly] made use of with Little Jimmy.”
Oldham reported that James Hemings, the 17-year-old son of the house servant Critta Hemings, had been sick for three nights running, so sick that Oldham feared the boy might not live. He took Hemings into his own room to keep watch over him. When he told Lilly that Hemings was seriously ill, Lilly said he would whip Jimmy into working. Oldham “begged him not to punish him,” but “this had no effect.” The “Barbarity” ensued: Lilly “whipped him three times in one day, and the boy was really not able to raise his hand to his head.”
Flogging to this degree does not persuade someone to work it disables him. But it also sends a message to the other slaves, especially those, like Jimmy, who belonged to the elite class of Hemings servants and might think they were above the authority of Gabriel Lilly. Once he recovered, Jimmy Hemings fled Monticello, joining the community of free blacks and runaways who made a living as boatmen on the James River, floating up and down between Richmond and obscure backwater villages. Contacting Hemings through Oldham, Jefferson tried to persuade him to come home, but did not set the slave catchers after him. There is no record that Jefferson made any remonstrance against Lilly, who was unrepentant about the beating and loss of a valuable slave indeed, he demanded that his salary be doubled to 𧴜. This put Jefferson in a quandary. He displayed no misgivings about the regime that Oldham characterized as “the most cruel,” but 𧴜 was more than he wanted to pay. Jefferson wrote that Lilly as an overseer “is as good a one as can be”—“certainly I can never get a man who fulfills my purposes better than he does.”
On a recent afternoon at Monticello, Fraser Neiman, the head archaeologist, led the way down the mountain into a ravine, following the trace of a road laid out by Jefferson for his carriage rides. It passed the house of Edmund Bacon, the overseer Jefferson employed from 1806 to 1822, about a mile from the mansion. When Jefferson retired from the presidency in 1809, he moved the nailery from the summit—he no longer wanted even to see it, let alone manage it—to a site downhill 100 yards from Bacon’s house. The archaeologists discovered unmistakable evidence of the shop—nails, nail rod, charcoal, coal and slag. Neiman pointed out on his map locations of the shop and Bacon’s house. “The nailery was a socially fractious place,” he said. “One suspects that’s part of the reason for getting it off the mountaintop and putting it right here next to the overseer’s house.”
About 600 feet east of Bacon’s house stood the cabin of James Hubbard, a slave who lived by himself. The archaeologists dug more than 100 test pits at this site but came up with nothing still, when they brought in metal detectors and turned up a few wrought nails, it was enough evidence to convince them that they had found the actual site of Hubbard’s house. Hubbard was 11 years old and living with his family at Poplar Forest, Jefferson’s second plantation, near Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1794, when Jefferson brought him to Monticello to work in the new nailery on the mountaintop. His assignment was a sign of Jefferson’s favor for the Hubbard family. James’ father, a skilled shoemaker, had risen to the post of foreman of labor at Poplar Forest Jefferson saw similar potential in the son. At first James performed abysmally, wasting more material than any of the other nail boys. Perhaps he was just a slow learner perhaps he hated it but he made himself better and better at the miserable work, swinging his hammer thousands of times a day, until he excelled. When Jefferson measured the nailery’s output he found that Hubbard had reached the top percent efficiency—in converting nail rod to finished nails.
A model slave, eager to improve himself, Hubbard grasped every opportunity the system offered. In his time off from the nailery, he took on additional tasks to earn cash. He sacrificed sleep to make money by burning charcoal, tending a kiln through the night. Jefferson also paid him for hauling—a position of trust because a man with a horse and permission to leave the plantation could easily escape. Through his industriousness Hubbard laid aside enough cash to purchase some fine clothes, including a hat, knee breeches and two overcoats.
Then one day in the summer of 1805, early in Jefferson’s second term as president, Hubbard vanished. For years he had patiently carried out an elaborate deception, pretending to be the loyal, hardworking slave. He had done that hard work not to soften a life in slavery but to escape it. The clothing was not for show it was a disguise.
Hubbard had been gone for many weeks when the president received a letter from the sheriff of Fairfax County. He had in custody a man named Hubbard who had confessed to being an escaped slave. In his confession Hubbard revealed the details of his escape. He had made a deal with Wilson Lilly, son of the overseer Gabriel Lilly, paying him $5 and an overcoat in exchange for false emancipation documents and a travel pass to Washington. But illiteracy was Hubbard’s downfall: He did not realize that the documents Wilson Lilly had written were not very persuasive. When Hubbard reached Fairfax County, about 100 miles north of Monticello, the sheriff stopped him, demanding to see his papers. The sheriff, who knew forgeries when he saw them and arrested Hubbard, also asked Jefferson for a reward because he had run “a great Risk” arresting “as large a fellow as he is.”
Hubbard was returned to Monticello. If he received some punishment for his escape, there is no record of it. In fact, it seems that Hubbard was forgiven and regained Jefferson’s trust within a year. The October 1806 schedule of work for the nailery shows Hubbard working with the heaviest gauge of rod with a daily output of 15 pounds of nails. That Christmas, Jefferson allowed him to travel from Monticello to Poplar Forest to see his family. Jefferson may have trusted him again, but Bacon remained wary.
One day when Bacon was trying to fill an order for nails, he found that the entire stock of eight-penny nails pounds of nails worth $50—was gone: “Of course they had been stolen.” He immediately suspected James Hubbard and confronted him, but Hubbard “denied it powerfully.” Bacon ransacked Hubbard’s cabin and “every place I could think of” but came up empty-handed. Despite the lack of evidence, Bacon remained convinced of Hubbard’s guilt. He conferred with the white manager of the nailery, Reuben Grady: “Let us drop it. He has hid them somewhere, and if we say no more about it, we shall find them.”
Walking through the woods after a heavy rain, Bacon spotted muddy tracks on the leaves on one side of the path. He followed the tracks to their end, where he found the nails buried in a large box. Immediately, he went up the mountain to inform Jefferson of the discovery and of his certainty that Hubbard was the thief. Jefferson was “very much surprised and felt very badly about it” because Hubbard “had always been a favorite servant.” Jefferson said he would question Hubbard personally the next morning when he went on his usual ride past Bacon’s house.
When Jefferson showed up the next day, Bacon had Hubbard called in. At the sight of his master, Hubbard burst into tears. Bacon wrote, “I never saw any person, white or black, feel as badly as he did when he saw his master. He was mortified and distressed beyond measure. [W]e all had confidence in him. Now his character was gone.” Hubbard tearfully begged Jefferson’s pardon “over and over again.” For a slave, burglary was a capital crime. A runaway slave who once broke into Bacon’s private storehouse and stole three pieces of bacon and a bag of cornmeal was condemned to hang in Albemarle County. The governor commuted his sentence, and the slave was “transported,” the legal term for being sold by the state to the Deep South or West Indies.
Even Bacon felt moved by Hubbard’s plea—“I felt very badly myself”— but he knew what would come next: Hubbard had to be whipped. So Bacon was astonished when Jefferson turned to him and said, “Ah, sir, we can’t punish him. He has suffered enough already.” Jefferson offered some counsel to Hubbard, “gave him a heap of good advice,” and sent him back to the nailery, where Reuben Grady was waiting, “expecting . to whip him.”
Jefferson’s magnanimity seemed to spark a conversion in Hubbard. When he got to the nailery, he told Grady he’d been seeking religion for a long time, “but I never heard anything before that sounded so, or made me feel so, as I did when master said, ‘Go, and don’t do so any more.’ ” So now he was “determined to seek religion till I find it.” Bacon said, “Sure enough, he afterwards came to me for a permit to go and be baptized.” But that, too, was deception. On his authorized absences from the plantation to attend church, Hubbard made arrangements for another escape.
During the holiday season in late 1810, Hubbard vanished again. Documents about Hubbard’s escape reveal that Jefferson’s plantations were riven with secret networks. Jefferson had at least one spy in the slave community willing to inform on fellow slaves for cash Jefferson wrote that he “engaged a trusty negro man of my own, and promised him a reward. if he could inform us so that [Hubbard] should be taken.” But the spy could not get anyone to talk. Jefferson wrote that Hubbard “has not been heard of.” But that was not true: a few people had heard of Hubbard’s movements.
Jefferson could not crack the wall of silence at Monticello, but an informer at Poplar Forest told the overseer that a boatman belonging to Colonel Randolph aided Hubbard’s escape, clandestinely ferrying him up the James River from Poplar Forest to the area around Monticello, even though white patrollers of two or three counties were hunting the fugitive. The boatman might have been part of a network that plied the Rivanna and James rivers, smuggling goods and fugitives.
Possibly, Hubbard tried to make contact with friends around Monticello possibly, he was planning to flee to the North again possibly, it was all disinformation planted by Hubbard’s friends. At some point Hubbard headed southwest, not north, across the Blue Ridge. He made his way to the town of Lexington, where he was able to live for over a year as a free man, being in possession of an impeccable manumission document.
His description appeared in the Richmond Enquirer: “a Nailor by trade, of 27 years of age, about six feet high, stout limbs and strong made, of daring demeanor, bold and harsh features, dark complexion, apt to drink freely and had even furnished himself with money and probably a free pass on a former elopement he attempted to get out of the State Northwardly . . . and probably may have taken the same direction now.”
A year after his escape Hubbard was spotted in Lexington. Before he could be captured, he took off again, heading farther west into the Allegheny Mountains, but Jefferson put a slave tracker on his trail. Cornered and clapped in irons, Hubbard was brought back to Monticello, where Jefferson made an example of him: “I had him severely flogged in the presence of his old companions, and committed to jail.” Under the lash Hubbard revealed the details of his escape and the name of an accomplice he had been able to elude capture by carrying genuine manumission papers he’d bought from a free black man in Albemarle County. The man who provided Hubbard with the papers spent six months in jail. Jefferson sold Hubbard to one of his overseers, and his final fate is not known.
Slaves lived as if in an occupied country. As Hubbard discovered, few could outrun the newspaper ads, slave patrols, vigilant sheriffs demanding papers and slave-catching bounty hunters with their guns and dogs. Hubbard was brave or desperate enough to try it twice, unmoved by the incentives Jefferson held out to cooperative, diligent, industrious slaves.
In 1817, Jefferson’s old friend, the Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko, died in Switzerland. The Polish nobleman, who had arrived from Europe in 1776 to aid the Americans, left a substantial fortune to Jefferson. Kosciuszko bequeathed funds to free Jefferson’s slaves and purchase land and farming equipment for them to begin a life on their own. In the spring of 1819, Jefferson pondered what to do with the legacy. Kosciuszko had made him executor of the will, so Jefferson had a legal duty, as well as a personal obligation to his deceased friend, to carry out the terms of the document.
The terms came as no surprise to Jefferson. He had helped Kosciuszko draft the will, which states, “I hereby authorize my friend, Thomas Jefferson, to employ the whole [bequest] in purchasing Negroes from his own or any others and giving them liberty in my name.” Kosciuszko’s estate was nearly $20,000, the equivalent today of roughly $280,000. But Jefferson refused the gift, even though it would have reduced the debt hanging over Monticello, while also relieving him, in part at least, of what he himself had described in 1814 as the “moral reproach” of slavery.
If Jefferson had accepted the legacy, as much as half of it would have gone not to Jefferson but, in effect, to his slaves—to the purchase price for land, livestock, equipment and transportation to establish them in a place such as Illinois or Ohio. Moreover, the slaves most suited for immediate emancipation—smiths, coopers, carpenters, the most skilled farmers—were the very ones whom Jefferson most valued. He also shrank from any public identification with the cause of emancipation.
It had long been accepted that slaves were assets that could be seized for debt, but Jefferson turned this around when he used slaves as collateral for a very large loan he had taken out in 1796 from a Dutch banking house in order to rebuild Monticello. He pioneered the monetizing of slaves, just as he pioneered the industrialization and diversification of slavery.
Before his refusal of Kosciuszko’s legacy, as Jefferson mulled over whether to accept the bequest, he had written to one of his plantation managers: “A child raised every 2. years is of more profit then the crop of the best laboring man. in this, as in all other cases, providence has made our duties and our interests coincide perfectly. [W]ith respect therefore to our women & their children I must pray you to inculcate upon the overseers that it is not their labor, but their increase which is the first consideration with us.”
In the 1790s, as Jefferson was mortgaging his slaves to build Monticello, George Washington was trying to scrape together financing for an emancipation at Mount Vernon, which he finally ordered in his will. He proved that emancipation was not only possible, but practical, and he overturned all the Jeffersonian rationalizations. Jefferson insisted that a multiracial society with free black people was impossible, but Washington did not think so. Never did Washington suggest that blacks were inferior or that they should be exiled.
It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.
After Jefferson’s death in 1826, the families of Jefferson’s most devoted servants were split apart. Onto the auction block went Caroline Hughes, the 9-year-old daughter of Jefferson’s gardener Wormley Hughes. One family was divided up among eight different buyers, another family among seven buyers.
Joseph Fossett, a Monticello blacksmith, was among the handful of slaves freed in Jefferson’s will, but Jefferson left Fossett’s family enslaved. In the six months between Jefferson’s death and the auction of his property, Fossett tried to strike bargains with families in Charlottesville to purchase his wife and six of his seven children. His oldest child (born, ironically, in the White House itself) had already been given to Jefferson’s grandson. Fossett found sympathetic buyers for his wife, his son Peter and two other children, but he watched the auction of three young daughters to different buyers. One of them, 17-year-old Patsy, immediately escaped from her new master, a University of Virginia official.
Joseph Fossett spent ten years at his anvil and forge earning the money to buy back his wife and children. By the late 1830s he had cash in hand to reclaim Peter, then about 21, but the owner reneged on the deal. Compelled to leave Peter in slavery and having lost three daughters, Joseph and Edith Fossett departed Charlottesville for Ohio around 1840. Years later, speaking as a free man in Ohio in 1898, Peter, who was 83, would recount that he had never forgotten the moment when he was “put up on the auction block and sold like a horse.”