A letter penned by Thomas Jefferson to Richard Richardson, the overseer of Monticello, discussing Jefferson’s rental of slaves will on Sept. 28 be up for auction in Boston.
In the letter, dated Jan. 8, 1801, then-Vice President Jefferson requests the managers of Monticello rent slave labor from neighbors to rectify a botched land deal with John G. Craven. Though there are nearly 18,000 known letters written by Jefferson, this particular letter has very specific historical significance.
Bobby Livingston, executive vice president of RR Auction, said it is rare to find letters of Jefferson’s which have context about slaves he personally owned.
"Jefferson is having financial difficulty and he can't get slaves to work on his projects, so he's trying to rent them from his neighbor to finish the project,” Livingston said. “He's been attacked in the press and he's trying to avoid being exposed for his financial difficulty. He wasn't a very good businessman. [He] is about to win the Electoral College… he doesn't want any embarrassment."
In the letter, Jefferson wrote in careful terms how much he is willing to pay for various slaves, many of whom are well known today as having worked for or were owned by Jefferson, Livingston said.
"I am very sorry indeed to hear of so poor a chance for hiring laborer,” Jefferson wrote. “It will be a serious embarrassment...to me. I am in hopes you will have been able [t]o procure me some.”
It is shocking for the modern eye to see Jefferson price slave rentals in his own handwriting, Dr. Andrew J. O'Shaughnessy, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, said.
"It is possibly because he, in so many ways, transcended his own time period that we tend to hold him more responsible for slavery than any of the other Founding Fathers," O'Shaughnessy said in an email. "It is ironic because he wrestled with the subject more publicly than the other leaders of the revolution and he denounced the system of slavery in his published writings."
Jefferson’s letter shows the everyday business of running a plantation in early America, and renting slaves was a normal, everyday practice for planters like Jefferson, History Prof. Max Edelson said.
"This is the sort of document that historians need [in order] to understand the past,” Edelson said, “and it should really be in the possession of a library or an archive, hopefully collected with other materials about Jefferson as a slave owner.”
The implications of slave trade such as Jefferson outlines in this letter have far-reaching impacts that are still lingering today, Livingston said.
"Everything going on in the country right now, with race relations so volatile, we forget that the President of the United States owned slaves and dealt in slave trade," Livingston said. "[The Founding Fathers] allowed this institution to exist, and the pain of it is still obvious in our country."