Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Meeting Martin Hemings, Slave at Monticello-British Invasion, 1781

The second event we attended at The British Invasion, 1781 event last June (yes, I am that late in catching up with blog posts about our numerous travels) was a chance to meet with one of Jefferson's slaves, wonderfully portrayed by one of our actor-interpreter friends from Colonial Williamsburg. Specifically we met with Martin Hemings.


My daughter and I were a bit late since we hung out a bit long with Mrs. Jefferson (admiring her gown and listening to her fascinating story) so we snuck in and grabbed a seat on one of the portico steps of Monticello.

As well as Hemings was treated on the Monticello plantation, at the end of the day, slaves felt like someone else's property, because they were. Did you know that 18th century Virginia slave owners were not allowed to free their slaves? That is because of 17th century law that was difficult for them to overturn. In fact, Jefferson did try to overturn that in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, to which there was plenty of consensus from most of the delegates. The delegates from the south of Virginia refused to sign the document unless that part was taken out. The Founders hoped that freedom for all would eventually come. They hoped that the Declaration of Independence would at least open the door a bit to allow for more to attain freedom in the end.

Later Jefferson actually writes a law that allows the manumission of slaves, which only Robert Carter III takes advantage of. Sadly, Jefferson didn't. He claimed that he struggled with the fact that to turn all his slaves out homeless without a trade would put them in dire economic straits. Many of the Founders thought the same. Their predictions came true during the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Nevertheless, human beings yearn to be free despite the difficulties that come with it.


The Founders looked to the near future of slavery naturally dying out, as it did in the north, because slavery was not profitable. It was phasing itself out. If they couldn't get the southernmost colonies to agree to freedom for the slaves, they could at least hope for that day that slavery naturally phased out making life easier for the slaves to integrate into society. Alas...no one foresaw the invention of the cotton gin which sealed the fate of the slave and only made their chains heavier.

Because the Founders believed and hoped that freedom would come soon for the slaves, they educated their slaves. There were other reasons too, but preparation for freedom was one reason for their education. Martin gave us some examples of how they were educated. They were taught to read and write. The cooks knew French so that they could read the receipts (recipes) from France of which Jefferson was fond. The joiner knew geometry. Jefferson's butler heard his master speak so many languages (Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew, of course English, and perhaps German) so he picked up the languages too. Then of course, Martin emphasized, they had common knowledge, or street smarts and that is what made them so effective running the Underground Railroad of the 19th century.


Our visit with Martin was wonderful, but fell short because of the British Invasion! Stay tuned for that!

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