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Category Archives: Slavery

Why sell a slave? I want to buy more.

Being now endeavoring to purchase young & able negro men for my own works, it is exactly counter to these views to sell Brown to you as proposed in your letter. however, always willing to indulge connections seriously formed by those people where it can be done reasonably, I shall consent, however reluctantly to sell him to you.
To John Jordan, December 21, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Humane leaders care for the personal lives of those in their employ.
John Jordan was a bricklayer hired to work at Monticello. Brown Colbert, one of Jefferson’s slaves (or servants, as he called them) was married to one of Jordan’s slaves. Jordan was preparing to move away. Brown wanted Jordan to buy him from Jefferson, so he wouldn’t be separated from his wife. Jordan wrote to Jefferson, asking if he would sell Brown and at what price.

Jefferson was in the market to buy more slaves. Brown was young, of good character and a skilled blacksmith. Jefferson was most reluctant to part with him. But he was even more reluctant to separate the married couple. Young, unskilled slaves of good character would bring $500. Jefferson asked an additional $100 for Brown, citing his training.

Subsequently, Jordan declined the purchase because of the higher price, as he could make no use of Brown’s blacksmithing skill. Jefferson then agreed to the sale for $500.

According to Monticello’s web site, Brown Colbert remained with Jordan until a colonization society purchased his family’s freedom. The Colbert family emigrated to Liberia, Africa, in 1833 where they all died of disease within a few months.

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He is a BIG problem, but I can put up with him.

Dear Sir
The mad-man Stewart is again here. he has called on me for $:105—which I was obliged to let him have, or I supposed suffer him to go to Jail…
George Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson, November 16, 1801

… I note & approve what you did as to Stewart. he is the best workman in America, but the most eccentric one: quite manageable were I at home, but doubtful as I am not …
To George Jefferson, December 3, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some employees, no matter how skilled, need close supervison.
George Jefferson was the President’s cousin and Richmond-based business agent. William Stewart was a Philadelphia blacksmith hired by the President to move to Monticello. A ship captain’s bill for moving the family of six was $75. Stewart demanded $105 reimbursement instead. When George asked for documentation for the extra $30, Stewart cited (but didn’t produce) a letter from the President supposedly authorizing the extra funds. George thought it better to pay Stewart and get rid of him, but he made clear what he thought about the man.

Jefferson accepted George’s decision. He also acknowledged Stewart’s skill and great eccentricity. The latter could be managed if he were close by but must be tolerated from a distance.

Stewart’s wife died in 1805 and was buried in the Monticello cemetery. He was fired two years later, after fully training the slave Joe Fossett, who served in that capacity until Jefferson’s death in 1826. Fossett was freed in Jefferson’s will, but his wife and 10 children were sold because of Jefferson’s debts. Fossett eventually purchased his wife and some of their children from slavery.

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How can we be rid of this crime against nature?

The abolition of domestic slavery is the great object of desire in those colonies, where it was unhappily introduced in their infant state. But previous to the enfranchisement of the slaves we have, it is necessary to exclude all further importations from Africa; yet our repeated attempts to effect this by prohibitions, and by imposing duties which might amount to a prohibition, have been hitherto defeated by his majesty’s negative [veto]: Thus preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs [pirates] to the lasting interests of the American states, and to the rights of human nature, deeply wounded by this infamous practice … so shameful an abuse of a power trusted with his majesty …
Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders agitate for human rights.
Slavery was introduced into the colonies in their earliest days. More than a century later, Jefferson claimed strong sentiment for abolition and citizenship for freed slaves. Before that could happen, importing more slaves had to stop. Yet, the king vetoed “repeated attempts” by the colonies to end importation.

The king put the immediate financial interests of a few slave traders above the lasting interests of the colonies and the human rights of those enslaved, a shameful abuse of power.

Two years later, Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence would include a denunciation of the king’s promotion of the slave trade. That language was stripped from the final version, because Georgia and South Carolina would not vote for independence if it remained.

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What reduces free people to slavery?

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period, and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery.
Summary View of the Rights of British America, 1774

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The 31 year-old Jefferson wrote Summary View for Virginia’s delegates to carry to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It was a much longer document than his Declaration of Independence, but its theme was much the same, outlining the abuses England’s King and Parliament had imposed on their American colonies. He categorized those abuses as tyrannies.

Jefferson wrote that one tyranny could be seen as a mistake in judgment. A series of them meant something much different and sinister, He then described the series: imposing multiple duties and taxes, suspending New York’s legislature, blockading Boston, trying American “crimes” in British courts. What turns free people into slaves? A deliberate plan to whittle away their natural rights, one by one, until there were no freedoms left.

Summary View was later printed in pamphlet form and widely circulated throughout America and Europe. It did not have the effect Jefferson hoped, a wake-up call that ended Bristish abuses. It did have an effect he had not anticipated, establishing his credentials as a gifted writer. Two years later, he would be called upon to use that skill again.

(Today, April 13, is Mr. Jefferson’s 272nd birthday.)

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Can blacks and whites live together peaceably in America?

Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible lines of distinction between them. It is still in our power to direct the process of emancipation and deportation peaceably and in such slow degree as that the evil will wear off insensibly, and their place be pari passu [on equal footing] filled up by free white laborers. If on the contrary it is left to force itself on, human nature must shudder at the prospect held up.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders who won’t solve problem make matters worse.
While Jefferson believed slaves were destined to be free, they were equally destined not to be free in America. In Notes on Virginia in 1782, he wrote, “Deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained …,” (among other things) would keep the races from living together in harmony. Attempting to do so would create political divisions and “convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.” Jefferson believed a gradual repatriation to Africa was in the best interest of both races.

He was prophetic in writing, “human nature must shudder at the prospect” of failure to do so. A national convulsion did come 40 years later with the Civil War.

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The slaves must be freed, or else!

The principles of the amendment [for emancipation of slaves] however were agreed on, that is to say, the freedom of all born after a certain day, and deportation at a proper age. But it was found that the public mind would not yet bear the proposition, nor will it bear it even at this day. Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, all the leading in the world isn’t enough.
Jefferson hoped his late 1770s revisions of the Virginia’s laws would also provide for eventual freedom for slaves, but it was not to be. Not only was public opinion opposed, it was still opposed more than 40 years later when he wrote this.

Unyielding public opinion would have to yield “or worse will follow.” Affirming the certainty “that these people [slaves] are to be free,” Jefferson also affirmed the great universal sentiment of the Declaration of Independence, that all men have the divine right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Public opinion never did yield. In another 40 years, the Civil War was fought to accomplish what he had hoped to do peaceably 80 years before.

The next post will deal with deportation of freed slaves.

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Keep nibbling away at evil institutions

The first establishment in Virginia which became permanent was made in 1607. I have found no mention of negroes in the colony until about 1650. The first brought here as slaves were by a Dutch ship; after which the English commenced the trade and continued it until the revolutionary war. That suspended, ipso facto, their further importation for the present, and the business of the war pressing constantly on the legislature, this subject was not acted on finally until the year 78. when I brought in a bill to prevent their further importation. This passed without opposition, and stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Determined leaders remain committed to their causes over time.
In 1769, Jefferson had been on the losing side of a slavery-limiting issue in the Virginia House of Burgesses. In 1778, he was the successful author of a bill to prohibit further importation of slaves into the state. He recognized this was not the ultimate goal but rather a step in that direction.

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Two Declaration of Independence rejects

The pusillanimous [timid, cowardly] idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many. For this reason those passages which conveyed censures on the people of England were struck out, lest they should give them offence. The clause too, reprobating the enslaving the inhabitants of Africa, was struck out in complaisance [willingness to please] to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren also I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for tho’ their people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.
Autobiography, 1821 *

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The 1776 Continental Congress appointed Jefferson to a committee of five to draft a declaration of independence. Jefferson was the primary author. His work, reviewed and amended by the committee, was further amended by the Congress as a whole before it was adopted on July 4.

Only two Congressional revisions were singled out for specific mention in this work:
-Accusations toward the English people themselves (as opposed to the King only) were eliminated or softened considerably.
– Language condemning the slave trade was eliminated altogether. From other sources, we know that Georgia and South Carolina would not vote for independence had that language remained. The northern states supported this change. While their slave population was very small, they were slave traders themselves.

 *This link is to the entire volume. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
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Can you fight social evil at an early age?

In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county in which I live, & continued in that until it was closed by the revolution. I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson’s life as a public man began at age 26. He was elected from his native Albemarle County to the colonial legislature, the House of Burgesses.

Other than matters leading to independence a few years hence, this may be the only early legislative position expressed in his autobiography. He supported easing the law for freeing slaves, but the effort was defeated. He thought a majority of the Burgesses might eventually be convinced to support the cause, but the King’s Council held veto power over the legislature. Even if the Burgesses would approve, the Council would not. The slave trade was firmly entrenched in England and would not end for another four decades.

Historians (and others) have their opinions on Jefferson and slavery. It is worth noting his opposition began early. Though he never took the lead in that fight, he never wavered from his opinion that slavery was wrong and must one day be abolished.

 *This link is to the entire volume. To find this passage, open the link, type Ctrl F (for find) and type several words from the text into the box. Those words will be highlighted wherever they appear within the work.
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Slavery: Respectfully, no! Proven leaders MUST lead. (Pt. 3 of 3)

… Your prayers I trust will not only be heard with indulgence in Heaven, but with influence on earth. But I cannot agree with you that they are the only weapons of one at your age, nor that the difficult work of cleansing the escutchion [defined area] of Virginia of the foul stain of slavery can best be done by the young. To effect so great and difficult an object great and extensive powers both of mind and influence are required, which can never be possessed in so great a degree by the young as by the old … It was under these impressions that I looked to you, my dear sir, as the first of our aged worthies, to awaken our fellow Citizens … by proposing a system for the gradual emancipation of our Slaves …
Edward Coles to Thomas Jefferson, September 26, 1814

 Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders of conviction won’t take no for an answer.
Coles had petitioned Jefferson to take the lead for emancipation in Virginia. Jefferson declined, claiming it was a battle for the young. The 29 year-old Coles was right back at the 71 year-old Jefferson, claiming just the opposite and explaining why.
Coles was effusive in his respect and appreciation for the elder statesman. Yet, he countered Jefferson’s advice to remain in Virginia, saying he wouldn’t leave to free his slaves in Illinois if he had any hope of securing their freedom in his native state. He had none.
Nor did he think those of his generation would stand against the popular tide in favor of slavery and see it through to emancipation. That task fell to those with proven powers of both mind and influence. Among those, he saw Jefferson as the person to take the lead.

He concluded by again apologizing for troubling Jefferson, thanking him for his kind expressions, and assuring him of his continued “respect and regard.”
But Coles got in a final parting shot, referencing Jefferson’s old friend, “Doctor [Benjamin] Franklin, to whom, by the way, Pennsylvania owes her early riddance of the evils of Slavery, was as actively and as usefully employed on as arduous duties after he had past your age as he had ever been at any period of his life.”

 “… you were just outstanding as Thomas Jefferson …
I have no idea how you pulled if off so well, but you certainly did.”

U.S. Court of Appeals, 11th Circuit, Substantive Program Chair for the Judicial Conference

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