I am informed that James Hemings my servant has put himself under your superintendance until he can hear from me on the subject of his return. I can readily excuse the follies of a boy and therefore his return shall ensure him an entire pardon. during my absence hereafter I should place him with Johnny Hemings and Lewis at house-joiner’s work. if you will get him a passage in the Richmond stage I will get mr Higginbotham to pay his fare on his arrival at Milton.
Thomas Jefferson to James Oldham, July 20, 1805
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders take difficult circumstances into account.
Hemings, one of Jefferson’s young slaves, had abandoned Monticello a few months before and was working odd jobs between Richmond and Norfolk. Someone who knew of Hemings’ whereabouts asked James Oldham, Jefferson’s former carpenter now living in Richmond, if he should confine Hemings until he could be returned. Oldham said no, that Hemings could stay with him until Jefferson’s wishes were known.
Hemings was willing to return to Monticello if he was not placed under the overseer, Gabriel Lilley, who had treated him harshly. (Lilley was known for his severe treatment, and Jefferson was seeking his replacement.) Oldham was now asking his former employer’s opinion.
Jefferson would grant Hemings, whom he called a servant, not a slave, a full pardon for his youthful folly. Acknowledging Hemings’ legitimate concern, upon his return, he would be freed from Lilley and placed under a skilled carpenter, where he might learn a trade.