Jefferson and Slavery: A Response to David Barton on the Glenn Beck Show, Part Three

In parts one and two of this response to David Barton’s appearance on Glenn Beck’s show, we looked at Barton’s defense of The Jefferson Lies on the subject of Jefferson’s record on slavery. In this post, we look at the remaining claims regarding slavery made by Barton last week. Here again is the video:

Barton claimed that Jefferson inherited 187 slaves when he was 14 years. On the clip at about 4:37, Barton says:

He [Jefferson] inherited 187 slaves when he’s 14 years old. So why didn’t he just release them? Because Virginia law says if you’re an adolescent, you cannot free any slave you’ve been given, you cannot emancipate any slave. So now he’s got 187 slaves he’s not been allowed to free.

It is true that Jefferson inherited slaves at age 14, but Barton gets the number of slaves wrong. Jefferson inherited 20 slaves at that time. In Getting Jefferson Right, we address this matter and get our information right from Jefferson’s Farm Book.

To get the proper accounting, we turn to the primary source of Jefferson’s notes in his Farm Book. In it, Jefferson delineated three categories of slaves he owned as of January 14, 1774. Jefferson titled the entire section, “A Roll of the proper slaves of Thomas Jefferson. Jan. 14. 1774” and then listed forty-one slaves that came through inheritance from his father along with those slaves who were purchased or born before his inheritance from his mother [20 slaves plus 21 who were added via birth and purchase]. He then listed eleven “slaves conveyed by my mother to me under the power given her in my father’s will as an indemnification for the debts I had paid for her.”  Finally, he listed the “roll of the slaves of John Wayles which were allotted to T. J. in right of his wife on a division or the estate. Jan. 14. 1774.” Here Jefferson listed the 135 slaves he received by inheritance from his father-in-law, John Wayles.* Adding these lists together, Jefferson owned 187 slaves by age thirty.

It may seem like a small point but for some reason Barton persists in saying Jefferson inherited the 187 when he was 14. Jefferson’s Farm Book (which you can see here; the total of 187 in 1774 is on page 18 at the bottom) says otherwise. While it is true that Jefferson was unable to free slaves when his father died in 1757, this was in part due to the fact that the only reason at that time allowed for emancipation was meritorious service on the part of a slave. The law allowing owners to emancipate slaves was not passed until 1782 (click here to see the text of the act to authorize the manumission of slaves).Barton then says on Beck’s show that someone told him that Jefferson could not free his slaves because they were collateral for his debts. While it is true that the Virginia legislature added a specific requirement in 1792 that freed slaves were required to work off any debts of the emancipator, this requirement actually could have made it an advantage for Jefferson to free his slaves. While the slaves would have had emancipation postponed until Jefferson’s debts were paid, they would have been free afterwards with Jefferson’s debt paid.  In other words, Virginia law allowed such emancipations but with rules in place to protect creditors.

Also, on the program, Barton states that we failed to discuss other laws that  were related to slavery. On the program, he said that there were a “whole bunch of laws that Jefferson had to deal with.” He then speaks of laws passed in 1778, 1791, 1793, 1795, 1798 and 1802. We are not the only ones not to refer to all of those laws. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton only cites the 1782 and 1806 laws regarding emancipation. We cite the 1782, 1806 and 1816 laws in Getting Jefferson Right.

On the program, Barton didn’t identify what the particular content of those laws were and how they related to slavery, or in what way that those laws might have prevented Jefferson him from freeing even some of his slaves. Our review of those laws do not support Barton’s contention. Male slaves younger than 21, female slaves younger than 18, all slaves older than 45 and slaves not of sound mind and body needed the financial support of their emancipator. All others did not. These parameters were still in place when Virginia amended slave laws in 1819. The bottom line is that we would like to see the Virginia statute or court case that Mr. Barton relies on to make his claim. In his book, the reference he cites concerns Massachusetts law, not Virginia.

Manumission deeds are available for review online. A review of these finds that some emancipators provided deeds for minor children with a promise of freedom at adulthood. Some slaves purchased their freedom. We encourage readers to read through some of the deeds of manumission. See the end of this post for links.

A couple of final points: When Glenn Beck introduced the segment, he said, “They say Jefferson was not against slavery.” I don’t know who “they” are, but we do not make that claim. Jefferson clearly did oppose slavery in principle and he took steps to eliminate the slave trade. However, his personal slave trade continued. In principle, Jefferson favored emancipation connected to deportation away from white society, rather than immediate abolition of the practice.

Last, those reviewing the evidence should ask why Barton omitted a section of Virginia law which would have undercut his basic argument. He mentioned it on the Beck show but did not give any explanation for the omission. Simply listing dates without specifics does nothing to address why Barton did not tell listeners that emancipation of slaves was legal, was done by many slave holders in the period between 1782 and 1806, and that Jefferson emancipated two slaves while he was alive.

Next we move to the segment on the Jefferson Bible.

Links to deeds of manumission:

Lists of slaves freed after 1782 in eight Virginia counties

Searchable links to those same eight counties

Manumissions in Isle of Wight County, VA

James Hemings manumission papers signed by Thomas Jefferson

Francis Drake deed of manumission

Deed of manumission drawn up by Robert Carter for his 452 slaves

Farm Book, 1774-1824, pages 9-13, by Thomas Jefferson [electronic edition]. Thomas Jefferson Papers: An Electronic Archive. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2003.


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  • Krista Vessell

    Is anyone familiar with Tadeusz Ko?ciuszko and the account of his will reading:

    Thaddeus KOSCIUSZKO, will, dated 5 May 1798, presented 12 May 1819

    “I Thaddeus Kosciuszko being of just in my departure from America do

    hereby declare and direct that should I make no other Testamentary disposition

    of my property in the United States, I hereby authorize my friend Thomas

    Jefferson to employ the whole thereof in purchasing Negroes from among his

    own or any others and giving them Liberty in my name, in giving them

    in [sic] education in trades or otherwise and in having them instructed for

    their new condition in the duties of morality which may make them

    good neighbours good fathers or moders, husbands or vives [sic] and in their

    duties as citizens, teaching them to be defenders of their Liberty and Country

    and of the good order of society, and in whatsoever may make them happy

    and useful, and I the said Thomas Jefferson my executor of this

    5th day of May 1798 T.Kosciuszko”

    At a Circuit Court held for Albemarle County the 12th day of May 1819

    This Instrument of writing purporting to be the last

    will and Testament of Thaddeus Kosciuszko deceased was produced into

    Court & satisfactory proof being produced of its being written entirely in

    the hand writing of the said Thaddeus Kosciuszko the same is ordered, and

    thereupon Thomas Jefferson the executor therein named refuses to take upon

    himself the burthen of the execution of the said Will


    John Carr C.C.

  • Krista Vessell

    Just got done citing Jefferson’s letter to Albert Gallatin, Dec. 26, 1820, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” and Jefferson’s Autobiography in response to someone claiming Jefferson did not believe the two races couldn’t reside under the same government, didn’t have racist sentiments that were exclusive to the black race (Jefferson’s describing how blacks are more attracted to whites than their own people by comparing orangutans being more sexually attracted to black women than females of their own species was an eye-opener!), and only advocated deportation because emancipation without it would be unfair to a race of people who were “conditionally incapable” due to being enslaved by whites. You know, research takes work, but when you find the truth, it’s so much more fulfilling to be able to make statements that are based on actual fact than just your own personal opinions…

  • TexasHistorian

    Great work Krista! Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jack Rakove’s cites the same information about Jefferson from his Notes on the Stare if Virginia in his book “Revolutionaries”

  • Krista Vessell

    Oh my gosh…had no idea this conversation I’m having would turn into an argument in which the other person is trying to DEFEND Jefferson’s statements! In his own words regarding what Jefferson wrote about blacks in “Notes on the State of Virginia”: “All of those observations, both good and bad, are not sentiments; they are universal truths, most of which are still self-evident today!”


  • TxHistoryProf


    What did he mean?

  • Krista Vessell

    Basically, there are two statements Jefferson made, one from an excerpt on the difference between blacks and whites (where he goes into very detailed description on those differences, including the inferiorities of the black race) which reads:

    “Among the Romans emancipation required but one effort. The slave, when made free, might mix with, without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary, unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture.”

    And the other from the Coles letter, which reads:

    “Their amalgamation with the other color produces a degradation to which no lover of his country, no lover of excellence in the human character can innocently consent.”

    These two statements are what I pointed out as Jefferson’s own racial prejudice, and justification for deportation. That and the racial prejudices he gave in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” show that there was alot more to his mentality than, “all men are created equal.” My point is this: “separate and equal” isn’t truly “equal.” And people are saying the things Jefferson said are “universal truths.” If you haven’t read it, please look up “Notes on the State of Virginia,” ( starting on pg. 264.

  • TxHistoryProf

    I have read them and section you reference as does Jack Rakove in “Revokutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America”. How can anyone bak Barton’s claims that Jefferson wasn’t a racist?

  • At the risk of causing a firestorm .. I don’t think it is quite fair to judge Jefferson in 20th or 21st century terms (ie. call him a racist). Yes, obviously he is not the orthodox Christian nor civil rights leader the Barton may make him out to be. He is a man of his times .. with some progressive ideas toward the abolition of slavery but not with a full understanding of equality. That will come about 150 years later. He recognized that it was wrong to own other human beings but lacked the courage or where-with-all to put what he believed into practice in his own personal life. I understand that the great emancipator .. Abraham Lincoln had similar things to say regarding equality though perhaps stopping short of what Jefferson believed .. see this link:


  • Addendum to the above ..With regards to the link … I am referring to the third paragraph of Lincoln’s speech which begins with:

    “While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, …”

  • Krista Vessell

    Dave, there’s no question about Jefferson’s role in laying the stepping stones to civil rights. And yes, we definitely have to keep it in perspective with regards to the beliefs back in his time. But what I noticed, and this is what got me wondering about his personal beliefs, is that in his response to Edward Coles’ letter, he actually seemed to be advising Coles NOT to free his own slaves. So I was wondering, why would he advise a friend who had the means and conviction to not only free his slaves, but provide them with resources for their new free life (including land and steady employment), AGAINST freeing them? That’s when I came across the multiple times Jefferson shared his opinion on deportation. And through that, I came across what he wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia.”

    I think the problem comes with the modern connotation of the word “racist.” People seem to think “racist” means “black hater.” It actually defines a person who believe in race being the determining factor that produces qualities inferior or superior to other races. Jefferson obviously did not HATE blacks, but he did seem to believe, based on what he wrote, that the black race WAS inferior to the white. So by the actual definition of the word, he can be called a “racist.”

    But the main point of my research was to try to understand why

    1) He advised Coles not to free his slaves

    2) He didn’t free his own (aside from, what was it, 2 or 3?)

    3) He didn’t fulfill the obligations of Kosciusko’s will

    The conclusion I came to was that he didn’t really want “free blacks” living in the United States. If there wasn’t a feasible way to deport free blacks, than he seemed reluctant to just start setting them free.

  • Krista,

    I understand your position on Jefferson. That’s why I said Lincoln stopped short of what Jefferson believed (re: deportation). As for using the word: ‘racist’ .. you are… of course .. free to use any language you want. And, techinically, your definitiion of racism is correct. But its the 21st century. And the term ‘racist’ is a charged word. IMHO you would be better off simply saying what Jefferson said, wrote, and did (or failed to do) rather than attach charged language to it. You *might * be received better on that other blog if you refrained from using the charged language…. but I wouldn’t count on it.

    for you are also IMHO dealing with some trolling.

    Blessings and peace,


  • Krista Vessell

    Yeah, I understand what you’re saying, Dave. Have you been watching the blog? LOL

    I guess I do have a different perspective…my husband is black and we have a young son and another child on the way. I’ve been sharing my research with my husband, and he was very upset when he learned about the things Jefferson had written. It took a while to explain it, but eventually he understood and was able to view everything in perspective. That’s why I feel it’s so important to explain things THOROUGHLY. There are so many people in the US who come from different backgrounds… I’m sorry, but very few white people know what it’s like to be shot at as a child just because of your skin color. Whites don’t know what it’s like to have someone spit in your face and scream at you, “Go back to Africa!!!” just because of your skin color. And these are issues I’m going to have to deal with with my own children…

    That’s why I advocate telling the WHOLE truth, and keeping it in perspective. Jefferson had racist beliefs, but that doesn’t mean he was a bad person. He was just misguided, but ultimately he helped Americans take the first step toward civil rights. That’s how I explained to my husband and his family (and they gained a greater appreciation for Jefferson after my explanation), and that’s how I’m going to explain it to my children. The problem is when people like Barton just whitewash the issue; I mean, he even censored Jerrerson’s “Coles” letter on his Wallbuilders article! What kind of effect is that going to have when someone DOES come across the whole letter. They’ll wonder, “So why was Barton trying to hide this?!”

    I’ve seen enough censored history to know that all it does is cause the children who grew up learning it to become disillusioned with the image they’d been taught all along, and will become very skeptical and cynical because of it, or they will just live in denial of the truth and become apologists for their “American heroes” (like the “trolls” on the blog; they will justify their heroes to the end because with them, it’s not about reality, it’s about their ideology). Neither outcome is good, as we need to have a balanced understanding of reality to truly appreciate and learn the MOST we can from our past.

  • TxHistoryProf


    Jefferson felt superior as a white male to African-Americans. Merriam-Webster defines that as racism. Regardless of the times they knew it was wrong to feel superior to anyone. Jefferson made it explicitly clear in the Cole letter and “Notes on Virginia” that African-Americans should be free but not in America with whites. Barton ignores this fact. In order to understand history makers we must understand their faults as well as their extraordinary characteristics that made them rise above their peers. Overall, Jefferson did take the first step towards civil rights by writing “…all men are created equal…” but more so when he wrote “…among these are life,liberty and the pursuit of HAPPINESS…” instead of property as was initially suggested to leave the door open for future equality measures.

  • Krista Vessell

    Exactly, TxHistoryProf! And anyone who DOES point out any faults that the founding fathers had, Barton accuses of engaging in “deconstructionism.” It’s insane, and Barton needs to be stopped. I pray that his book being unraveled for the shoddy, inaccurate piece of propaganda that it is is only the beginning. People are being brainwashed by him, and his “ministry” is turning into a cult. It’s very scary, especially when you talk to his “followers.” They are so brainwashed that they are beyond being able to be reasoned with. These are the kind of people who do wacky, violent things in the name of God. I pray it never gets to that point. But the fact that Barton and his crew are so politically active, I’m afraid the division will just grow deeper and deeper…

  • TxHistoryProf

    That wackiness is what scares me too. Hopefully the Glenn Beck version will e debunked as well.