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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Enslaved Household of President Thomas Jefferson

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Preamble, Declaration of Independence, 1776

These powerful words open the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, the document by which the Second Continental Congress announced its intention to separate the American colonies from Great Britain in 1776. The primary author of this famous document was none other than Thomas Jefferson. Although these words have been quoted and repeated countless times throughout history to underscore American values and bolster American democracy, it is a profound paradox that the man behind these words had such a complicated relationship with the concept of equality he wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. Despite working tirelessly to establish a new nation founded upon principles of freedom and egalitarianism, Jefferson owned over 600 enslaved people during his lifetime, the most of any U.S. president.1 The enslaved individuals working for Thomas Jefferson accompanied him during each phase of his career, including his time at the White House.

Born into Virginia’s plantation society in 1743, Jefferson was surrounded by slavery from an early age. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a Virginia planter, surveyor, and slave owner who relied on the forced labor of at least sixty individuals to support his family’s needs and lifestyle. Thomas Jefferson’s upbringing in this world of slavery clearly shaped his adult life as he grappled to reconcile Enlightenment ideals with his status as a plantation owner after inheriting around thirty enslaved individuals upon his father’s death in 1757.2 At the very least, Jefferson’s attitudes toward slavery were complex and he articulated different ideas about the institution at various points. For example, Jefferson’s “Rough [sic] drought” of the Declaration of Independence included a passage accusing King George III of foisting slavery upon the colonists through the slave trade:

he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.3

White House Historical Association

Much to Jefferson’s dismay, the Continental Congress ultimately chose to remove this charge from the list of grievances against King George III. Later, Jefferson argued for gradual emancipation and an end to slavery in his 1785 book, Notes on the State of Virginia. However, within the same document, he also perpetuated racial prejudices about the inferiority of the enslaved based on their skin color.4 As an influential member of Virginia’s plantation society and a key political figure in the early United States, Jefferson received backlash for expressing these ideas. As a result, he adopted a more passive attitude toward slavery in his later years, probably to bolster his political career.5

While it is often difficult to use historical records to learn about the enslaved individuals who worked in the White House, Thomas Jefferson’s presidency is an exception. He was a meticulous record keeper, tracking everything from the daily weather to his wine purchases and dinner guests. In addition to his record keeping, he also wrote thousands of letters during his lifetime, and used a letter copying device called a polygraph to copy letters for his personal records.6 The enslaved people working in the White House appear in these records frequently, allowing the opportunity to piece together their life stories with perhaps greater historical detail and precision than enslaved individuals who worked during other presidential administrations.

When Jefferson moved to the President’s House in March 1801, he did not immediately bring any enslaved workers with him. Initially, his household staff only consisted of around five people and eventually expanded to approximately twelve.7 In fact, he made a deliberate effort to keep the enslaved population at Monticello separate from the White House and intentionally did not bring along the enslaved individuals with whom he had developed significant rapport. For example, we have no evidence that Sally Hemings ever visited the White House, but she certainly never worked at the White House, despite her personal relationship with Jefferson.

It was particularly important that Sally Hemings not be seen at the White House. On September 1, 1802, a journalist named James Callender published a bombshell revelation in the Richmond Recorder, “It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his slaves. Her name is SALLY.” The article exposed Jefferson’s relationship with Sally, and subsequent media coverage speculated over the paternity of Hemings’ children. Jefferson was keen to avoid further discussion on this subject, and therefore as far as we know, Sally Hemings and other members of the Hemings family stayed at Monticello during his entire presidency.8

White House Historical Association

In addition to the negative news coverage surrounding his relationship with Hemings, Jefferson also feared that the Monticello community would become enamored with ideas of freedom and equality in the nation’s capital, a city with a strong and thriving free black population. Jefferson had good reason to worry about his enslaved staff’s exposure to a free population. When Jefferson served as Foreign Minister in France, he brought Sally Hemings and her brother, James Hemings, to Paris. James trained in the art of French cooking while Sally served as a nurse for Jefferson’s daughter. Both were exposed to a free black community. Although Sally and James both returned to the United States with Jefferson, their newfound exposure to freedom allowed each to negotiate with Jefferson to improve their circumstances. Eventually, Jefferson agreed to free James on the condition that he would train another enslaved individual at Monticello in the style of French cooking. After James trained his brother, Peter, Jefferson signed manumission papers. This incident likely influenced Jefferson’s decision not to bring enslaved people from Monticello as well. He did not want to lose more people by exposing them to new ideas and communities.9

Jefferson also probably understood the irony of bringing enslaved labor to the Executive Mansion, a symbol of liberty and freedom in the early United States. At Monticello, Jefferson made a deliberate effort to minimize the visibility of enslaved labor. He constructed service wings beneath walkways and built cabins for his enslaved workers into the side of a hill, hiding them from immediate view from the main house. In addition, Jefferson used a system of food trays and dumbwaiters to eliminate the need for enslaved labor directly in his entertaining spaces. Instead, enslaved workers sent food and wine to the dining room using a pulley system and a rotating door. In the White House, maintaining the same systems of separation would have been more difficult to achieve.10 He was also the first president to bring his own enslaved people to the White House, placing him under further scrutiny. President John Adams, the first occupant of the residence, was not a slave owner and adopted a staunchly antislavery agenda.11 Click here to learn more about the households of President John Adams.

Jefferson ultimately preferred white servants to run the presidential household, as demonstrated by a letter to his son-in-law, John Wayles Eppes, in 1804: “at Washington I prefer white servants, who, when they misbehave, can be exchanged.”12 He employed a consistent cast of white staff members including French chef de cuisine Honoré Julien, maître d'hôtel Etienne Lemaire, and Irish coachman Joseph Dougherty. He also employed a rotating roster of maids and washerwomen which included Sally Houseman and Biddy Boyle.13

Despite his preference for white household staff, Jefferson did make several exceptions to this rule. First, he brought three young, enslaved teenage girls from Monticello to the White House to train alongside White House Chef Honoré Julien. The first to arrive was fourteen-year-old Ursula Granger Hughes. She was first recorded in Jefferson’s account books beginning in November 1801, but she did not stay long.14 Ursula gave birth to a baby boy named Asnet the following March. The baby was the first to be born in the White House. Unfortunately, the child was in fragile health and Ursula returned to Monticello later that summer. The child did not survive.15

Several months later, fifteen-year-old Edith (Edy) Hern Fossett arrived to train with Julien and in 1806, eighteen-year-old Frances (Fanny) Gillette Hern joined Edith. Edith and Frances stayed at the White House under the training of Julien until Jefferson left the White House in 1809. Both women gave birth to children in the White House. Edith gave birth to three children during this period and two survived to adulthood: James and Maria Fossett, born in 1805 and 1807 respectively. A third child born in 1803 did not survive. In 1808, Frances also gave birth to a child at the White House. Sadly, the baby died of whooping cough the same year.16 During Jefferson’s retirement at Monticello, Edith and Frances continued to run the kitchen.17

This document details Jefferson’s account with Doctor Edward Gantt for services provided “To Ursula” on March 22, 1802 and “To her child from April 2nd to May 13th.” The document also records medical care to “Lithe” who may be Alethia Tanner.

While Ursula, Edith, and Frances were the only enslaved individuals to come directly from Monticello, Jefferson also employed another enslaved man named John Freeman. Freeman was initially not enslaved by Jefferson, but was hired out by his owner William Baker, a Maryland doctor. For eight dollars a month, paid directly to Dr. Baker, Freeman worked in the White House completing a variety of tasks, including waiting on Jefferson’s dinner guests and working as Jefferson’s valet. Despite his position as an enslaved man, Freeman became a favorite of Jefferson and even traveled with the president back and forth between Monticello and the White House. Eventually, at Freeman’s request, Jefferson purchased him from Baker in 1804, agreeing in the contract to grant his freedom in 1815. Later, Jefferson sold Freeman to incoming President James Madison, who abided by the original contract and freed Freeman in 1815. The request to be sold to Madison was a result of his marriage to Melinda Colbert, a formerly enslaved woman who gained her freedom and eventually lived alongside her husband at the White House as a free woman. He did not want to return to Virginia without her and her status as a free woman would have been threatened if she returned to the state.18 Click here to learn more about the life of John Freeman. Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President James Madison.

Jefferson also hired out another enslaved man named John (Jack) Shorter. Shorter worked from 1801 until 1809 as a stable hand at the White House.19 A letter from Joseph Dougherty to Thomas Jefferson on March 13, 1803 reveals Shorter’s circumstances:

“Stable jacks master is now here from the Easternshore. He proposes. The following terms to sell his Servant he will furnish me with a copy of his Uncles will who is Dead About four years & four months. Jack was bourne a slave under him and at his Death was to serve this Wm. Legg his present Master twelve years. At the Expiration of which time he is to be free. By this infirmation he has Seven years & eight months to Serve for which time he asks 210 Dollars. That is 30 D per year, but Sir. He may be bot for 200 Dollars I could Sir. Rive him no Satisfactory Ansr. Without your approbation.”20

This letter provides an example of the negotiations that occurred for enslaved individuals hired out for contract work. Shorter’s owner, William Legg, lived on the Eastern Shore of Maryland as a resident of Queen Anne’s County. The letter indicates that Shorter’s unnamed former owner left him to Legg in a will. The will also stipulated that Shorter be freed after serving a term period of twelve years. By 1803, Shorter still had seven years and eight months left to serve out his contract. In the letter, Dougherty, who in his role as coachman was almost surely responsible for managing Shorter, reveals that Legg wanted to sell Shorter to Jefferson for $210.21 It does not appear that this transaction occurred. Jefferson did not respond to Shorter’s letter and Jefferson’s account books suggest that he continued to pay between eight and ten dollars a month for Shorter’s services for the remainder of his presidency. Since Shorter was enslaved, this money probably went directly to his owner, William Legg.22

Throughout his eight years in the White House, Jefferson hired additional free and enslaved African Americans to fill roles on an ad hoc basis. To further assist in the operation of his presidential household, historian Lucia Stanton believes Jefferson employed a series of free black scullions named Jack, Isaac, and Sandy.23 Etienne Lemaire frequently noted in his account books the hire of “négres” and “négresses” on a daily or weekly basis. According to Stanton, these individuals were hired to complete special tasks like “cleaning the privies, sweeping the privies, taking care of the infants of the trainee cooks, and tending to the presidential flock of sheep.”24Washington, D.C. was home to a robust and thriving free black community, providing a strong labor pool for these tasks. In addition, each election cycle brought new residents and labor demands into the capital city, providing ample opportunity for slave owners to hire out their enslaved workers to the White House, private homes, boarding houses, and hotels.

This letter from March 2, 1809 was written by John Freeman to Thomas Jefferson. In the letter, Freeman apologizes to Jefferson for previously refusing to return to Monticello in order to remain in Washington, D.C. with his free wife, Melinda Colbert. According to an 1806 Virginia law, freed slaves could only remain in the state for one year after manumission. He writes, “Rather than disples you I will go and do the best I can…I shall oblige to leave [Melinda] and the children.” Jefferson eventually relented and sold Freeman to James Madison so that Freeman could remain with his family. The letter is a rare example of a letter written by an enslaved individual and an even rarer example of an enslaved person negotiating with their owner.

Library of Congress

While the names of these individuals and their status as enslaved or free were not always well-documented, even by the fastidious Jefferson, we can speculate about their identities. One likely candidate was an enslaved woman named Alethia “Lethe” Tanner. Tanner sold vegetables across from the White House in President’s Park (today known as Lafayette Park) during Jefferson’s time in the White House, likely with her owner Rachel Platt’s permission. She received manumission papers in 1810 after purchasing her own freedom with $275 saved from her vegetable stand.25 In addition to Tanner’s successful vegetable stand, it is also possible that she pursued other avenues of employment, including a stint as a household servant in Jefferson’s White House. In 1870, A Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition of Public Schools in the District of Columbia recounted a story of Tanner working as a housemaid for Thomas Jefferson.26 An account left by Dr. Edward Gantt in March 1802 appears to corroborate this report. Gantt detailed the medical care he provided to members of Jefferson’s household staff, including the labor and delivery of Ursula's child. In the statement, Jefferson indicated that he owed money to Gantt for services provided “To Lithe.” The “Lithe” in question could be Alethia Tanner who also went by “Lethe.”27 Since Jefferson left office in 1809, the year before Tanner received manumission papers, if she did work in the Jefferson White House, she likely did so as an enslaved woman hired out by her owner.

Another clue about Tanner’s connections to the White House can be found in her manumission records. When she purchased her freedom in 1810, she did so through a third party, a man named Joseph Daugherty. Daugherty wrote: “I, Joseph Daugherty have this day the 10th, of July 1810 for value received and other good causes, set at free Liberty my Yellow women Lethe, who calls herself Lethe Tanner, a slave that I purchased a few days ago...”28 It is likely that this man was none other than Joseph Dougherty, Jefferson’s Irish coachman. Although the spelling in the two names is slightly different, Jefferson himself frequently spelled the name multiple ways. For example, in Jefferson’s 1801 memorandum book he spelled the name as “Daugherty” in an entry recording his wages for the month of June.29 If the two men are indeed one and the same, this evidence suggests another link between Alethia Tanner and the White House. Ultimately, Tanner’s story ended more happily than most. She went on to purchase freedom for numerous members of her family and became a respected member of Washington D.C.’s free black community, eventually purchasing a home several blocks from the White House.30

In 1809, Jefferson retired, leaving the White House to live out his remaining years surrounded by the enslaved community at Monticello. In retirement, his attitudes toward slavery were far less radical than during his early career. In 1820, he wrote about slavery with a resigned tone in a letter discussing the Missouri Compromise, “as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”31 When he died on July 4, 1826 at the age of eighty-three, fifty years to the day a young, idealistic Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had formally freed only seven people—five men in his will and two during his lifetime—leaving behind a legacy of slavery which extended from Monticello, to France, to Philadelphia, and ultimately to the White House.

Thank you to James B. Conroy, author of Jefferson's White House: Monticello on the Potomac, for his contributions to this article.