'Scarcity of Skillful hands': Carpentry at Monticello, 1769-1830

McGlyn, Bethany, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Dierksheide, Christa, University of Virginia

During the decades-long construction of Thomas Jefferson’s Albemarle County home, Monticello, slavery in Virginia changed dramatically. Once a region defined by labor-intensive tobacco agriculture, the decline of this industry in the 1760s and 1770s (paired with a rapidly increasing slave population) created a surplus of enslaved labor that sparked the growth of the hiring market and altered how altered how white Virginians understood and organized both bound and free labor. Using Monticello as a case study, this project traces the shift from white, European-trained craft labor to a reliance on primarily enslaved craftspeople, while at the same time considering this shift within the larger context of the reinvention of the slave system in Virginia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Thomas Jefferson and those he enslaved were embedded in this rapidly changing social and economic landscape. For Jefferson, training enslaved men and women in specialized craft labor was not just a solution to the economic problem of surplus labor but was also a lens through which he could imagine slavery’s eventual demise. Writing in Notes on the State of Virginia that training in the “handicraft arts” would be necessary preparation for enslaved people before their eventual colonization outside of the United States, craft labor manifested in Jefferson’s mind as a prelude to freedom–best represented by the decision to have his enslaved sons Beverly, Madison, and Eston Hemings trained as carpenters. Rather than colonization, however, most enslaved craftspeople at Monticello and elsewhere found themselves embedded deeper in the slave system than ever: their work often provided mobility and led to their becoming trusted members of their communities, but also increased the value placed on them.

MA (Master of Arts)
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