Jefferson's children: Slavery, citizenship and family at Monticello

A monument to a Founding Father, a home of slavery, a swearing-in site for new citizens and my childhood playground

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published July 4, 2017 7:30PM (EDT)

Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello/Ryan Jones)
Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello/Ryan Jones)


It’s the Fourth of July again at Monticello, an exciting time on the mountaintop overlooking Charlottesville, Virginia. The house is draped with red, white and blue bunting. The West Lawn is set up with big white tents for the Charlottesville Municipal Band and the U.S. Army Chorus, who will perform when some 75 souls from 35 foreign nations walk up the steps and raise their right hands and swear true allegiance to the United States of America and become citizens.

It’s been done like this for 54 years, since 1963. When I asked one of the employees of the foundation that owns and runs Monticello how the tradition got started, she smiled and said, “I can’t think of a more beautiful and meaningful place to become a citizen, can you?”

Well, no — but it also might have something to do with the fact that it was Thomas Jefferson who drafted the law setting forth the rules by which persons born in the state of Virginia and aliens could become citizens, a law which with certain exceptions (we’ll get to these later) sounds an awful lot like the laws of this country today. His 1779 draft reads:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that all white persons born within the territory of this commonwealth and all who have resided therein two years next before the passing of this act, and all who shall hereafter migrate into the same; and shall before any court of record give satisfactory proof by their own oath or affirmation, that they intend to reside therein, and moreover shall give assurance of fidelity to the commonwealth; and all infants wheresoever born, whose father, if living, or otherwise, whose mother was, a citizen at the time of their birth, or who migrate hither, their father, if living, or otherwise their mother becoming a citizen, or who migrate hither without father or mother, shall be deemed citizens of this commonwealth…

I’m here at Monticello this July because my son is serving as an intern working in the gardens and my daughter attended the day camp last week. I’ve returned to Monticello frequently over the years. My parents are buried here, and so is my brother, my great grandparents and many other of my ancestors. Coming from a peripatetic Army family -- I lived in 22 different houses by the time I left home at 18 -- Monticello has become a kind of de facto home. I expect I’ll return to be buried here one day as well.

I was 4 years old the first year I visited Monticello. It was a sweltering July day in 1951. My great aunts Agnes and Mary Walker drove my brother Frank and me onto the lawn in front of the house in their old Buick, pulled to a stop, threw open the doors and began fanning themselves against the heat with real fans -- the kind with ribs you spread open — which was all they had against the heat.  

When they were sufficiently recovered from the drive across Charlottesville from the house they called Wild Acres, Aunt Mary Walker, who we called Miss Moo, got out of the car and cupped her hands around her mouth and called to one of the groundskeepers on the property. “Wa-a-a-a-alker!” she called out. “Wa-a-a-a-alker!” Then she sat back down on the front seat of the Buick and continued to fan herself and we waited. Soon enough, a black man appeared around the corner of the house and made his way over to the Buick and leaned on the top of the car. “How are you today, Miss Moo?” he asked. Miss Moo told him she was fine and remarked on the heat.  He agreed it sure was hot. “Walker,” she asked, still fanning herself. “Will you watch the boys for us today?” “I’d be happy to, Miss Moo,” he replied.

With that, Frank and I threw open the back door of the Buick and were gone, scampering around the lawns, playing in the slave quarters they called “the dependencies,” filling our pockets with pebbles and climbing out upstairs windows onto the roof and tossing them down on passing tourists. We even played on Mr. Jefferson’s bed when no one was looking and explored the closet he had cleverly had built above it, accessible through a narrow staircase next to the bed. We would run into Walker every once in a while, but he left us pretty much alone, making Monticello our playground.

Several things are remarkable about that exchange, and others like it that took place over the years back when we would spend a couple of weeks each summer with our great aunts and great grandmother at Wild Acres. The first, of course, is that we were dropped off to play at Monticello in the first place, a circumstance which is easily explained. My great aunts and great grandmother were born only a few miles away at Edgehill, the Randolph plantation where Jefferson’s daughter Martha went to live when she married Thomas Mann Randolph in 1790. Even though Monticello hadn’t belonged to the Jefferson family since his daughter Martha sold the place in 1831, five years after Jefferson’s death, they still considered it the family home in some sense, and clearly felt it within their rights as descendants to get the grandkids out of their hair by dropping us off for the day at Monticello.

The second thing was the fact that the groundskeeper Walker addressed our great aunt by her nickname, Miss Moo. This was an intimate family nickname, and Walker was the only person outside the family I ever heard use it. Our great aunts and great grandmother didn’t take the time to explain things to us back then, but it seems clear that Miss Moo and Walker knew each other quite well. Like much of the history of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello (and the South in general for that matter), there are a lot of maybes.

They shared a name -- his first name was Walker, and it was my great aunt’s middle name. Maybe Walker came from a family that had worked at Edgehill when they were younger. Maybe Walker was descended from a slave family that had been owned by the Randolphs, or maybe even Jefferson himself. The histories of the families of Jeffersons and Randolphs and the slaves they owned are so intimately connected that literally anything is possible. It’s possible that Miss Moo and Walker were related by blood. Stranger things have happened.

I didn’t know it in 1951, but I had quite literally hundreds of black cousins through the mutual descendancy of the Jefferson and Hemings families. Jefferson had two daughters with his wife, Martha, and six children with his slave, Sally Hemings. I’m a fifth great grandson of Jefferson through and his wife Martha. My Hemings cousins are great grandchildren of Jefferson through his relationship with Sally.  

Much has been made of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings over the years. Dismissed as a slur on his character for more than a century, it is now accepted by most historians and by the foundation that owns Monticello that Jefferson fathered Sally’s children. In 1998, I went on the Oprah show with several of my Hemings cousins and invited all of them to accompany me to the family reunion at Monticello the next year, 1999. About 50 took up my invitation, and for the next four years, I endeavored to convince the Monticello Association, the group of white Jefferson descendants that owns the graveyard, to welcome our Hemings cousins into the family and grant them rights to burial there. The Association voted in 2002, 96 to 5, to deny the Hemings’ claim that they are descendants of Jefferson. The five voting “yes” were four Truscotts and our white cousin Marla R. Stevens.

There was very little freedom atop the mountain when Jefferson was alive. Jefferson denied slaves citizenship when he wrote the laws on citizenship for the state of Virginia and went along with denying them citizenship when he wrote the Declaration and in the Constitution of the United States.

You wouldn’t have heard much about freedom and who was entitled to it if you went on a tour of Monticello as late as the 1990s. It was possible back then to take the house and garden tours and never hear the word “slave,” much less hear one of the guides tell you that although the place is called “Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” it was built by his slaves -- every board, brick and nail of it.  

This is the way the tours are conducted now, however. As you walk through Jefferson’s library and bedroom, guides point to the joinery in the archways above the doors built by John Hemings, one of Sally’s brothers, and to the furniture he also built. The rooms beneath Monticello’s wings, long referred to as “the dependencies,” are now identified as what they actually were: slave quarters and slave work rooms. Recently, a public bathroom at the end of the south wing was excavated and evidence was found that it was the site of Sally Hemings’ bedroom and the kitchen of the pavilion above, likely run by Sally’s elder brother James and later her younger brother Peter.

Today, most of the history being explored at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello concerns the life of his slaves. He owned as many as 600 over his lifetime. On an average day after Jefferson left the presidency and lived full-time at Monticello, there might be 125 slaves and only a few white people on his property.  

The book “Master of the Mountain:  Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves,” by Henry Wiencek, paints an amazing picture of life at Monticello. Mulberry Row, the dirt path running just below the South Wing above the vegetable garden, was the site of several slave cabins as well as the joinery, the nailery, a smokehouse and numerous other slave work buildings. Several slave communities were scattered around the plantation where other slaves worked in tobacco and wheat fields. The communities contained slave cabins, work buildings and graveyards and are now the sites of archeological exploration into slave life.  

What I found most interesting in Wiencek’s book was the intimacy of the relationship between the slaves and their masters in the Jefferson and Randolph families. Jefferson and his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, who helped to run Monticello in Jefferson’s later years, followed the lives of their slaves closely.

Jefferson paid James Hemings as his chef in Paris and when they returned to the United States and lived in New York and Philadelphia. In 1791, James demanded his freedom and Jefferson negotiated with him in person and in writing. Jefferson and James Hemings arrived at a deal that James would be freed after they had returned to Monticello, where Hemings was to “continue until he shall have taught such person as I shall place under him for that purpose to be a good cook, this previous condition being performed, he shall thereupon be made free....”  James trained his brother Peter and was freed in 1793. In 1801 he rejected an offer by Jefferson to be the White House chef. He returned briefly to Monticello as a cook and was paid $30, moved away and committed suicide later that year. Jefferson wrote to his son-in-law about James’ death, calling it “a tragic end.”

Wiencek’s book is full of quotes from letters written by Jefferson and his daughter Martha and son-in-law and others about the lives of their slaves. Many of the letters are actually gossipy, talking about who was involved with who, children who were born, who got married and who didn’t. Jefferson’s first white grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph (my fourth great grandfather) was horrified by slavery although, like Jefferson himself, unable to disentangle himself from it until Abraham Lincoln solved that problem for him.  

He lived at Monticello during the last years of Jefferson’s life. My great grandmother spent the first 11 years of her life with him at Edgehill. I’m convinced that Thomas Jefferson Randolph and his children and grandchildren, of whom my great grandmother was one, knew everything about what went on up on the Mountain at Monticello, where he had spent so many years of his life. They knew about Jefferson and Sally Hemings. They knew about Jefferson’s relationship’s with Sally’s brothers James and John, the superbly talented chef and carpenter. They knew that Jefferson paid these men. They knew Jefferson paid Sally’s mother Betty for eggs and chickens. They knew of the letters that John and James wrote to Jefferson and he to them. They knew that James wrote an inventory of kitchen supplies at Monticello (now at the Library of Congress) and wrote copies of favorite recipes. They knew all of this.  

As close as I was to my Randolph great aunts and great grandmother, however, they passed along none of this intimate knowledge which surely they had. But my grandmother Sara Randolph Truscott raised my father and my great aunts and my grandmother, and my great grandmother helped to raise me and my brother Frank, and after us, my sisters. They passed on to us more than knowledge of what happened up on the Mountain at Monticello so many years ago.  They passed on to us the values that made us the ones who voted for our Sally Hemings cousins. They passed on to us who we are.

And who am I, you may ask, other than one of many descendants of this Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson? Well, on this day on which so many will take their oaths of citizenship at Monticello and become naturalized citizens, I will celebrate with them, because I am one, too. It’s a real American story.

I was a sophomore in high school in Leavenworth, Kansas, one day in 1962 when suddenly my mother showed up at one of my classes and grabbed me and put me in the car and drove me to Kansas City in a panic. We were due at Federal Court that day because the country of Japan had notified the State Department that they were declaring citizenship over 16 children of military families born in that country before there was a treaty between the U.S. and Japan normalizing citizenship and immigration. I was the first American baby born in occupied Japan in April of 1947, and I was one of those kids.

So, in Kansas City, my mother marched me before a federal district judge and I raised my right hand and swore allegiance to the United States, and I was awarded the very same Certificate of Citizenship by the Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization that 75 newly minted citizens will be granted today. All of this, despite the fact that I was the son of two American-born parents and I’m a great great great great grandson of the Founding Father at whose home our new citizens will be sworn in today. So I’m a naturalized citizen, just like them.

Is this a great country, or what?




By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

MORE FROM Lucian K. Truscott IV