By Kathleen McSweeney, Reading Room Assistant
Although Thomas Jefferson is well known for his roles in early United States government, he was also a business man, producing products using slaves at his mansion and plantation, Monticello. Among our Thomas Jefferson manuscripts is an account book of Jefferson’s nail business. The book contains tables with information about the productivity of slaves producing nails at Monticello from 1796 to 1800.
Jefferson started his nail business in 1794 in order to provide additional income for Monticello. At the nailery he used slaves that he felt were not useful elsewhere on the plantation as well as children from the ages of 10 to 16. The nailery successfully generated profit. Two months of earnings covered the annual bill for groceries for the Jefferson household. Slaves were encouraged to be productive with rewards of meat, molasses, and fish. Younger nail workers were whipped if they refused to show up for work.
The most productive slave working at the nailery according to this account book was Isaac, later known as Isaac Jefferson when he took the Jefferson name sometime after earning his freedom. On the first page of the account book, Isaac is used as a standard of measuring an efficient worker. Isaac was twenty years old in 1796 when he was recorded by Jefferson as the most profitable worker at the nailery. Before working as a nailer, Isaac worked as a tinsmith and blacksmith at Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson, “Nail Book”, MS Box J, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.
Stanton, Lucia. Free Some Day: The African-American Families of Monticello. Charlottesville, Va.: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2000.
Wiencek, Henry. “Master of Monticello.” Smithsonian 43.6 (2012): 40-97. America: History & Life.