Morning and Midday
A Society of Would-be Country Squires
The Virginia Piedmont, to which Thomas Jefferson returned upon his retirement from the presidency early in 1809, had not changed much since his birth there on April 13, 1743. Jefferson was born at his father’s tobacco plantation, Shadwell, on the Rivanna River, which flows through a gap in a small range called the Southwest Mountains. A few miles west of Shadwell, on the far side of the Southwest Mountains, the town of Charlottesville would be established. Just past Charlottesville stood the Blue Ridge Mountains, beyond which lay the Shenandoah Valley, walled off by the more imposing Alleghenies. On the other side of the Alleghenies stretched the great American West.
This was rugged territory in 1734, when Peter Jefferson received his first land grant in what would become Albemarle County, and it would remain rugged for decades to come. As late as the American Revolution, a halfcentury after Shadwell was built, Albemarle was a “dreary region of woods and wretchedness,” in the words of Thomas Anburey, a British officer held prisoner near Monticello but, as a gentleman, given considerable freedom of movement. Wild horses roamed at will, “and have no proprietors, but those on whose lands they are found,” Anburey observed. Hogs ran wild, and packs of wolves preyed on the deer as well as on any sheep the planters kept. Even in Jefferson’s time, a Monticello slave would recall, “you could see the wolves in gangs runnin’ and howlin’, same as a drove of hogs.” The Indians that had once lived there and left traces of their existence—an abandoned burial mound stood on Peter Jefferson’s property—had moved south and west or vanished altogether by the time the Englishmen began to build their houses.
The countryside where Peter Jefferson established his family was unlike that of the Virginia Tidewater, where wide and deep rivers—the James, Potomac, York, Rappahannock, and Appomattox—cut through vast expanses of fertile flatlands. Forty or fifty miles west of Richmond, as the Blue Ridge comes into view, the land becomes hilly; the valleys between the hills are cobwebbed with creeks, a geography that presented a greater agricultural challenge than the planters of the Tidewater were accustomed to, as Peter Jefferson and other settlers would soon discover.
These settlers, unlike the Jeffersons, were not all of English derivation. There were also scores of Scots-Irish and Germans who had come down from Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley. These were farmers who made tidy livings from small but well-tended plots of ground, as John Hammond Moore has written in his history of Albemarle County, “doing their own work, with the help of sons, relatives, and hired hands.” Having never depended upon slaves to labor for them, these hardworking men (and women) either had little patience for the pretensions of the lordly slaveholders—or were intimidated by them.
Two years after Thomas Jefferson’s birth, when the first list of Albemarle County “tithables,” or white males eighteen and older, was compiled, there were only 1,394 taxpayers in the entire county. The total population of Albemarle—male and female, young and old, white and black, was about 4,250. About half of the people of Albemarle were enslaved, many just brought over from Africa.
The smallest group, though they wielded by far the greatest influence, were the self-styled gentlemen who had come from the East, bringing their slaves, their liquor, and sometimes their libraries. The most influential of the English settlers were the Jeffersons and the future president’s maternal relatives, the Randolphs.
To clear Albemarle’s hilly land and grow crops on it proved challenging to all the settlers, lowborn and high. Much of this land, cut deep with gullies, bristled with the stumps and lifeless trunks of trees that had been killed rather than chopped down. To save time and trouble, the settlers merely hacked off a strip of bark all around the trunk, leaving the tree to wither and die, usually within a couple of years. Although trees might put out a spindly growth of leaves the next season, Anburey wrote, they would soon stand skeletal and bare against the sky, giving the landscape a “very singular, striking, and dreadful appearance.” Eventually, the rotting trees toppled over “with a most horrible crash,” but until they fell, farming went on as if they were not there at all. The underbrush was either burned away or dug out with hoes. The soil “was scratched with plows,” according to Anburey, “and the first crop was planted under the canopy of dead branches.”
A Virginia farm field “should seem dangerous to walk in . . . for the trees are of a prodigious magnitude and height, from which are impending in awful ruins vast limbs, and branches of an enormous size, which are continually breaking off.” The fences that enclosed these farmlands and kept livestock from wandering off were constructed in a zigzag arrangement so haphazard that New Englanders made a joke of it: when a man was drunk, they would say he was “making Virginia fences.”
Very little of the acreage to which the planters held title was under cultivation at any one time, and farming anywhere except in the bottomlands along the river proved arduous. When tobacco was ready for transport, farmers rolled their hogsheads to the riverbanks and waited until a “freshet” swelled the streams, which enabled them to get their crops to the Tidewater on canoes and batteaux.
After such a storm, Anburey noted, the waters rolled down from the mountains, overflowed the banks for miles on end, and washed away the earth, “which being of a red cast, appeared like a torrent of blood.” When the water was high, boats could move all the way to Richmond. For much of the year, however, the Rivanna, being either iced over in winter or too shallow in summer, was not navigable at all.
Virginia farmers relied on fires as well as floods. In the spring and fall, planters eager to rid their fields of weeds, fallen leaves, and stubble set fires “which traverse whole counties,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Fires “are very frequent,” Anburey reported, “and at Charlottesville I have seen the mountains on a blaze for three or four miles in length.”
The fields were plowed “not more than two inches deep,” in Jeff Randolph’s words, and the few nutrients left in the soil after tobacco, wheat, and corn had been grown on a given field were washed away by the same thundershowers that allowed farmers to get their crops to market. This erosion contributed to the soil’s depletion with astonishing speed. Eventually, entire fields were “abandoned to gullies[,] broom, and briers,” Randolph observed. By 1804, “nine tenths of the cleared land in [the area around Shadwell and Monticello] was in this condition,” its owners “having sold it at low rates and moved west.”
Most Virginians, black and white, lived in cabins or shacks, but here and there, on the hills overlooking the Rivanna, stood crude manor houses that their builders called mansions, surrounded by unpainted wooden outbuildings, stables, and slave quarters. These plantations were, for the most part, self- contained, self-supporting communities and the closest approximations of towns or cities for miles around.
Travel between these plantations and to the towns back east—sixty miles east to Richmond, say, or a hundred forty to Williamsburg—could be perilous. The dirt roads and carriage trails that connected the plantations were often impassable. Finished goods, like crops, moved mostly by boat. So, quite often, did the settlers. Whether they went by boat or made their way along the crude roads, people traveling to visit neighbors frequently found themselves facing vast clouds of black smoke from the farmers’ fires.
Because Virginians lived at such distances from one another, they took every opportunity to socialize. They endured considerable hardship to attend barbecues, fish fries, and horse races, and at all of these events drunkenness was commonplace. The society into which Thomas Jefferson was born aspired to gentility but rarely achieved it. Taverns predated houses of worship, which, although established by the Church of England, were attended but grudgingly by the colonials they had been built to serve.
Under English common law, which prevailed through the colonial period, Virginians could be fined for missing church once, flogged for a second infraction, and put to death for a third. Until Thomas Jefferson, as a member of the Virginia legislature, recommended revisions to the penal code, “free-thinkers” could find their children taken away. During Jefferson’s childhood such laws, though rarely, if ever, enforced, remained on the books.
This was not a pious culture, nor an especially law-abiding one, but it was convivial. As soon as work was done, when holidays rolled around, or when there was business to attend to at the courthouse, the leading men of the county entertained themselves in raucous fashion, playing cards, dice, and billiards, often for high stakes. Violence often followed, “it not being the fashion of the day,” in Jeff Randolph’s words, “for men to restrain their tempers.”
In 1748, five years after Jefferson’s birth, fighting had gotten so vicious that Virginia’s colonial legislature passed a general statute against maiming, making it a felony to cut out another person’s tongue, put out his eye, or bite his nose or lip; thirty years later, just before the Revolution, the lawmakers added a prohibition against “gouging, plucking or putting out an eye, biting, kicking or stomping upon” a fellow subject of the British crown.
At horse races, competition was often restricted “to the better sort of Virginians only,” Anburey found, and the planters, serving as their own jockeys, were uninhibited in the use of the whip, which they applied to one another as readily as to their mounts. Fox hunting, though viewed in some Tidewater circles as vulgar, remained popular in the Piedmont, where the sportsmen not only chased their prey with the help of dogs but shot at it as well. These would-be country squires seldom turned their weapons on one another, and murder was rare. Dueling, however, was an accepted practice, associated with an aristocratic way of life that ambitious English settlers were determined to transplant in the New World.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford. Copyright © 2008 by Alan Pell Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.