A single photograph survives. A thick set black man with broad arms and huge hands.
|Isaac: worked hard for Jefferson|
He stares at the camera without the trace of a smile. His name is Isaac Jefferson Granger, and he was one of the hundreds of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States.
President Jefferson is perhaps best known as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He is also known for his vigorous opposition to the international slave trade.
|The slave master: President Jefferson.|
In recent years, his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a mixed race slave, has received much attention. So, too, have the children that he fathered by her.
Yet Jefferson had an army of other slaves working on his Monticello estate, among whom was Isaac the nail-maker.
Isaac’s story might have been lost to the world, had it not been for a clergyman, Rev. Charles Campbell, who interviewed him in 1847.
His memoir sheds a fascinating life on how President Jefferson treated his slaves, as well as a snapshot of daily life at his magnificent Monticello estate.
Isaac was born into slavery in 1775, the third son of a married slave couple, Ursula and George. They also worked at Jefferson’s Monticello estate: George would eventually rise to become overseer of the entire estate, earning himself the nickname King George in the process. His wife (‘Queen Ursula’) was laundress and pastry cook.
When Isaac turned 15 - in the year that Jefferson became president - he accompanied his master to Philadelphia. He travelled on horseback, a rare luxury, and was apparently well treated.
It was in Philadelphia that Jefferson set him to work on an apprenticeship, learning metalworking skills. Slaves were far more useful if they had a craft. ‘He went to learn the tinner’s trade,’ reads Campbell’s account. ‘First week [he] learned to cut out and solder.’ Later, he produced little pepper boxes and graters.
|Monticello in 1825: by Jane Braddick|
Jefferson was a jovial and warm individual, according to Isaac’s account.
‘[The] old master used to talk to me mighty free,’ he recalled, ‘and ask me: ‘How you come on Isaac, larnin de tin business?’
Jefferson was delighted by his hard-working slave: Isaac was his most productive nail-maker. According to Jefferson’s meticulous account books, he could make 507 pounds of nails in 47 days. He earned the highest daily return for his master: the equivalent of eighty-five cents a day - almost all of which went into Jefferson’s substantial pockets.
|Slave trade, Africa. Where it all began|
Isaac was later made a gatekeeper of Monticello, opening the several sets of gates to Jefferson’s friends and visitors. Among the regulars was Colonel Cary, who Isaac disliked intensely: he described him as the most ‘dry looking man as ever you see in your life.’
Cary was indeed a cruel individual who treated Isaac with contempt. He frequently whipped him on arriving at Monticello. ‘He has given Isaac more whippings than he has fingers and toes,’ wrote Rev Campbell.
Cary would whip him at the entrance gates and then whip him again later in the day. ‘The colonel … [would] look about for him and whip him with his horsewhip.’
Cary would often stay several weeks at Jefferson’s house: during that time, most of the slaves were severely abused by him.
When Jefferson grew infirm, Isaac became his carer and nurse. ‘He was took with a swelling in his legs,’ wrote Isaac. [I] used to bathe ‘em and bandage em…’ He’d then wheel him around in a ham-barrow.
Isaac’s memories of his slave owner were surprisingly fond: Jefferson treated him well and was unusually generous to his slaves. When the Rev Campbell asked Isaac what he thought of Jefferson, he said he was ‘a mighty good master.’
|A slave auction|
In October 1797, Thomas Jefferson gave Isaac, his wife, Iris, and their sons to his daughter. It is not known how Isaac eventually won his freedom. Nor is anything known about the fate of his wife and two sons. Rev. Campbell only noted that Isaac died ‘a few years after these his recollections were taken down.’
He died a free man - after half a lifetime in slavery - but almost certainly never lived to see the abolition of slavery.
That did not come about until 1865, more than a century after Jefferson had described slavery - with no apparent irony - as ‘an abominable crime’
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'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail
'Engaging, page-turning and thought-provoking... a fascinating subject' Victoria Hislop