In the Shadow of Liberty by Kenneth C. Davis

In the Shadow of Liberty by Kenneth C. Davis

Author:Kenneth C. Davis
Format: epub
ISBN: 9781627793124

Isaac would have worked in a building similar to this reconstructed nail shop on Mulberry Row. [Author’s collection]

Jefferson also set up a nail factory to produce the nails used at Monticello and sell them for profit. Isaac worked there as well, alongside other boys as young as ten years old. Over the next few years, while Jefferson was in Monticello after his years as secretary of state, Isaac set the standard as a nail maker; he turned out one thousand pounds of nails in the first six months of 1796, by far the most at Monticello.

Although he had seen how black freemen lived in Philadelphia, Isaac resumed the regular life of plantation bondage. He and an enslaved woman named Iris fell in love and started a family, producing two boys, Squire and Joyce, and later a girl named Maria. Isaac’s father, “Great George,” was meanwhile made the overseer—the man who supervised the enslaved farmhands of Monticello. The job of overseer, typically given to a free white man, was an extraordinary position of trust for an enslaved man, especially as the “Master of Monticello” was about to embark on the next step in his famous life.

Chosen the third American president in 1801, Jefferson moved into the new executive mansion in the new capital of Washington. The presidential home would eventually become known as the White House. John Adams and his wife, Abigail, had been the first to occupy the building, which was still unfinished in November 1800 when the Adamses first moved in. Large and drafty, the plastered walls still wet, the house was called the “great castle” by Abigail Adams.

But the President’s House was far from a king’s palace. The laundry was hung indoors, and thirteen fireplaces were kept burning to warm the house and dry both the walls and the presidential family’s wet breeches. The privy—the presidential outhouse—was outdoors, pretty much in full view of the public.

Something else was far more upsetting to Mrs. Adams about the mansion and the new capital being laid out around it. Both the city and the President’s House were being built with enslaved labor. That disgusted Mrs. Adams, who had grown up with enslaved servants but had come to hate slavery. Like many traditional New Englanders who believed in the virtue of hard work and honest wages, she also thought that slavery was a poor way to get a job done.

After watching a dozen enslaved men laboring outside the future White House, Abigail Adams complained to her uncle in a letter, “Two of our hardy New England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12.” She added that the twelve men and the other enslaved people she saw each day were often “half fed, and destitute of clothing,” while the owners who hired out these men did nothing but keep their wages.


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