French politician and author Jean-Nicholas Démeunier, in 1786, published his Essai sur les États-Unis. Prior to its publication, the essay, intended for Encyclopédie Méthodique, was in the words of Jefferson’s secretary William Short in a letter to William Nelson (25 Oct. 1786), “as false as might be expected from a man who had made the Abbe Raynal his model, and his own lively imagination his guide.” Yet Démeunier appealed to Thomas Jefferson to read through the manuscript and proffer critical comments on it. Jefferson gave the manuscript a thorough inspection and commented abundantly in a series of “observations” in letters to Démeunier in 1786. On June 22, 1786, he sent Démeunier another collection of “observations,” which began with the institution of indentured servitude, practiced in America.
Jefferson begins with a critical assessment of criminals who were shipped to the colonies:
The Malefactors sent to America were not in sufficient number to merit enumeration as one class out of three which peopled America. It was at a late period of their history that this practice began. I have no book by me which enables me to point out the date of it’s commencement. But I do not think the whole number sent would amount to 2000, and being principally men, eaten up with disease, they married seldom and propagated little. I do not suppose that themselves and their descendants are at present 4000, which is little more than one thousandth part of the whole inhabitants.
In doing the math, Jefferson, given the population of criminals and their offspring at some 4,000 persons and assuming the population of the United States to be at roughly four million persons at the time, gives the percentage of criminals to be 0.001—an insignificant number.
Jefferson then turns to the topic of indentured servitude, which he considers a separate topic:
Indented servants formed a considerable supply. These were poor Europeans who went to America to settle themselves. If they could pay their passage it was well. If not, they must find means of paying it. They were at liberty therefore to make an agreement with any person they chose, to serve him such a length of time as they agreed on, on condition that he would repay to the master of the vessel the expences of their passage. If being foreigners unable to speak the language, they did not know how to make a bargain for themselves the captain of the vessel contracted for them with such person as he could. This contract was by deed indented, which occasioned them to be called indented servants. Sometimes they were called Redemptioners, because by their agreement with the master of the vessel they could redeem themselves from his power by paying their passage, which they frequently effected by hiring themselves on their arrival as is before mentioned. In some states I know that these people had a right of marrying themselves without their master’s leave, and I did suppose they had that right every where. I did not know that in any of the states they demanded so much as a week for every day’s absence without leave. I suspect this must have been at a very early period while the governments were in the hands of the first emigrants, who being mostly labourers, were narrow minded and severe. I know that in Virginia the laws allowed their servitude to be protracted only two days for every one they were absent without leave. So mild was this kind of servitude, that it was very frequent for foreigners who carried to America money enough, not only to pay their passage, but to buy themselves a farm, it was common I say for them to indent themselves to a master for three years, for a certain sum of money, with a view to learn the husbandry of the country.—I will here make a general observation. So desirous are the poor of Europe to get to America, where they may better their conditions that, being unable to pay their passage, they will agree to serve two or three years, on their arrival there, rather than not go. During the time of that service they are better fed, better clothed, and have lighter labour than while in Europe. Continuing to work for hire a few years longer, they buy a farm, marry, and enjoy the sweets of a domestic society of their own.
What Jefferson writes of in his “observations” is typical of what people today, scholars included, think of the indenture of Whites to North America. Indentured servants were poor Europeans, who willingly bound themselves to a master for an extended period of time, for an opportunity to begin anew their life—to reinvent themselves. While in the service of a master, they would be “better fed, better clothed, and have lighter labour than while in Europe.” They would soon serve out their mild indenture, while learning to farm or acquiring another useful technical skill, and then, perhaps after having extended their indenture, they would “buy a farm, marry, and enjoy the sweets of a domestic society of their own.”
There is a small fly in the ointment. Jefferson next mentions deception, which implies some degree of dissatisfaction with the whole experience by those persons indentured:
The American [go]vernments are censured for permitting the species of ser[vitude] which lays the foundation of the happiness of these people. But what should these governments do? Pay the passage of all those who chuse to go into their country? They are not able; nor, were they able, do they think the purchase worth the price. Should they exclude these people from their shores? Those who know their situations in Europe and America, would not say that this is the alternative which humanity dictates. But it is said these people are deceived by those who carry them over. But this is done in Europe. How can the American governments prevent it? Should they punish the deceiver? It seems more incumbent on the European government, where the act is done, and where a public injury is sustained from it. However it is only in Europe that this deception is heard of. The individuals are generally satisfied in America with their adventure, and very few of them wish not to have made it. I must add that the Congress have nothing to do with this matter. It belongs to the legislatures of the several states.
What precisely is the deception of which Jefferson speaks?
Jefferson is regrettably silent, though he does state that the deception occurs only in Europe; Americans are exculpated. There have been, it seems, certain promises made by certain Europeans that were not kept.
In spite of acknowledging some deception, Jefferson overall describes the scenario in idyllic terms, yet the reality was otherwise. The overseas voyage to the New World was arduous and risky, and there was no guarantee of a passenger surviving the parlous trip. To illustrate with a decades-later example, the Seaflower set sail from Belfast to Philadelphia on July 31, 1741, with 106 passengers. The ship ran into foul weather and sprang a mast, and was becalmed for many weeks—thereby, causing a substantial delay in its arrival, which occurred on October 31, 1741. By that time, the food aboard the ship had run out and only 42 of the passengers arrived alive. Six corpses were eaten to sustain the survivors.
Moreover, the early colony at Jamestown was peopled and “repeopled” on several occasions, but the population was continually halved due to hostile encounters with native Powhatans, limited supplies, inadequate fresh water, poor soil for gardening, insufficient game, and unwillingness of all settlers to share equally in the labor that was needed to survive—there were numerous gentry who believed manual labor was beneath them—hence, instantiation of Capt. John Smith’s work-for-food policy in 1609.
What saved the settlement and convinced investors that colonizing Virginia was economically worthwhile was introduction by John Rolfe of seeds of a new sweet broad-leaf tobacco, Nicotiana tabacum, from Bermuda in place of the native strain, Nicotiana rustica. The new tobacco became a quick success in England. Success of tobacco farms led to enhanced growth of the industry and westerly extension of tobacco farms—the fort at Jamestown was abandoned in 1624—as tobacco was an earth-depleting crop and new soils would ever be needed.
Before 1622, tobacco was harvested by sharecroppers. Then Capt. Thomas Nuce advised the Virginian Company to use white indentured servants as field laborers—“to change the condition of tenants into servants”—and that changed the landscape and status of those indentured. When the 1620s ended, three of four people shipped to Virginia were indentured and most were put to work as simple field laborers on large plantations, which is perhaps the “deception” of which Jefferson speaks. The work was arduous, and made more arduous by the insufferable Virginian sun in months of harvesting—usually late July or early August.
Those indentured “poor Europeans” to whom Jefferson refers in his second paragraph are today called “free-willers”—just one of a number of groups that were considered to be superfluous. Others, whom Jefferson calls “Malefactors,” were convicts, prisoners of war, troublesome street urchins, prostitutes, Cavaliers, Quakers, and Irish. So desirable was the labor of white servants early in the seventeenth century that there developed over time a system for rounding up the superfluous persons, usually of a young age, by misinformation or force. White convicts were told that they could eschew death by traveling to America. Other surplus Whites were promised vainly plots of land, technical education, or adventure. The robust, especially the very young, were even kidnapped and incarcerated until they could be brought to ships headed for America. In some cases, the kidnapping was done unabashedly in front of a child’s parents, who were powerless to stop the injustice. “The practice of scooping up fresh labor by any means, fair or foul, was well established, there being no effective force against it, nor any real remedy for it,” write Don Jordan and Michael Walsh in White Cargo.
Trips to America were hazardous, as white servants were often packed into boats with little room for movement—the ship Brooks logs that each servant was given one foot and four inches across of sleeping space—and it was not uncommon that one quarter or more of the servants would die in transit. When trips were extended due to unforeseen circumstances such as inclement weather, provisions would run low or run out, food would putrefy, and water, if any would be left, would be unfit for quaffing. Unsanitary conditions—servants generally shared bowls of food and containers of water and the hull of the ship was generally redolent of urine and feces—increased mortality.
Those who survived the arduous journey, were not “better fed [and] better clothed,” and they did not have “lighter labour than while in Europe.” The “deception,” pace the words of Jefferson, was on both ends, as the need of field laborers for harvesting tobacco in and around Virginia required a system of acquiring laborers for the drudgery, and that demanded complicity between colonists and Europeans.
After the initial investment in a servant by a purchaser, the purchaser owned the servant’s labor for several years, or more. Jefferson describes the scenario as contractual: The buyer and servant negotiated and came to mutually agreeable terms. Yet that was seldom the case. One indentured did not sell his labor; he sold himself. Not only did he pledge his work to his master, he also pledged his person to his master. He was a slave on tenure, but nonetheless a slave. The terms of “contract” tended always to favor the owner.
The promises white servants were made to entice them to the New World were only infrequently kept, and their agreed-upon indentures were generally protracted by artificial means. Servants, during indenture, had no rights, and thus, had no legal recourse. Former prostitute Elizabeth Abbott, a field worker, was of the habit of leaving her condition, deemed unendurable, for several days. The laws against missing service varied from colony to colony. Indenture for every missed day would be extended by anywhere from two to 10 days. (Virginia began leniently with two years, but changed it in time to five years.) Abbott, after one period of absenteeism, was flagrantly whipped—one account by an observer gives 500 strokes—until she staggered away and died on a neighboring property. The owner was not prosecuted.
Again, white indentured servitude on plantations was generally anything but “so mild.” Working conditions were harsh, especially in the colonies harvesting tobacco. The summers in Maryland and Virginia were brutal, owners wanted to squeeze every bit of labor they could get from a servant during indenture, and noncompliant behavior was severely punished by whippings and mutilations, given legal sanction in the early decades of the process. Thus, many servants perished during their indenture, especially those indentured early in the seventeenth century. When Blacks were introduced as lifelong servants—i.e., slaves—they often received better, less severe treatment on behalf of masters. As their tenure was life-long and their cost greater than that of one indentured, purchasers were careful to select hardy and complicit slaves and they were aware that overwork or overly severe physical punishment could lead to failure of investment.
Those white servants who did gain respite when a protracted indenture had ended were often so physically and emotionally broken that they could not work their own plot of land, so their dream was quixotic. Yet most who survived their slavish tenure had insufficient money to purchase land, and the cost of surveying a plot of land for those with sufficient money, was prohibitive. Historian Gary Nash writes that opportunities for acquiring land in Maryland after 1660 and Pennsylvania after 1740 were few. “Only a handful ever became property owners.” Some 75 percent of freed servants in Pennsylvania were on the public dole.
The system, overall, was designed to benefit only the wealthy landowners or those who invested in the system of indenturing the superfluous. The exchange between laborer and owner was never meant to be fair or just, otherwise the shift from “employing” sharecroppers to servants would never have occurred.
In sum, in need of cheap labor, owners of plantations conspired to work white servants during their tenure beyond what was physically reasonable, and to keep able-bodies laborers beyond their indenture. Laws, consequently, put into praxis by the gentry for their own sake, were framed and passed to do just those things.
Jefferson, thus, was right to note that indentured servants “formed a considerable supply.” He was, however, wrong to think that only free-willers were indentured—there were indentured prostitutes, homeless children, criminals, prisoners of war, and political and religious outcasts—and the risk of the voyage alone, known to the free-willers, was sufficient evidence that choosing to travel to the New World was due to them having exhausted all viable means of living gainfully in the Old World. Moreover, the servitude, as we have seen, was seldom mild and equitable. The system took root in Virginia because of large need of cheap field labor at tobacco plantations and of other crops in other territories, like Barbados, where cane sugar was harvested and indentured servants were used.
It might be that Jefferson was aware that the deception was on both sides of the Atlantic and that he was cognizant that a large percentage of the American population was of the blood of superfluous persons. I might be that he wished not for readers of the Encyclopédie Méthodique to be aware of the possible biological inferiority of American citizens, due to the influx of a large amount of the blood of superfluous Europeans in Colonia America. Benjamin Franklin, unlike Jefferson, recognized the problem, when he wrote thus in The Pennsylvania Gazette about the lucrative convict trade between England and America and the inimical effects on Colonial America (9 May 1751).
What is a little Housebreaking, Shoplifting, or Highway Robbing; what is a Son now and then corrupted and hang’d, a Daughter debauch’d and pox’d, a Wife stabb’d, a Husband’s Throat cut, or a Child’s Brains beat out with an Axe, compar’d with this “Improvement and WELL PEOPLING” of the Colonies! … Rattle-snakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent us by our mother country. In this, however, as in every other branch of trade, she will have the advantage of us. She will reap equal benefits without equal risk of the inconveniencies and dangers. For the rattlesnake gives warning before he attempts his mischief; which the convict does not.
It might be that Jefferson’s observations are themselves deceptious, due to dissimulation.
At the beginning of his Autobiography, he expresses large uncertainty about his ancestry.
On his father’s side, he says that there is the family tradition that they came from a place near Snowdon Mountain in Wales. That has never been confirmed.
His maternal lineage he traces to England and Scotland and curiously adds “to which let every one ascribe the faith & merit he chooses.” Jefferson’s mother, Jane Isham Randolph (1720–1776), had as her great-grandfather Richard Randolph II (1621–1678), who was “steward and servant” to Edward la Zouche, Baron Zouche, in Houghton Parva, England, and prior to that, he was steward and servant to Sir George Goring—both rather inconsequential positions. He married Elizabeth Ryland (1621–1669) in 1644 and he and his wife died in Dublin, Ireland.
Son Col. William Randolph was born in Warwickshire, England, and moved as late as 1672 to Henrico County, Virginia, as his presence is there recorded in early February 1672. From modest roots, he built a large estate at Turkey Island in the 1680s and became a prominent politician in the House of Burgesses.
What brought Jefferson’s ancestors to the New World and why was he so quiet about them—especially on his mother’s side, where records were readily available? Were any of his ancestors indentured? One thing seems plain: His roots were modest. There was little motivation for any of the well-to-do to uproot and start anew one’s life in the New World.
The institution of indentured servitude did not end with the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, but lasted for decades after the war. It was gone by 1820. It died a slow death and not on account of any principled objections to it, but because the trade was no longer profitable. By the 1650s, it was mostly supplanted by black slaves, indentured for life and made hereditary, for the convenience of the owners. In 1662, a law passed that said, “All children borne in this country shall be held, bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.” Enslavement of Blacks merely became over time the preferred long-term investment