Forgotten Founder: Jefferson’s “adoptive son” and the legacy of slavery

Forgotten Founder: Jefferson’s “adoptive son” and the legacy of slavery


When I got the assignment a couple of months ago to write about Jefferson and his protégé William Short and their dialogue about race and slavery, the nine murdered worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston were still alive. We’ve lost far too many people to race-inflected violence and outrage in recent years, but this feels different. It feels impossible now to dive in to telling a story about race from 200 years ago without acknowledging at the outset this most recent stain on our nation.

Some of what’s different this time stems from the truly remarkable spectacle of the relatives of the Charleston victims publicly forgiving and praying for the broken man who slaughtered their loved ones. Their example seems, for the time being at least, to have sparked a new thoughtfulness about race. “What is this extraordinary resource of this otherwise unhappy country that it breeds such dignity in its victims?” That was the journalist Murray Kempton writing in 1956 about the miraculous poise and composure of Autherine Lucy as she ran a gauntlet of violence and hate during the attempted integration of the University of Alabama. It’s a question worth asking again. What resources did these families draw upon to find forgiveness in the face of such hatred?

Well, one such resource is the power of the black church. In its earliest form, it saw its people through the long horrors of slavery. Later, it nurtured them through the privations of reconstruction, and through the almost unbearable injustices of Jim Crow. It has been one of the strongest bastions of moral courage that this country has ever produced. It continues to inspire both black and white with a vision of brotherhood and justice. And even now it carries in its palm the families of Charleston and holds them up above this darkness and pain and into the healing light of faith.

We need a secular faith that is as powerful as that religious faith. We need to have faith that there are still things that we can discover about ourselves. We need to have faith that our highest founding ideals can redeem our lowest impulses. We need to have faith that we can look with compassionate and unblinking eyes at the ugliness that is inside all of us, and we need to believe that we can draw from that encounter the strength to change ourselves and to change the world.

It is in that spirit that we tell the following story—about two long-dead white men, about the ways that they struggled with our deepest national shame, even as they both worked to build a country that might possibly one day redress that shame.

It is about how they differed, and about how they failed. And it is about what there is to learn from that failure.

The map

The mysterious map delivered to the offices of the Morven Project in 2008, showing William Short’s name, a few geographical features, and what appear to be plots of land labeled with initials. Photo: Morven
The mysterious map delivered to the offices of the Morven Project in 2008, showing William Short’s name, a few geographical features, and what appear to be plots of land labeled with initials. Photo: Morven

This story starts and ends with a mystery document.

“It’s like a whodunit,” says Stewart Gamage. “We started from the ground up, and with blind eyes.” Gamage, a striking woman with a gentle southern accent and a smart, inquisitive way of talking and listening, runs The Morven Project for the University of Virginia Foundation.

In 2001 the billionaire media mogul John Kluge donated 7,300 acres south of Monticello and Ash Lawn to the University. The core of that donation consisted of the horse farm and estate named Morven (a Scottish word meaning “ridge of hills”), with its land, gardens, dependencies and landmark Georgian manor house.

Gifts sometimes come with burdens, or with challenges. It was not immediately apparent what a major research university needed with a showcase of agrarian gentility. But the University decided to sell some of the land, use the proceeds to endow the operation of 3,000 acres with Morven at its core, and to actively research and explore ways to use the place and its history to focus, and perhaps extend, its mission.

In 2008 Gamage was hired to run the project, and to spearhead the exploration. And she had barely started to work when the mystery walked through the door. “A gentleman with an English accent walked into the office, literally with this photocopy in his hands,” she says, holding up the grey-toned paper with lines and vectors and scrawls. “He said: ‘This could help you with your work. Please don’t tell anyone where you got it’ and walked out.”

The document was a photocopy of a vintage map, with the words “William Short 1334 acres” written prominently near the top. It appeared to contain a number of plots, or subdivisions of the property, which were labeled in a way that was difficult to read on the copy, as well as a road and a few streams. Short’s connection to the Morven property was already known. In 1796, Thomas Jefferson presided over the purchase of the 1,334 acres, a parcel then referred to as “Indian Camp,” as an investment for his former private secretary, Short, who was then serving in Europe as one of America’s first career diplomats. Managing the property for Short in his absence, Jefferson leased portions of the land to farmers in an effort to generate income, but the arrangement was not a success and Short, who looked at the land as an investment that was not paying, authorized its sale. Still acting as agent, Jefferson sold the property in 1813.

The mystery man turned out to be an employee at a nearby estate who had a historical bent. He didn’t want his employers to think that he was wasting his time on esoteric research, hence the secrecy, but he had found the map in a published collection of Jefferson’s architectural drawings, and suspected that it might be useful in the historical research that was about to begin at Morven.

Useful understates its effect.

The diplomat

History refuses to sit still. We have a tendency to think of it as etched in stone, as if we get it right the first time and then immediately turn it into the marble icons and static portraits in our internalized national gallery of the mind. But, in fact, our sense of the past is constantly evolving, as we uncover new evidence, change interpretations, or as our present needs drive us to ask new questions about where we come from. The Indian Camp map spurred exactly that kind of evolution.

For a long time after his death, history knew William Short as a minor figure in Jefferson’s biography, and as a person of modest significance in the diplomatic history of the U.S. Short was born in 1759 in Surrey County, across the river from Jamestown. He came from a landholding, slaveholding family, and was educated at William & Mary from 1778 to 1781. He was a distant relation of Jefferson’s and may have known him before school, but it was at Williamsburg that Short’s abilities first caught Jefferson’s attention. He noticed in the younger man, “a peculiar talent for prying into facts,” as he wrote to James Madison in 1783.

After William & Mary, Jefferson helped foster Short’s career in some small ways. Then, in, 1784, he brought Short to Paris to serve as his private secretary during his term as ambassador to France. When Jefferson returned to the U.S. Short stayed on the continent for the next 17 years, serving in a number of diplomatic posts and only rarely returning to the States. During their work together, Jefferson developed a deep affection for his protégé that did not abate when they were separated. He referred to Short on numerous occasions as his “adoptive son,” and they carried on a long and lively correspondence that lasted until Jefferson’s death in 1826.

That correspondence, it turns out, holds a number of surprises. The historian Annette Gordon-Reed unearthed and presented one of those surprises in 1997 in her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings: An American Controversy. The book is a landmark in Jefferson scholarship. In it Gordon-Reed, who is by training a lawyer, builds a painstaking case for a proposition that had frequently been rumored over the years, but that generations of respectable historians had consistently refused to believe—that Jefferson had fathered children by his slave Sally Hemmings. Gordon-Reed’s argument was so convincing that it tipped the scales within the profession, and even within the Jefferson establishment. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, operator of Monticello, in 2000 announced that it had studied the evidence and it agreed with Gordon-Reed’s conclusions.

Prurient interest in Jefferson’s sex life aside, the really shocking thing about his paternity is the deep hypocrisy that it reveals. As part of her research, Gordon-Reed uncovered a remarkable letter from Short to Jefferson written in 1798 that seems to address that hypocrisy directly. Jefferson’s ideas about slavery and about race were complex and contradictory and in some ways odious, and he never wavered from them. Short knew those opinions well. They are clearly spelled out in Jefferson’s 1785 book Notes on the State of Virginia, which Short helped him prepare for publication when they were in Paris together. Slavery was an evil, Jefferson believed, and it had to end. But he also had a strong “suspicion” which never left him of the innate inferiority of the black race. His favored path to end slavery was to train young slaves in farming skills and independence, free them at age 18, separate them from their families, and ship them off to colonies abroad to have them “removed beyond the reach of mixture” that might happen if freed blacks and whites were to share the same continent. To compensate slaveholders and to sustain the economy through the loss of essentially free labor, he recommended a system of importing lower class whites, and setting them up on plantations as a class of tenant farmers on the European model.

The 1798 letter that Gordon-Reed uncovered systematically, though not confrontationally, dismantles and contradicts every one of these ideas about race and slavery. In that letter, Short argues for the innate “perfectability” of blacks, even those long degraded by the dehumanizing institution. He questions the morality of exporting freed blacks, and the practicality of importing free whites to replace them. Surely, it makes more sense to avoid the expense of transportation and settle freed blacks into a gradual process leading from serfdom to tenant farming, and, eventually, to independent ownership. Any racial mixing, he argues, would happen slowly, and would produce people who “would not be of a darker color than the inhabitants of most of the provinces of Spain.” The mixing would even come, Short says, with no loss of “sentiment arising from the contemplation of beauty.”

It’s hard not to read that last as a direct tweak of Jefferson as the father of mixed race children. Short was with Jefferson in Paris, an intimate of the household, when Sally Hemmings, according to her son’s memoir, conceived and gave birth to her first child (who died shortly thereafter). Clearly, there was a lot more to pay attention to in Jefferson and Short’s relationship than scholars had previously guessed. And with the discovery of the map, and the commencement of research at Morven, attention was about to be paid.


At the core of John Kluge’s 2001 gift to the University was the Morven estate. During the period that Jefferson purchased and managed the land for his “adoptive son” William Short, it was known as “Indian Camp.” Photo: Morven
At the core of John Kluge’s 2001 gift to the University was the Morven estate. During the period that Jefferson purchased and managed the land for his “adoptive son” William Short, it was known as “Indian Camp.” Photo: Morven

In 2008, Laura Voisin George, a graduate student in Architectural History, had only recently arrived at the University when she met Stewart Gamage, who had only recently taken over at Morven. Almost immediately, Voisin George was working for Gamage to research the history of the buildings on the estate. When the Indian Camp map came through the door, it became the order of the day. Voisin George was dispatched to the Huntington Library, the location of the original, to secure a hi-res scan of the map that would allow them to decipher all of the writing. It is one of the little serendipities of this story that Voisin George was visiting her family at the time that the call came, right down the road from the Huntington, in Pasadena, CA.

Back at Morven, Gamage had secured three years worth of funding from the University for research into the history of the estate, and she was assembling teams to start the digging. Some of that digging was going to be literal. Frazier Neiman, director of archaeology at Monticello, was brought in, as was Jeffrey Hantman, an anthropologist who had been working for years on Monacan Indian sites in the region. With digital mapping support from the archeology lab at Monticello, they were able to align landmarks on the map with features of the local terrain and lay out the plots on the map directly on the topography of Morven. The tenant farming plots became targets for their archeology. Over the next three years, test plots discovered a deep layer of Indian artifacts establishing a presence going back to 2000 BC. From the colonial era they found artifacts, as well as a house foundation and layers of soil that carried evidence of farming practices.

With the ability to read the initials attached to the smaller plots on the map, Voisin George was able to find records of farmer names that matched the initials in the archive at Monticello and to confirm that these were, in fact, tenant farms on the European model—among the first in Virginia, which did not have an established tenant class. She was also able to research family history of the farmers situated there. The records showed that Jefferson was using the tenant arrangements to experiment with his ideas about crop rotation.

While that was going on, Gamage also assembled a separate team of faculty members to conduct above-ground research in the architecture, ecology, and landscape architecture of the place. She included in that team Scot French, a historian, to pose questions about the extent and nature of Jefferson’s and Short’s involvement in the place. “We had the map,” says French. “We knew that [Jefferson] had a connection, and that was the starting point, the map. We understood that he was using tenant farmers there, but what was the correspondence that would help illuminate that?”

So French set out to gather together Jefferson’s and Short’s letters and see what he could find that illuminated the history at Morven. What he found was beyond what anyone imagined could be there. It might seem that the existing correspondence should have been looked over many times by scholars over the years, and its nuances digested and interpreted and passed into accepted history and mounted as truth in our national gallery of the mind. But history doesn’t actually work like that.

While a lot of the correspondence had been collected and published, and much that wasn’t published was in known collections that were easily accessible, no one had ever looked at it all in light of tenant farming before. No one else before had a map that needed explaining. And no one else had noticed that tenant farming was the theme that tied together their conversations on the practicalities of Indian Camp with Short’s insistent efforts to convince Jefferson that tenancy was a better way to end slavery than colonization.

French’s research makes it clear that the 1798 letter that Gordon-Reed had called attention to, in which Short challenged Jefferson on slavery and race, was only the tip of the iceberg. It was a single moment in a 40-year-long conversation between the two men that started with the publication of Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785. One thread of that conversation was the tenant practices at Indian Camp, but that single thread was woven with a whole fabric of larger, more ambitious conversations that covered tenant practices in Europe (“In the Milanois it [sharecropping] is less complicated in one respect than in France, and of course better for our negroes.”), new discoveries pointing to the cultural advancement of blacks (“What has already been seen & authentically established by late travelers [in Africa] leaves no doubt of their susceptibility of all the arts of civilization … “), instances of slave revolts and of freed black colonization, race mixing, and the comparative morality of exporting freed blacks versus establishing them as tenants on the lands where they had been born and worked.

Especially later in life, when Jefferson seemed to tire of the conversation, Short was relentless, though never confrontational, in continuing to hammer home his more progressive perspective on slavery. In 1800: “I have never heard from you whether or not you recd a very long letter I wrote you some years ago…. It went on a good deal on a subject to which I think it of importance that our countrymen should pay attention—that of slaves.” In 1825:  “I remember well that near half a century ago you treated of this population, but even then were in favor of the expopulating system. If you should have now, like myself, become convinced of the impracticality, or even of the inhumanity of this plan, would it not be worth while to encourage the idea of changing the condition of the slaves into serfs…?” And again in 1826: “I should be very glad to know by one line only whether you approve of the idea of converting our slaves into serfs.” ”

Jefferson’s answer came six months before his death. It makes it plain that his ideas had not evolved much: “The plan of converting the blacks into serfs would certainly be better than keeping them in their present condition, but I consider that of expatriation …as entirely practicable, and greatly preferable to the mixture of colour here, to this I have great aversion.”

Scot French is impressed by the scale of the discussion these two founders of the country participated in: “These are big issues. This is not just a minor conversation about a little piece of land. They are talking about the biggest issues you can imagine.”

Stewart Gamage sums it up this way: “William Short really was, in many ways, Jefferson’s conscience on slavery.”

The archive

The questions asked in researching William Short’s ownership of Indian Camp (Morven) led to a re-evaluation and new discovery of his life-long conversation with Jefferson about agricultural methods, slavery, and race.
The questions asked in researching William Short’s ownership of Indian Camp (Morven) led to a re-evaluation and new discovery of his life-long conversation with Jefferson about agricultural methods, slavery, and race. Photo: Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Were Jefferson and Short experimenting with tenant farming at Morven as a way to imagine and start to build a path out of slavery? If so, then the experiment failed. The whole point was that it needed to be something practicable for plantation owners to undertake. And the tenancy arrangements that Jefferson was supervising at Indian Camp were not cutting it. Small plots were not profitable. They degraded the land because they were so difficult to supervise to ensure wholesome land management. At Short’s request, Jefferson shut down the operation and sold the land to a neighbor in 1813.

In a long letter of October 1793, two years before the purchase of Indian Camp, Short discussed tenant farming at length with Jefferson, evaluating the money he would need to earn from his land investments, and making a long digression about his ideas of bringing slavery to an end by freeing slaves and moving them into tenant arrangements: “I think those who have the misfortune to own slaves, should for the sake of humanity make the experiment. When I shall return to America it is my intention to preach this not only by precept but by example.”

He goes on: “Let any person examine the situation of Russia and Poland for instance and compare those countries with France or England and he may form some idea of what our southern states would be could our slaves be made free tenants…. This is one of the most pleasing reveries in which I indulge myself…a unity of the purest principles of humanity with the prosperity of one’s country.”

Even if Short never explicitly asked Jefferson to experiment with tenant farming at Morven for the sake of building a path out of slavery, it’s clear that he had every intention to do it himself.

Not long before her position at Morven was slated to end, Laura Voisin George discovered an interesting document in the Library of Congress collection of Short papers. There are 20,000 documents in that collection, and surely it holds more than a few surprises for someone coming at it with the right questions.

The document she found dates from after Short’s return to the U.S., after he had set up in Philadelphia and conducted a thriving career in business and investment. In his later life, Short became a very wealthy man. She didn’t have much time with the document, but it seemed to suggest that Short was following through on his promise to “make the experiment”—purchasing slaves expressly with the purpose of freeing them and settling them as tenants.

“The letter I read,” Voisin George recalls, “sounded like he had acquired slaves, I guess purchased them, because he wanted to conduct the experiment side by side. One farm with white tenants, one farm with black tenants.” The experiment may have been planned for some land Short owned in Upstate New York. But before she could pursue the matter, her job ended.

And so we close our story with another mystery document. And another set of questions waiting to be answered.

Epilogue: Possibilities

Field schools performed experimental archaeological digs from 2009-2011 at sites indicated by the Indian Camp map. Photo: Morven
Field schools performed experimental archaeological digs from 2009-2011 at sites indicated by the Indian Camp map. Photo: Morven

I once came across a line while reading Henry David Thoreau that I think about often. “This nation is not settled yet.” He’s talking about the vast expanses of wilderness that still existed in his day, but he’s implying much more than that. He’s implying that we are still inventing ourselves, still discovering who we are, still a long way from settling. On anything.

At a conference in 2011 where much of the research into Short and Morven was presented, Annette Gordon-Reed gave a response that talked about Short in terms of the possibilities that he represented. “He is someone who should be spoken about, written about,” she said, “because of the light he sheds on the possibilities during that time period. One of the things that people tend to do is to imagine that the past had to be the way it was, and I think it is important for Americans to understand that there were people during Jefferson’s time who had a different idea about things. Who thought that there was a possibility of doing something about slavery. Who thought that there was a possibility of doing something about race relations.”

How much of that story still remains buried under the soil at Morven, and in boxes of documents in the Library of Congress—waiting to be unearthed and understood? That yet-to-be-exposed history might teach us a lot about how human beings struggle against and within the moral limitations of their age.  And how our nation’s highest ideals are complicated and hemmed in by the limits of what we perceive as possible. Some of that understanding could come in handy right about now.

We have much more to know about ourselves. I find a great deal of hope in that.