Pulitzer Prize Winner Gordon-Reed Calls for New William Short Biography Following U.Va. Research on Emancipation Letters to Jefferson

May 20, 2011 — Historian Scot French and fellow University of Virginia scholars on Tuesday shared new research on nearly 40 years worth of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and his "adoptive son," William Short, in which the two men sketched their respective visions of Virginia's post-emancipation future.

Much of the correspondence focused on a 1,334-acre Albemarle County tract called Indian Camp, which Jefferson purchased on Short's behalf in 1795, managed in Short's absence and sold in 1813. The property, later known as Morven and now owned and operated by the U.Va. Foundation, served as the canvas for those future visions, French told a packed audience at the Jefferson Library at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, just down the road from Monticello.

In response, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Jefferson historian Annette Gordon-Reed highlighted the contrast between Short's sharp realism about economic matters and his idealism regarding racial matters. She also said she looks forward to a new biography on Short, because he was "someone who was critical to Jefferson's life," and a historical figure who "we know very little about, who matters a great deal."

"Short had the idea that perhaps Indian Camp could be the site for an experiment in freed labor of former slaves in a sharecropping arrangement," said Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Foundation Professor of History at U.Va., as he introduced French and three other U.Va. researchers – Billy Wayson, a 2008 Ph.D. graduate in history; Nicholas Wood, a Ph.D student in history; and Randall Winston, a graduate student in architecture.

Over four decades, Jefferson and Short wrote to discuss issues of race, slavery, emancipation, agricultural reform and alternative labor systems based on European models of serfdom and sharecropping, French explained. He demonstrated a new digital visualization project that grouped Jefferson's and Short's correspondence by three broad themes, along with a timeline and map showing their locations in Europe and America over time. 

Built with U.Va.-developed VisualEyes software, the project, titled "Notes on the Future of Virginia: The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson & William Short, 1785-1826," also features animated, talking-head avatars of Jefferson and Short that can read aloud the text of their letters.

Short served as Jefferson's private secretary during his term as U.S. minister to France from 1785 to 1789. Upon Jefferson's departure, Short took a leading role in the American legation in Paris, and went on to serve as U.S. minister to Holland and to Spain in the 1790s, becoming America's first career diplomat. He remained based in Europe until 1810, and never occupied the Indian Camp property.

Both men observed firsthand the condition of Europe's white laboring poor and drew pointed comparisons to that of America's enslaved blacks, French said. Both men recognized the mortal dangers of slave rebellions, as witnessed in the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s; and both expressed a desire to experiment with new labor systems that could provide a way out of slavery while preserving the agricultural basis of Virginian and American society.

But Jefferson and Short differed profoundly on the question of race mixing and the destiny of blacks within Virginia's post-emancipation society. Short maintained that America's slaves, like Europe's serfs and sharecroppers, could be transformed into tenants and yeoman farmers through a gradual process of apprenticeship and selective manumission. Later in life, acknowledging the depth of white Southern opposition to black freedom and citizenship, Short embraced serfdom, or bonded labor, as a practical alternative to slavery and a steppingstone to freedom.

In contrast, Jefferson insisted to the end of his life on the expatriation of slaves as a necessary, non-negotiable condition of their emancipation, their labor to be replaced over time with that of white tenants and yeoman farmers recruited from other parts of the country and the world.

Short's views were quite radical for his time, French explained. Gordon-Reed, in her 1998 book, "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," was the first scholar to point out an "extraordinary" 1798 letter from Short to Jefferson in which Short theorized that a gradual process of emancipation and even slower process of racial amalgamation would produce a population no darker than the inhabitants of some regions of Spain, and no less worthy of respect in the eyes of the world. Surely "the mixture of the two colors" was less evil, Short argued, "than keeping 700,000 people and their descendants in perpetual slavery."

Short pointed to then-new evidence of "the perfectibility of the black race," based on travelers' accounts of advanced civilizations in the African interior, and pondered the cultural impact of such knowledge on American racial prejudice, French said. Short even envisioned the rise of "populous and extensive nations of the black color, formed into powerful societies who will par in every respect with whites under the same circumstances," and "the restoration of the rights of citizenship of those blacks who inhabit the U.S."

Short's views give modern Americans an important example of someone who thought differently than most of his contemporaries, Gordon-Reed said – someone who thought there was possibility of doing something constructive to end slavery and improve race relations.

Even after repeated prompting by Short in multiple letters, Jefferson's only response to these provocative ideas was a "silence that speaks volumes," Gordon-Reed said. Short's call for open race-mixing was a "utopian vision that would be difficult to pull off today, certainly not something that would have actually realistically happened in the 1790s."

Regarding slavery and racial attitudes, "Jefferson doesn't look as good as Short to modern eyes on this whole matter," Gordon-Reed said, but modern observers must also weigh the realism of both men.

Alongside his racial idealism, Short displayed financial and economic realism, Wayson and Winston explained. He died one of the richest men in America, thanks to his pursuit of a diversified investment portfolio that was very sophisticated for the time. In his letters, Short warned about the potential economic disaster that might result from forced expatriation of blacks, losing irreplaceable agricultural skills that undergirded a large part of America's fledgling economy.

However, Short failed to grasp that slavery was not just about money, not just about the labor economy, Gordon-Reed said; there were, she said, "tremendous affective, emotional components ... the value of being the master of someone." There were countless examples then and later of white Americans acting against their own economic self-interest to be able to maintain that "psychological boost of slave-owning," she said.

A new biography of Short, Gordon-Reed predicted, can better tease out how he came to possess such radical racial attitudes, far ahead of his time and far different from most of his peers in Virginia's wealthy planter class.

— By Brevy Cannon

Media Contact

H. Brevy Cannon

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications