April 19 is a pretty bad day in U.S. history generally. In 1775, the Revolutionary War started with a rout in Lexington, Massachusetts, just a few minutes by car up Massachusetts Avenue from my childhood home in neighboring Arlington, then Menotomy. 700 British troops, having shot up that hamlet and its defenders on the way, found 77 armed minutemen under Captain John Parker opposing them on Lexington Green, now a large traffic circle. It took a just few minutes to kill enough of the barely trained Colonists for the ragtag army to disperse, but the British marched into a much larger force at nearby Concord Bridge, and a much worse result for the Empire. In 1993, a botched siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas ended with 22 children and almost 80 adult religious cultists burning to death. In 1995, the U.S. was introduced to domestic terrorism on a grand scale with the Oklahoma City bombing. But none of those events create the ethics trauma of considering a little noted financial transaction between the former third President and the newly sworn in fourth.
On April 19, 1809, Thomas Jefferson, seemingly always lacking cash, prepared a contract to transfer ownership of an indentured servant with the ironic name of John Freeman to freshly installed President and fellow Virginian James Madison.
Indentured servants in the late 1600s into the early 19th Century were usually poor white men who desperation or debt had forced to sell themselves into servitude in exchange for room, board, and occasionally wages. (One President, Andrew Johnson, was an indentured servant. So was, for a while, Davy Crockett, who indentured himself to his father to pay back money he had stolen from him.) Freeman was unusual: a free black man who voluntarily sold himself into virtual slavery, though with limitations. His agreement with Jefferson was to serve a total of 132 months; historians surmise that he may have been a carpenter or ironworker.
Freeman had completed 76.5 months of work when Jefferson sold Freeman’s contract to Madison, who needed skilled artisans to help build an extension on his home. What Madison paid Jefferson must have equaled Freeman’s remaining time in his service; the original price Jefferson paid for 132 months of Freeman’s freedom.
The original hand-written contract for John Freeman’s sale is on exhibit at the Library of Congress. Thomas Jefferson, it is noted, did not seem to notice that he was selling a human being on the anniversary of the beginning of the battle for liberty, as he had defined it in his Declaration. Of course, whether a man should have the liberty to barter away his liberty is one of the oldest and most perplexing ethical problems. How many citizens today would sell their services and freedom as Freeman did?
How many would be buyers?