Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Paul Bentalou, 25 August 1786

To Paul Bentalou

Paris Aug. 25. 1786.


I am honoured with your favour of the 9th. inst. and am to thank you for your care of the packet from Mr. McHenry, and congratulate yourself and Mrs. Bentalou on your safe arrival in France. I have made enquiries on the subject of the negro boy you have brought, and find that the laws of France give him freedom if he claims it, and that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to interrupt the course of the law. Nevertheless I have known an instance where a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it, has not been disturbed in his possession. I think it will be easier in your case to pursue the same plan, as the boy is so young that it is not probable he will think of claiming freedom. This plan is the more adviseable, as an unsuccessful attempt to procure a dispensation from the law might produce orders which otherwise would not be thought of. Nevertheless should you find that you shall lose the possession of the boy unless protected in it, if you will be so good as to inform me of the facts, I will try whether a dispensation can be obtained. I would rather avoid asking this if you can, by any means, keep the boy without it. I have the honour to be with sentiments of much respect, Sir, your most obedient humble servant,

Th: Jefferson

PrC (DLC); endorsed.

TJ spoke on good authority when he said that he had known of a person bringing in a slave, and saying nothing about it: that person was himself and the slave that he brought in was James Hemings, “one of his slaves, whom he subsequently had trained in Paris to become the cook at Monticello, and later freed” (Marie Kimball, Jefferson: The Scene of Europe, p. 3). According to French law, even TJ’s status as a diplomat would not have permitted him to retain ownership of a slave on French soil if the issue had been raised. James was freed by TJ on 5 Feb. 1796 (Edwin M. Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, Princeton, 1953, p. 15).

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