Slavery and indentured servitude were major components of the early American economy. Enslaved workers performed most of the manual and domestic labor on the large plantations owned by several presidents and their colonial ancestors, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson. While slaves were primarily African and Native Americans, indentured servants in the late 1600s to early 1700s were frequently impoverished white men of English descent who resorted to selling themselves into servitude in exchange for room and board, and sometimes wages. Relatively few African Americans in late 18th-century America became indentured servants. By the time of the American Revolution, the practice of indentured servitude had declined in favor of using “cheaper” African slaves.
It is believed that Freeman was an African American craftsman who had sold himself to Jefferson as an indentured servant with an agreement to serve a total of 132 months; he may have been a carpenter or ironworker. After Freeman completed 76.5 months of work, Jefferson “sold” Freeman to Madison who, at the time, was looking for skilled artisans to help build an extension on his plantation house. Madison paid Jefferson an unknown amount, which would have been calculated to equal Freeman’s remaining time in service. (Jefferson had originally bought Freeman’s services for $400.)
The original hand-written contract for John Freeman’s sale is now housed at the Library of Congress. In the exhibit, it is noted with irony that America’s preeminent revolutionary, Thomas Jefferson, wrote the agreement on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington, the event that launched the war to end America’s servitude to England.