Life, Liberty and the Fact of Slavery
WASHINGTON — The astounding thing about American slavery is not that it existed — the enslavement of one people by another may be one of history’s universals — but that it persisted. It lasted into an era when its absence could be imagined and its presence could become an outrage.
That was one of the chilling peculiarities of slavery in the United States: As revolutionary ideas of human rights and liberty were being formulated, slavery was so widely accepted that contradictions between the evolving ideals and the brutish reality of enslavement were overlooked or tolerated.
We look back now, shocked at the cognitive and moral perversity. And that is one reason why a prevalent reaction has been to assert that the champions of those revolutionary ideals were hypocrites, including 12 of the first 18 American presidents, who were slave owners.
But that too-familiar judgment brings us to the most challenging example of all: Thomas Jefferson. And two new exhibitions come to a far more subtle and illuminating assessment of the past. Jefferson’s relationship to slavery is the subject of an important exhibition opening on Friday at the National Museum of American History here, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” It was created by the nascent National Museum of African American History and Culture in conjunction with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Jefferson’s extraordinary plantation, Monticello, as a historical home and museum in Charlottesville, Va.
The Washington exhibition will have a permanent counterpart opening next month at Monticello itself, where Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, kept as many as 130 slaves. Expanding the already significant examination of slavery at the estate, “Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello,” will consist of outdoor displays mounted alongside sites of labor uncovered through archeological digs.
Such research has been going on for two generations, disclosing the material lives of both hired and enslaved workers: their demolished dwellings and work houses are revealed through Jefferson’s notes, stone foundations, kitchen utensils, shattered pottery, belt buckles and other artifacts. Monticello’s outdoor exhibition is also part of a major transformation over the past two generations; once a sacral architectural monument to Jefferson’s genius, Monticello has evolved into a more complex reflection of the man and the 5,000-acre plantation that he owned.
These projects are difficult and ambitious, not just for Monticello but also for the African-American museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s director, emphasized in a conversation that the Washington show is part of the institution’s attempt to explore how slavery might ultimately be presented.
Could any example pose a greater challenge? Jefferson didn’t just embrace the new nation’s ideals; he gave voice to our conception of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality? These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.
It is to the credit of the Washington exhibition’s creators — Rex Ellis, associate director of the African-American museum and Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello — that we are not given the answers but are given enough information and perspective to begin to think about the issues, helped along by objects from Monticello as well as the new museum’s growing collection.
We enter the show’s 3,000-square-foot space seeing a life-size statue of Jefferson (created by StudioEIS in Brooklyn), standing in front of a red panel on which are inscribed the names (when known) of some 600 slaves who worked on his estates during his lifetime. In front of the display is the lap desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a desk that was probably constructed by John Hemmings, Jefferson’s enslaved cabinetmaker (who used that spelling of his name), part of the now-renowned Hemings family (one of whom, Sally, is thought by many historians to have had a special relationship with Jefferson and borne him children).
The contradictions in notions of liberty could not be more graphically presented. The intention is not to turn a great man into a villain but rather to examine just how those contradictions expressed themselves. Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime,” we are told, but also felt unable to extricate himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”
We learn of his practical efforts to restrict slavery, including his introduction of a Virginia law in 1778 prohibiting the importation of slaves, and signing, as president, a national version of that law in 1807, just weeks before Britain outlawed the slave trade. We read too that in 1788, he wrote, “Nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice” in order to abolish slavery.
Clearly, though, he was not so willing. He also harbored some condescending racial views (partly contradicted by other writings). And Jefferson inherited his father’s plantation and slaves; at one point he was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia (though to pay his enormous debts after his death, Monticello and “130 valuable negroes” — as the advertisement put it — were auctioned).
As the exhibition also emphasizes, he was a man of the Enlightenment represented by his books (Homer, Livy, Shakespeare), his scientific apparatus (including a telescope) and his devotion to the powers of reason and the value of skepticism (his inkwell here is in the shape of Voltaire’s head).
But we do not learn of these passions in order to have them dismissed. Gradually, as we work through the central gallery, we see them haltingly, falteringly applied, affecting the enslaved communities at Monticello. Displays are organized around a series of slave families, many of whom were at the estate for generations — the Hemingses, of course (as many as 70 family members were at Monticello), but also the Fossett family, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers. (Perhaps no other plantation has such extensive documentation of its slaves.)
As the historian Lucia Stanton points out in an invaluable new companion book (“ ‘Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello”), Jefferson paternalistically referred to the slave community as part of his family. He encouraged marriages within the Monticello world and tried to keep families together; the exhibition points out that “slave marriage was illegal in Virginia,” but that at Monticello “enduring unions were the norm.” Some slaves were also taught to read and write by the Jeffersons.
There is no idealization here of course. Each family became associated with particular kinds of labor, represented here by archeological artifacts. We see the products, for example, of the “nailery” that Jefferson had set up in order to turn a profit on the manufacture of nails. There is acknowledgment too of cruelty, of overseers who overstepped, of ideals put aside.
But there is also a growing sense that within a system of corrupting ideas and Jefferson’s crippling self-interest a struggle was going on for some other vision of humanity, not just within Jefferson but also among the enslaved.
The most remarkable phenomenon is evident in the last gallery: Many descendants of Monticello slaves became community leaders. A project interviewing them began at Monticello in 1993; it discovered, we are told, a tradition of dedication to education, faith, family and freedom.
Peter Fossett, a descendant of the blacksmith Joseph Fossett , for example, became a minister active in the Underground Railroad and founded the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, Ohio, in 1870. Another Fossett descendant, William Monroe Trotter, founded the Niagara Movement with W. E. B. Dubois in 1905, declaring that “all men were created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights.” One of the Hemings descendants, Frederick Madison Roberts, became the first black member of the California legislature.
This suggests that there was something distinctive about this community, but also that Jefferson’s own ideals must have had an impact, surviving even the debilitating and humiliating institution of slavery.
This is something that comes through at Monticello as well. Its senior curator Susan R. Stein has made it clear that in Jefferson’s day, Monticello wasn’t a temple on a hill (though it is so beautiful, one warms to worship) but a miniature city in the countryside with its central home just yards from Mulberry Row, where the sounds of small industry — textile making, blacksmithing, woodworking — must have mixed with voices of laborers in the fields and where the lives of the enslaved were enmeshed with the life of their master. But this does not undercut our sense of Jefferson’s genius.
Yes, there are times when the balance teeters a bit. Just as Monticello must be seen whole so too must Jefferson’s achievements, and right now the exhibitions need a more deliberate elaboration of his ideas and life. There are times when the Washington exhibition also seems to push too far; it begins by observing that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence “did not extend ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ to African-Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, or women.” This is political boilerplate; each of those cases needs different qualifications and examinations. They distract from the subject.
But the fates of Monticello descendants suggest that alongside the tragic consequences of American slavery there is something else: a growing belief in clearly defined rights and promised possibilities. If slavery was, throughout global history, the rule, the exception was the last 200 years of gradual worldwide abolition. And Jefferson, for all his “deplorable entanglement,” helped make it possible.
Where Jefferson’s Practices Fought With His Ideals
SLAVERY AT JEFFERSON’S MONTICELLO: PARADOX OF LIBERTY Through Oct. 14, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, National Museum of African American History and Culture Gallery, on the National Mall, at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW; (202) 633-1000, americanhistory.si.edu.
A two-hour tour, “Waiting on Liberty: Slavery in Jefferson’s ‘Great House,’ ” will run on Saturdays and Sundays in February at 1 p.m.; meet at the Woodland Pavilion next to the Thomas Jefferson Visitor Center.
ASH LAWN-HIGHLAND Home of Jefferson’s neighbor and friend James Monroe, also aslave-holding president, at 2050 James Monroe Parkway, Charlottesville, Va.; (434) 293-8000, ashlawnhighland.org.
POPLAR FOREST, Another home of Jefferson’s, at 1542 Bateman Bridge Road, Forest, Va.; opens on March 15 for the season; (434) 525-1806, poplarforest.org.
WHERE TO STAY IN CHARLOTTESVILLE
Boar’s Head Inn, 200 Ednam Drive; (434) 296-2181, boarsheadinn.com.
Dinsmore House, 1211 West Main Street; (434) 974-4663, dinsmorehouse.com.
Keswick Hall, 701 Club Drive, Keswick, Va.; (434) 979-3440, keswick.com.
WHERE TO EAT
Bashir’s Taverna, 507 East Main Street, Charlottesville, Va.; (434) 923-0927, bashirs.com.L’étoile, 817 West Main Street, Charlottesville, Va.; (434) 979-7957, letoilerestaurant.com.
Miller’s Downtown, 109 West Main Street, Charlottesville, Va.; (434) 971-8511, millersdowntown.com.