Monday, March 19th, 2012

The New And Improved Thomas Jefferson, Enlightened Slave Owner

When the Smithsonian exhibit “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty” opened this past January it was greeted with a great deal of praise. A review in The New York Times called the exhibit “subtle and illuminating.” The Washington Post described it as “groundbreaking.” The hype surrounding the exhibit was understandable. This opening marked the first time that a museum on the National Mall has prominently acknowledged the fact that Thomas Jefferson owned 600 people in his lifetime.

The exhibit will be open through October, and on a recent weekend visit, it presented a picturesque scene of civic engagement, the horseshoe-shaped hall crowded with visitors, most of whom appeared to be from out of town. The crowd shuffled along slowly. Not far in, a young girl, white, about seven years old, paused in front of me and read a placard situated at child’s eye-level: If you were enslaved, would you run away? Two elevated panels next to the question presented her with the options "Yes" or "No," in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure. She flipped up the "Yes" panel and the words seemed to snap back at her, complicating her choice: "What about your friends and family that you’d never see again?" She lifted the "No" panel, which revealed a terse, open-ended “Why not?”

Her dad remarked, “Pretty tough choice, huh?”

About 20 minutes later, I saw an older black woman, maybe 60 or so, drag her companion over to the same placard, asking him if he had seen this yet. They scanned the display and laughed; she said something to him under her breath, and they moved on.

"Would you run away?" was not the only question posed by the exhibit. Further on, another placard asked: If you were a black person with very light skin and could pass for being white, would you? Answer “No” and you’re presented with the following: “What are the benefits to being a person of color?” The hypotheticals had veered into territory reminiscent of educational Underground Railroad video games, but with the central characters now being Jefferson’s slaves.

Just a single line—set in a 24-point-sized font that you might easily miss if you weren't looking—acknowledges that it’s “likely” that Jefferson fathered four of Sally Hemings’ children.

The names of these slaves are displayed prominently along a wall, painted a deep red, that curves around a statue of Jefferson when he was young. At least 600 people were enslaved at Monticello during Jefferson’s life, and for this exhibit, researchers have painstakingly pieced together some of their family trees and personal histories in an effort to reconstruct what their lives were like, at Monticello and after.

One of the displays near the back of the exhibit is dedicated to the Hemings family. This history was perhaps read more closely by most, although if you didn't know anything about American history you might be confused as to why. Just a single line—set in a 24-point-sized font that you might easily miss if you weren't looking—acknowledges that it’s “likely” that Jefferson fathered four of Sally Hemings’ children.

Lonnie Bunch, who co-curated the exhibit, has said that scholars have known about Jefferson’s “relationship” with Hemings for a long time, but “the public is still trying to understand it.”

Here is what the public is trying to understand: When Sally was 14, and a slave at Monticello, she accompanied Jefferson’s daughter, Polly, on a trip to France in 1787. Jefferson was about three decades her senior and widowed. She lived in France for two years, returning alongside Jefferson after the French Revolution. Their “relationship” turned sexual either in France, when Hemings was about 16, or upon their return to Monticello. Sally herself was born not far from Monticello. She was Jefferson’s wife’s half-sister, having been born to John Wayles, Jefferson’s father-in-law, and Betty Hemings, who was enslaved on Wayles’ plantation.

Until at least 1998, many of Jefferson’s biographers rejected this narrative. As biographer Joseph Ellis said in his 1997 book American Sphinx, this type of affair would have “defied the dominant patterns of his personality.” But once DNA evidence confirmed that Jefferson had “likely” fathered several of Hemings’ children, the dissenting views became the province of groups like the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society that vows to “stand always in opposition to those who would seek to undermine the integrity of Thomas Jefferson.” In 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which runs Monticello, released a report stating that there was a “high probability” that Jefferson fathered six of Hemings’ children, even though the current exhibit puts the number at four.

If anything, it's not that the public has had trouble "understanding" the affair, it's that many scholars and public institutions have been blocking the view.

In other words, what the exhibit is disclosing in 24-point font is a fact that first appeared in print in the early 19th century. And yet what's odd about "Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty" is how quickly acknowledgement shifts into full embrace. With the exhibit, Jefferson is reborn into yet another incarnation, that of the Greatest Gentleman Slave Owner of the United States. Knowing that Jefferson owned slaves helps us gain a “more comprehensive understanding” of the man himself, says a Monticello curator. At the Smithsonian blog Around The Mall, a write-up of the exhibit explains that “understanding Jefferson’s own complexities illuminates the contradictions within the country he built.” In this way, slave-ownership is quickly reduced to an attribute of a deeply conflicted, complex Jefferson.

“Paradox of Liberty” is a partner exhibit between the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the future National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens in 2015. Bunch, the museum's founding director, has said that the “Paradox of Liberty” is just one of several feeler exhibits that will help the future museum gauge public reaction to such difficult subjects as slavery. In addition to his role as the museum's director, Bunch is an author and respected academic. His 2010 collection of essays, Call the Lost Dream Back, includes an anecdote that recalls a childhood baseball game in the 1960s. A group of white kids turned against him, hitting him with a bat, and pursuing him on foot. Running away, Bunch thought, “this is what it must have been like for a runaway slave.”

A youth guide to the exhibit reads “O is for Overseer. To help manage his property, Jefferson hired overseers to supervise the laborers and work being done.”

However laudable the goals of "Paradox of Liberty," it doesn't bode well that if you entered the Jefferson exhibit not knowing what slavery was, you might come out thinking it was an intensive training program for highly-skilled craftsmen. Each of the families discussed is given an association with a specific trade, like nailery or joinery, but mentions of overseers and brutality are scarce. One mention of a rough overseer is equivocated by mentioning, in the same placard, that Jefferson was against harsh treatment of slaves. A youth guide to the exhibit reads “O is for Overseer. To help manage his property, Jefferson hired overseers to supervise the laborers and work being done.”

The racial split of the crowd during the few hours I was there was maybe 70 percent white, 30 percent black. And at least some of the visitors, including some young enough to be relying on that youth guide, seemed to have a take on slavery that exceeded the exhibit’s content. “Whites were evil,” a white boy, about eight and wearing a Knicks jersey, said to his dad. “Yes, for a period of time, the whites were evil,” his dad responded. The boy and his siblings made their way to the giant model of Monticello. “Are these slavery camps?” the same boy asked. “It’s called a plantation,” the dad said. The boy immediately responded, “Isn’t that the same thing as a slavery camp?”

A few steps from the model, a glass case displayed Jefferson’s spectacles and a text by Herodotus, evidence of the claim that Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment. It is only once visitors pass this gauntlet of Jefferson’s enlightened knickknacks do we reach the exhaustively researched stories and mapped-out lineages of the enslaved families of Monticello. A black man in his twenties, looking in the glass case with Jefferson’s spectacles, quipped sarcastically, “My question is: Just how enlightened was he? He was a slave owner.”

In his review for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein lauded the exhibit for its willingness to let the visitor make sense of the gap between Jefferson’s ownership of slaves and his “ideals.” But he was not all praise. About an exhibit placard which states Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence “did not extend 'Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness' to African-Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, or women,” Rothstein said it "pushed too far." This is "political boilerplate," he said, continuing, "each of those cases needs different qualifications and examinations. They distract from the subject."

Even though this exhibit is devoted to the stories and histories of the enslaved families of Monticello, Rothstein wrote that Jefferson’s achievements still must be seen “whole” and that “right now the exhibitions need a more deliberate elaboration of his ideas and life.” Rothstein explains that, yeah, Jefferson owned slaves, but we have to give credit where credit is due. “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.”

After reading Rothstein’s critique, I found myself thinking of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore. Built in 1983, the museum mostly hosts wax figures of prominent black politicians, astronauts, and revolutionaries, but visitors are more likely to remember two particular exhibits. One is the recreation of a slave ship at the entrance to the exhibition hall, where among other horrors, a model of a naked woman is chained to the ceiling with whip marks on her body. The next is the lynching exhibit in the basement. Newspaper clippings, poems, and song lyrics document the horrific and common tales of lynching in the US. Inside a glass case, papier-mâché-like figures remain fixed in the scene of a brutal lynching. A pregnant black woman has had her womb ripped open, her baby removed and replaced with a cat.

Back at the Smithsonian exhibit, there’s a display dedicated to the nailery at Monticello where enslaved men made nails. Children are encouraged to lift a 10-pound bucket of nails since a slave at Monticello, on average, would make 10 pounds of nails a day. “Can you imagine having to do that every day?” a father asked his daughter. She didn’t respond, but used her full body weight to lift the bucket about an inch from the ground.

On the way out the visitor is presented with another wall of names, a sign thanking the donors who have contributed at least one million dollars to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a list that includes: Boeing, the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, Bank of America, Walmart and Target.

Leah Caldwell is a writer at Al-Akhbar English.

21 Comments / Post A Comment

Lemonnier (#14,611)

The "enlightened slave owner" trope is common in house museums where one or more of the previous owners owned slaves. I've been to dozens, probably, and you always hear the same thing from the tour guides — "Yes, slavery was terrible, but the owners of *this* particular house treated their slaves really well! We swear!"

When, in reality, the museum staff has spent more time researching period-appropriate wallpaper for the dining room, than the lives of the people who were enslaved there.

Lemonnier (#14,611)

@Gef the Talking Mongoose NICE. Go Spotswood! And yeah, I can think of more than one place that would likely have sanitized a story like that into, "Mary remained with the Diggs family for the duration of the war, after which she was reunited with her father." BLARGH.

@Lemonnier : I love how he's all "yeah, me and my buddies in the Colored Infantry here are basically your worst nightmare, and we're COMING FOR MY CHILD." I would totally watch the Spotswood Rice biopic in a hot second.

Alternate take : PBS would be insane to turn down my pitch for "The Longer You Keep My Child From Me, The Longer You Have To Burn In Hell : The Spotswood Rice Story".

carpetblogger (#306)

This is good. Thanks.

My go-to defense from now on is going to be "I could not have done that, as that action would have defied the dominant patterns of my personality." It's unassailable!

@Gef the Talking Mongoose : Also, if I ever have a kid, I'm going to name it "Deplorable Entanglement." It's got a nice Puritan-stylee ring to it.

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

thanks for the write-up. now sure i'll skip this. to much else to do in this city to waste time being angry about presentation.

Grim (#215,307)

Americans don't do complexity well, and I can imagine it is difficult to design an exhibit with the Fox News viewers in mind who take any critique of America or the founding fathers as a sign that you are a terrorist. That said, those same folks seem to be trying to forget Jefferson existed in general given his deist leanings.

The attempt to humanize the slaves and value their contributions probably leads to the "intensive training program for highly-skilled craftsmen" effect. Sadly, I think any graphic discussion of exhibition of brutality and oppression of slaves, or Black people in general, is still seen as "political" and thus inappropriate standard museum fare.

While I am musing, I think it is entirely possible to be both enlightened and exploitative. There are many liberal and well-intentioned people today who wear clothes manufactured in sweatshops and use gadgets built by Foxconn (or its reality-based equivalent). You may try to pay attention to fair trade and even participate in a boycott or two, but most people have a hard time truly fighting against the injustices they benefit from. It is much easier to despise the injustices of past generations that no longer exist to an extent that props up your current standard of living.

Of course, it is easy to not think about some factory workers on the other side of the planet while I can't imagine the mindset of a "good" (meaning not generally sadistic or psychotic) person coercing/raping girls and hiring people to beat the hell out of other people living and working on his property. Like now, people probably could think of themselves as good people if they were just doing horrible things slightly less horribly than everyone else in the neighborhood.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Grim I think this is an appropriate quote of the day: "The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good." – Oscar Wilde

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Grim It's the problem that Americans have always had with slavery and racism in general – whenever we're forced to recognize that it exists and happens, we steal the experience from people who are hurt by it as fast as we can and engage in a necessary show of soul-searching pageantry – what does this say about us white people? Are we bad people? Are we complicit? Inevitably we conclude that we aren't, and the matter is settled, minorities sight-unseen. It turns racism into a white person's issue.

It's so frustrating, largely because it betrays a lack of moral character on our part, so blatantly exhibited by the NYT guy (and the white father visiting the exhibit) hemming and hawing over how "things were different" back then. As if slavery was at some point not obviously wrong and slave owners were, if not blameless, then blameless enough, as if the shift away from it was not a radical struggle against oppression but a benign shift in perspective. Like after a smattering of decades people all of a sudden looked at the Constitution and said "Oh wait a second, this is applicable to women/blacks too!", and things changed, as though there was no opposition, as if opposition didn't survive into the present.


Danzig! (#5,318)

This was a great article. Thanks for writing / publishing it!

Urbania (#94)

The point about slavery being an intensive training program is well taken, as well as the understating of Jefferson's relationship with Sally Heming.

But I'm left with…what's the point of the critique? It too easily becomes ad hominem without a specific argument about what the exhibition should have been. He was a slave owner who, paradoxically, wrote the Declaration of Independence, which throughout American history has been referred to by successive liberation movements. So we can find his ownership of (lots of) slaves deplorable, and we should. But an exhibition can hardly be a condemnation alone.

I don't really have an answer here, just more posing the question. Seems like Smithsonian did a pretty good job for the kids at least, and missed the mark on what they emphasized for the adults.

It may be safe now to say that it was the "paradox' OF Enlightenment. However, we must realise that it was in the Enlightenment that all modern totalitarian ideas began and so we must accept the Enlightenment as a period not of liberating ideas but of experiment. Slavery was one such. Remember that the liberation of the slaves in the USA was postponed because of the War of Independence.

slam_dunklings (#228,245)

This article acts like "enlightened slave owner" is a newly minted way to downplay Jefferson's actions when, like Lemonnier pointed out, that is how house museums have long glossed over the fact that their original owners owned people. They would raze the former slave quarters, put in pretty gardens, and get flustered if you asked about slavery.

This exhibition is trying to put the fact of slavery to the fore by focusing on the actual enslaved African-Americans who lived at Monticello, and showing how and where they worked. Like Grim said, this probably leads to the point about slavery seeming like an "intensive job training program", which is the best critique this article offers. However, it's based in archaeological and documentary research to try to be historically accurate for Monticello, which for much of Jefferson's ownership mainly produced wheat, not cotton, and the enslaved people there weren't organized for gang labor but rather for individual tasks.

Of course, Sally Hemings should have been a bigger part of it, because it would really emphasize the creepiness of the entire owner/enslaved person relationship, but putting what we know of the lives of people who were enslaved there at the center is not "stealing the experience" for white people.

johnntini (#228,502)


Tara James@facebook (#228,545)

It sounds like it is an extension to the kind of vapid tour that you get when you go to Monticello. I only really hear about slavery when you go on the slavery tour, not much on the house tour. There is no real discussion of how Jefferson treated his slaves, unless it's positive. You don't hear much about his putting money on the head of a runaway wanting him back 'alive or dead'. There are also his thoughts on breeding his slaves, I read a quote of his suggesting it would be most profitable to force a slave woman to breed every two years.

gwinnn (#228,573)

As a quick aside, PEW Research shows that Americans of all persuasions watch Fox News Channel more than _all_ other cable/satellite sources combined. We like factual information.

This article about the Smithsonian exhibit is absolutely wrong in saying, "’s “likely” that Jefferson fathered four of Sally Hemings’ children.." The opposite is instead the fact as the Scholars' Commission Report demonstrates quite clearly. The innuendos and false claims 'suggesting' Jefferson's paternity is what is so frustrating to those wanting 'the truth' to be published.

Those who privately purchased the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, who then removed the word 'Memorial,' and who continue to hire and resource those who will follow their obvious intent to malign Thomas Jefferson are unsuitable. Those writers who follow-up without publishing the DNA facts are just as bad… as are those at the Smithsonian Museum.

This article makes great points, but I also think it misses the subtlety of the exhibition. I actually think it did a great job of trying to complicate what we think we know about slavery, about Jefferson, and about "America." Great Blacks in Wax has a different approach-it's not making an historical argument so much as it is educating by affect, and it's incredibly interesting and educational and effective. This exhibit is doing something else, using research to give us the actual names and genealogies of enslaved people and asking us to consider the complexities of slavery and its contradictions with other claims made by people in power at this time. That's also important. Museums in the US have only been interpreting slavery for the past 20 years or so, and they have largely done a terrible job. This one isn't like that, and for me, it made the issues far more complex than either "enlightened slave owner" *or* "evil slave owner." And for me, anyway, it actually *is* more complicated than that. I fear we enter these exhibits expecting what we've always gotten (which, in terms of slavery, is exactly what the author describes), and I'd encourage visitors who do choose to go to approach it with a more generous sense of curiosity. When's the last time you saw a public exhibit that brought up issues such as passing? And yes, the yes/no questions about running away were a little silly, but those are questions and follow up questions that need to be taken seriously. Why *didn't* all enslaved people run away? Why did Jefferson, who thought slavery was evil in an ideological sense, expend such efforts to locate and return runaways? How did families form in a context that refused the humanity of people and rendered their families temporary, at the whim of those who would sell people to other people? These questions are raised and not answered in the exhibit, and I actually think that's good work.

It also got me thinking, what oppressive relations do I understand and yet continue to engage in, on the side of the oppressors? What will history say about our collective acknowledgement and tacit acceptance of the oppressive relations in our time? I think that's pretty good for a mainstream exhibit meant for an unbelievably broad audience.

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