Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

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Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty photo
Michael R. Barnes/Smithsonian Institution

Editorial Review

Closer look at Jefferson’s slaves

By Jacqueline Trescott
Friday, Jan. 27, 2012

With its groundbreaking exhibition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has taken a firm stand to focus on a controversial chapter of history: Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. In collaboration with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, the museum curators looked sharply at the slave families who belonged to Jefferson, the work of his plantation and the views of the third president.

"It allows us to centralize slavery," said Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the museum.

Standing outside of "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," the thematic tensions are clear. On one side of the entrance, an image of Jefferson is placed against the script of his most famous writing, the Declaration of Independence. On the other side is a reproduction of a page from Jefferson's farm book, with slave names neatly listed. An 1845 photo of slave Isaac Jefferson Granger, a tinsmith and blacksmith, is displayed above. The National Museum of American History hosts the exhibit. The African American history museum, which will break ground Feb. 22, will open in 2015.

The lives of Monticello's slaves have never been fully explored in an exhibit, even at the Jefferson plantation. "We had a small section in an exhibit at the visitors center, but that particular show is no longer up," said Lucia "Cinder" Stanton, the foundation's senior historian. But Monticello's scholars have vigorously studied the slave families for five decades, and since 1993, compiled oral histories from descendants of Jefferson's 600 slaves.

"This is the best-documented, best-preserved and best-studied plantation anywhere," said Rex Ellis, a Colonial historian and the museum's associate director for curatorial affairs. "They have pushed the truth as far as it can go. And it helps us understand Jefferson through a different lens."

That Monticello material is the heart of the exhibition, infusing details to give dimensions to the slaves' lives as well as showing their move into public life in the freed black communities.

The work - whether as cooks, field workers, craftsmen or drivers - was hard. The produce from the slave garden was not only for the slave families but sold back to Jefferson. A section on the Nailery describes how boys, ages 10 to 16, each made eight to 10 pounds of nails a day.

The life around the center of the plantation, Mulberry Row, is told through six families: James and Philip Hubbard, George and Ursula Granger, David and Isabel Hern, Elizabeth Hemings, Joseph and Edith Fossett, and Edward and Jane Gillette. "The experiences at Monticello were not typical of most slave experiences but it is one of a kind," Ellis said. The families continued to make their mark. William Monroe Trotter, a direct descendant of Elizabeth Hemings, went to Harvard, became a newspaper editor and was a co-founder of the Niagara Movement, the precursor of the NAACP.

Jefferson called slavery "this deplorable entanglement" but as a slaveholder, freed only nine slaves in his lifetime.

As black scholars, Ellis said they had to find a way of discussing the wrongs of slavery and examining a revered American figure. "We are not letting Jefferson off the hook. Our view is that he was a product of his time. He believed blacks were inferior. He believed in colonization," Ellis said. Jefferson endorsed a return of blacks to Africa.

Over the years, this ambiguity has been explored in Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. The museum agrees with the most recent scholarship and scientific studies that four of Hemings's children were likely fathered by Jefferson.

Did the Founding Fathers know best?
By Stephanie Merry and Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012

Schoolbooks like to make myths of men like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin.

Franklin, in particular, can come off like a brainy Paul Bunyan: He secretly penned shrewd proverbs as Poor Richard, he flew a kite in a lightning storm to harness electricity, he signed the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson was the third president, responsible for the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Louisiana Purchase, not to mention the founder of the University of Virginia.

Two major exhibitions just blocks apart present the Founding Fathers in very different tenors, each attempting to paint a portrait more nuanced than the one taught in history class. While one show focuses on Thomas Jefferson's conflicted stance toward slavery, the other looks at the rosy side of Benjamin Franklin's legacy.

The American History Museum's show "Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty" offers a text- and artifact-based look at an important if less sterling side of the third president than many are accustomed to. The exhibit, a collaboration between the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open on the Mall in 2015) and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, scrutinizes Jefferson's ambivalent views of slavery.

The show announces its intentions right away. After passing through the exhibit entrance, which is flanked by a painting of Jefferson on the right and the image of one of his slaves on the left, visitors are greeted by a statue of the Founding Father. But the usually stately display is dwarfed by the red wall behind it, which lists more than 600 names of those enslaved at Monticello during Jefferson's lifetime. While he sporadically advocated for abolition, he remained a slaveholder until his death in 1826.

Jefferson was a dogged intellectual, constantly reading and writing on a path toward enlightenment. But the evidence of his lifelong education only further emphasizes his hypocrisy. He mulled over plans for emancipation, calling slavery an "abominable crime," yet a newspaper ad shows that he also reported slaves missing when they escaped. He insisted that his servants not be subjected to violence, yet he wasn't around enough to enforce this demand. While he fought for -- and won -- colonial liberty, his fight for abolition was more words than action.

Franklin was similarly ambivalent in the earlier years of his life, though the Archives exhibition focuses more on his later revelation.

Upon Jefferson's death, only a handful of slaves were freed, including Sally Hemings, who many historians believe was the mother of four of Jefferson's children. The remaining 130 were auctioned off to pay his extensive debts.

These exhibitions are not the first time that Franklin has come out on top. It was Jefferson who penned "We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal .?.?." in the Declaration of Independence, but it was Franklin who slashed through Jefferson's adjectives to economize with the simpler and more iconic: "self-evident."

Read about the exhibit "Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World"