‘Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty’
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.”
Through Oct. 14. National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. 202-633-1000. www.slaveryatmonticello.org. Free.