At Monticello, historical home of Thomas Jefferson, visitors are invited to “consider the monumental clash of ideas at the heart of our nation’s founding.”
I accepted that invitation during a recent visit and found the perfect spot to ponder that most enduring clash — the nation’s professed belief that all men are created equal versus reality:
The belief did not then, and in many instances still does not, apply to women and certainly not people of color.
In his book “Notes on the State of Virginia,” published in 1785, Jefferson wrote: “Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained . . . will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”
Jefferson’s pessimistic take may have sounded outlandish at the time. But when the nation broke apart in civil war, he began to look like a prophet. Now here we are, more than two centuries later, still divided by those prejudices.
Self-identified white supremacists held their largest gathering in decades a little more than a year ago in Charlottesville, where Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. They marched through the campus chanting, “Our blood, our soil!” and “Jews will not replace us!”
Heather Heyer, 32, was killed, and scores of others were injured during racial unrest that exploded as counterprotesters encountered the supremacists.
President Trump said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protests.
The neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer declared that Trump speaks for white supremacists ready for battle.
There weren’t any self-identified Nazis during Jefferson’s reign, but the seeds for the nation’s division had long been sown.
Jefferson’s private, three room suite at Monticello, in Virginia’s Albemarle County, is most conducive for reflection.
One room is a library, which once held some 6,000 books. Jefferson was considered a polymath — a person of extraordinary learning, possessing encyclopedic knowledge. A tour guide noted that the 6-foot-2 plantation owner would lie on the library floor and study “with as many as 20 books opened around him at one time.”
He devoured the works of Enlightenment philosophers — Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Locke — who emphasized reason and individualism over tradition. And he was inspired by them to write in his draft of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and had a natural right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
There was much to admire about the man.
In the adjoining cabinet room, Jefferson had a fancy desk where he wrote thousands of letters — many of them about slavery. He was deeply concerned that a land of the free would not survive with slaves. In one letter, he referred to a debate about expanding slavery as “this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night that awakened and filled me with terror.”
But then we get to the third room — his bed chamber, which was serviced by an enslaved chamber maid named Sally Hemings. She was 16 years old the first time Jefferson got her pregnant.
Monticello now acknowledges that Jefferson fathered six of Hemings’s children. Hemings, let’s not forget, was owned by Jefferson, and so were their children.
Perpetual bondage — that’s what set the American practice apart from other forms of slavery. Black people were never intended to be free. All manner of contorted thinking was used to justify the oppression. But it all boiled down to racism in service to capitalism.
And it allowed Jefferson to increase his slave holdings.
“I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm,” Jefferson remarked in 1820. “What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption.”
Those were the words of one of our Founding Fathers — among other posts, a governor and the nation’s third president. And our past is still impacting our present.
But at least Jefferson understood the long-term threat that slavery posed in the land of the free, as well as the racism that underpinned it:
“Our children see this and learn to imitate it . . . and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities.”
And it persists to this day.
Correction: A previous version of this column misstated the age at which Sally Hemings became pregnant by Thomas Jefferson.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.