No founding father elicits more praise and controversy than Thomas Jefferson. I dare say no other American historical figure is the subject of more adulation and derision, not even Lincoln.
I should state up front that I both own, and have read; Jefferson’s autobiography, his Notes on the State of Virginia, his letters to and from John Adams, at least five books dealing with the founding fathers of the United States, including Bancroft’s History of the United States and 1776, my favorite;Lies My Teacher Told Me, and most recently I finished the Pulitzer winning Hemmings of Monticello.
I headed for Charlottesville, VA a little more charged up than normal. I promised myself I would behave. I am admittedly fascinated by Mr. Jefferson. A brilliant man for sure, even an inspired man, but he must have lived with a level of cognitive dissonance most would find unbearable.
As with other places I have visited, I wanted to see first hand, get a small taste, gain a little perspective. At least I hoped too.
The first thing I wanted to see was if this place was really on a mountain. Thats what all the writers call it, and I did my best to temper my Rocky bias as to where the transition from mole hill to mountain lies. I can settle this one easily; big hill. It is a big enough hill that unless I were Lance Armstrong I would surely rather pedal down it than up, but on foot it barely merits a water bottle. All this said, I must admit, the view from the top is unmatched by any other locale in the vicinity.
We, my time assigned tour group and I, were met at the front door by a cordial and energetic guide. He began, like all other house tours, talking about architecture, but this was different, simply because this house was different. Monticello is unique because it was intended to be so. It is a three-story home designed to look as if it was only one. It has all sorts of oddities meant to inspire conversation and not only keep up with, but be unmatched by, any “Joneses” of the time. And of course, like any other home meant to keep up appearances, the owner could not afford it.
As I entered the home I found it interesting what Mr. Jefferson chose to put on display. He had busts of Enlightenment philosophers, fossils of ancient beasts, and to represent his country and time; tomahawks, spears, and buffalo skins. Interesting.
As we walked through the house our guide told us what type of man Jefferson was, what sort of world he lived in, all while we were surrounded by the things that surrounded him, no, rather we were surrounded by the things he surrounded himself with. His house, his whole existence was curated by himself.
In the drawing room he made passing reference to Sally Hemmings. He said she was a controversial character during her lifetime, and has continued to be so to this day. He mentioned that some DNA testing has proven a modern-day link between the Jeffersons and the Hemmings, but that this can not be pinpointed to Thomas himself for surety, yet most modern-day historians agree that Ms. Hemmings did have at least one, probably six, children by Mr. Jefferson; her owner.
He did not word things quite so directly. He did not call him her owner. After his two line explanation he asked if there were questions. No one raised any, including myself.
As we walked further we were told how Jefferson’s daughter and her family were asked to come live at the house to keep her father company. Interesting in that it was also mentioned how privacy shutters had to be installed due to the amount of guests that poured through the home both invited and uninvited. There was no mention of his daughters marital troubles at the time of the invitation.
There was talk of Lafayette, the Madisons, and many others who frequented the place. We were told of how the butler was a trusted friend to the president and how the man ran the house. We were not told of how this butler was actually Sally Hemmings brother, nor did they mention the fact that both this butler and Sally, were the half siblings of Jefferson’s late wife.
Perhaps it was not mentioned because it is detailed and confusing. Perhaps it was not mentioned because the guide did not know or possibly did not believe it was fact. I asked small, mostly unrelated questions, honest questions, but mostly I held my tongue.
I held my tongue till the guide made a comment while talking about the meals at Monticello. He said something to the affect of “Jefferson had trouble keeping a cook,” noting that after two male chefs did not work out he finally had a woman slave trained to do the work.
“Yes, you have a question?”
“I do. Wasn’t his first chef Sally Hemmings brother, whom Jefferson freed but only after he trained his brother to be his replacement. But then that brother later escaped. Of course escaped is used loosely since Jefferson never tried to catch him and most believe he went to live with his brother?”
“Well, I’m not sure about all that. OK, lets move out onto the terrace.”
The house was truly beautiful. So was the Declaration of Independence. So were a lot of things, including by all contemporary reports, Sally Hemmings.
I finished the tour impressed by Jefferson’s curiosity, taste, and accomplishments. I would l love to live in a home like his; surrounded by interesting and unique things, as well as people meriting the same description. I had a little side conversation with the guide after the tour which included him asking my profession, him complimenting my bag, and a lecture on how some freed slaves, like the chef, could just not hack freedom, as was evidenced by him later committing suicide. I countered that his suicide came only after the death of his wife and subsequent slide into alcoholism, and that the assumption that the cause of death was freedom, is suspect under such circumstances.
He bid me good day.
Next I took the tour of Mulberry Row, or the tour “focusing on the lives of African-Americans.”
On this tour the nice white lady mentioned many of the facts I had brought up in the previous tour. She was informative but very careful to not say anything that could be seen as derogatory to Thomas Jefferson. The lives of the slaves were painted as both noble and tragic, sad, but maybe not as violent at Monticello as you might think. All very true. Yet sadly she failed in the same way the previous guide had in that neither really connected the dots for those of us listening. Two portraits were painted, one of Jefferson, one of the slaves, when reality was most surely that the two pictures were not separated by the frames that the tours seemed to create.
I politely asked her about this afterwards. She explained that the guides, both inside and out, are very limited in what they are allowed to say. They are limited mostly by time, there is a lot that could be said about Jefferson, but also by the views of the guides. Without telling her the story I just told you, she commented, “I’m sure you found the interior tour very disappointing.” I chuckled and assured her that I actually enjoyed the tour very much. The guide covered plenty of things I did not know or had not considered, none of them having to do with slavery.
She told me of how her daughter married a black man, causing her to check whether she believed what she had been been preaching. I believe she did or does. We talked about raising mixed race children, books we have read, and how no person is just one thing. We shook hands, I smiled, and began my walk down the hill.
As I looked back at the palacial home, passing the row of slave cabins, I got a little sad. I admire this man. I admire a man who inspired a nation, penned a paper that has stood the test of time, a man who made my life of relative freedom possible, yet a man who at the same time left crushing debt to his posterity, stole the lives of others to create his own life of luxury, and a man who’s other writings also helped shift slavery from an economic system to a racist one.
No person is all, or just, one thing.