Farm Progress

Visiting Monticello, taking 'slavery tour' are reminders that Founding Fathers often did not live up to their own ideals.

April 27, 2017

3 Min Read
THE WORKPLACE: The nail- and cup-making building was the workplace of most of the younger slaves on Jefferson's Monticello plantation. Making nails was a moneymaking enterprise, and slaves turned out as many as 10,000 nails a day. Cups were mostly made for use by the occupants of the plantation.

There's something particularly moving about the history of the U.S. that can be experienced in a visit to Washington, D.C.

This year, one of those experiences occurred at the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, which has begun recreating the stories of the slaves who lived at Monticello, the homes they occupied and the venues in which they worked.

The restoration project has a long way to go. But the irony of the man who wrote the words "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" being a person who over his lifetime was the "owner" of 607 human beings who were totally deprived of at least one of those inalienable rights — liberty — and occasionally the other two as well, is inescapable.

During the slave quarters tour, I kept trying to imagine how the man himself dealt with the strangeness of his beliefs for the country and his actions in his daily life.

By all accounts, he had four children — his own flesh and blood — with a slave, Sally Hemings. He emancipated those children at the age of 21. Two of them reached that age during his lifetime, and they left Monticello and were not accounted for beyond that time. Historians say they are believed to have moved to Ohio and passed as white in society. The other two were minors at the time of his death and were freed by his will.

Freed, but not acknowledged. They received no inheritance. Their descendants are most decidedly not buried in the Jefferson family cemetery where their patriarch rests.

In his lifetime, Jefferson decried slavery as "abominable" but suggested that the "dilemma" would have to be solved by future generations, kind of a "kick-the-can" philosophy that matches the current handling of budget issues.

Taking the tour reminded me how complicated the issue of race really is in America and how long it has been complicated. When even one of the most venerated of our Founding Fathers, the author of the Declaration of Independence, practiced the evil of "owning" other human beings — ordered them flogged for attempting to escape their bondage and sold them if they proved resistant to servitude without compensation or recourse — no wonder there is a culture of confusion about race today.

The rationalization for slavery was that the Africans brought here as slaves were subhuman, that they were more closely related to livestock than to white people, that they were not capable of higher learning or invention.

Given that, it is difficult to explain how strongly Jefferson relied on his slaves to be the practical force carrying out the creation of his ideas, especially his carpenter and his chef. Their talents were clearly recognized and their ability to learn proven again and again. Yet somehow the ugly idea of slaves as less than human remained, principally because of the color of their skin and the texture of their hair. 

The sad and disturbing thing is that the hateful belief lingers, in some minds, to this very day.

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