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Smithsonian and Monticello exhibitions on Jefferson’s slaves

January 27, 2012

Slave bookOne of the great paradoxes of American history is Jefferson’s ownership of slaves.  How could a man so emblematic of the American Revolution and American Enlightenment,a strong political and moral opponent of slavery, so easily have kept 600 (!!) slaves?  (How could 12 of the first 18 American presidents have been slave-holders?)

I see an announcement in the New York Times of a new pair of exhibitions on Jefferson’s slaves:  the first, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (together the new National Museum of African American History [the museum building for the NMAAH is at least three years away] and Culture and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation) and the second, a new expanded permanent exhibition at Monticello.   The Smithsonian exhibition has just opened and the Monticello exhibition opens in February, so I have not yet seen them, but they sound fascinating and important.  Edward Rothstein writes:

We enter the show’s 3,000-square-foot space seeing a life-size statue of Jefferson (created by StudioEIS in Brooklyn), standing in front of a red panel on which are inscribed the names (when known) of some 600 slaves who worked on his estates during his lifetime. In front of the display is the lap desk on which Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a desk that was probably constructed by John Hemmings, Jefferson’s enslaved cabinetmaker (who used that spelling of his name), part of the now-renowned Hemings family (one of whom, Sally, is thought by many historians to have had a special relationship with Jefferson and borne him children).

The contradictions in notions of liberty could not be more graphically presented. The intention is not to turn a great man into a villain but rather to examine just how those contradictions expressed themselves. Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime,” we are told, but also felt unable to extricate himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”

We learn of his practical efforts to restrict slavery, including his introduction of a Virginia law in 1778 prohibiting the importation of slaves, and signing, as president, a national version of that law in 1807, just weeks before Britain outlawed the slave trade. We read too that in 1788, he wrote, “Nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice” in order to abolish slavery.

Clearly, though, he was not so willing. He also harbored some condescending racial views (partly contradicted by other writings). And Jefferson inherited his father’s plantation and slaves; at one point he was one of the wealthiest men in Virginia (though to pay his enormous debts after his death, Monticello and “130 valuable negroes” — as the advertisement put it — were auctioned).

As the exhibition also emphasizes, he was a man of the Enlightenment represented by his books (Homer, Livy, Shakespeare), his scientific apparatus (including a telescope) and his devotion to the powers of reason and the value of skepticism (his inkwell here is in the shape of Voltaire’s head).

But we do not learn of these passions in order to have them dismissed. Gradually, as we work through the central gallery, we see them haltingly, falteringly applied, affecting the enslaved communities at Monticello. Displays are organized around a series of slave families, many of whom were at the estate for generations — the Hemingses, of course (as many as 70 family members were at Monticello), but also the Fossett family, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers. (Perhaps no other plantation has such extensive documentation of its slaves.)…

The most remarkable phenomenon is evident in the last gallery: Many descendants of Monticello slaves became community leaders. A project interviewing them began at Monticello in 1993; it discovered, we are told, a tradition of dedication to education, faith, family and freedom.

Peter Fossett, a descendant of the blacksmith Joseph Fossett , for example, became a minister active in the Underground Railroad and founded the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, Ohio, in 1870. Another Fossett descendant, William Monroe Trotter, founded the Niagara Movement with W. E. B. Dubois in 1905, declaring that “all men were created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights.” One of the Hemings descendants, Frederick Madison Roberts, became the first black member of the California legislature.

Isaac Granger JeffesonI plan to visit these exhibitions soon.  There is a companion book, and the Washington Post also has coverage of the exhibits.

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