Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty
Introducing the Exhibit
Rex Ellis: Good morning everyone, my name is Rex Ellis. I am the Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture—that's just a long title that says I do whatever they tell me to do. What we’ve tried to do with this exhibition is to suggest three things. Number one, we've tried to grapple with the whole idea of slavery especially in the era of the American Revolution and the paradox of liberty—those who are asking for liberty actually being those who are also slave owners. That's the paradox that we examine and try to talk about.
Second thing that we wanted to do was to talk about Jefferson and his life. A little bit about Albemarle, a little bit about his parents, and a little bit about Jefferson the man and the sort of paradox that he is as well. Not only his public life, but his private life as well.
There's a third section that happens to focus on the enslaved population at Monticello. That enslaved population reached, at some point throughout his lifetime, over 600 people. And so, we feel that there's—it's difficult to understand Jefferson without understanding his enslaved population. You will be introduced to six families within that larger population.
And then finally, there is a section that we are calling, for lack of a better term, "Getting Word," because that is the name of the project that in 1993 two historians at Monticello embarked on to try to find descendants of the enslaved at Monticello. And that section talks about those descendants and where they are and the kinds of things that they are doing.
What you see on the outside here are two visions that in some way suggest this whole paradox that we're talking about. Here is Thomas Jefferson and he's behind the Declaration of Independence; and here is Isaac Jefferson, he was a Granger, but he changed his name once he was freed to Jefferson. He is behind a farm book that Jefferson kept from 1770 all the way up until the beginning of the 19th century. That book was supposed to be a sort of diary of his farm and it has turned into one of the most important sources that give us some sense of who the enslaved were and what they did. Because as you see here, there are families that he mentions within the farm book; so with that information we know approximately when they were born, we know what their names were, and we can someway put them into the historical record in ways that we could not if we did not have this information.
Also I will tell you that I don't believe Monticello is typical of the slave experience in the Colonial Chesapeake, I think it's very atypical. As you go through it, I think you will see that there are sort of parallels to the larger slave system. But Mr. Jefferson in a variety of ways was a unique man. He was a scholar, he was an author, he was an inventor, he was a farmer—he'd tell you he was a farmer, other folk would tell you no, no, no, he wasn't too good a farmer. But in a variety of ways he was a very, very—that sort of quintessential Enlightenment man who was much more of a Renaissance figure than he was sort of ensconced in the colonial period, as many were. They looked to him and what he said to determine what they should be thinking, in many ways. So as you go through, keep that in mind as well.
Rex Ellis: This first area focuses on Jefferson and the idea that in order to see Jefferson clearly you must see him through the lens of his enslaved population. You will see a statue of Jefferson and then behind him you will see a series of names. They are names of over 600 enslaved—that we know—lived and worked in and around Monticello. And the idea here, again, is it allows us to see Jefferson more clearly. You will also see here Jefferson's lap desk, which was what he drafted the Declaration of Independence on. So in many ways that lap desk and the statue of Jefferson and what you see around it—the information you see around it gives you some sense of Jefferson's prominence, not only in the colonial period, but also his prominence as a slave owner.
Christopher Hamner: I wanted to do, since we didn't get a chance yesterday, to do a little debrief on the museum and what was particularly useful about it, what changed the way that you thought about the past, what changed the way that you think about this chapter to your kids. Do you remember what the sort of framing is?
Teacher 1: It's the Declaration of Independence on the one side—
Teacher 2: On the right.
Teacher 3: It's slavery—
Teacher 4: The farm book on the left.
Christopher Hamner: Yeah, right. And just those two images, you have to pick one or two things that go on the outside. And then the title: "Paradox of Liberty." This is all really carefully selected to get you thinking some new way about this person. If you just want to think about context and you want to think about content and this as a source. Think about how different the experience you have of Thomas Jefferson is if you spend 22 minutes in the "Paradox of Liberty" exhibit at the Smithsonian verses 22 minutes at the Jefferson Memorial, which is not very far away. How do you summarize a life if you've got…you can use 61 images, you can have a total of 12 hundred words, and the average visitor is going to spend 18 to 22 minutes walking through there. What parts of the story do you tell and what do you leave out. When I approached it that way I thought, gosh this is an impossible task that they have carried off really well.
Presenting the Paradox
Rex Ellis: The objectives in this area are several. Number one, to give you some sense of slavery in the Atlantic world, especially in the colonial period. Then to give you some sense of Mr. Jefferson and the kind of background and upbringing he had. Then to suggest some sense about Jefferson's attitude towards slavery. At the beginning on the wall that I'm facing you will see a variety of things that suggest the institution of slavery. There's a small map on the left-hand side of that portrait by George Morland that gives you some sense of the number of Africans who came to the New World. You will see that they came from all portions of Africa, from Senegal to the Bight of Biafra to the Bight of Benin all the way over to West Central Africa, even Madagascar and other places. But the largest number comes from, as you will see, West Central Africa. Somewhere around 5 million Africans disembarked in places like Pernambuco, Brazil, and South America. Somewhere around four million landed in the Caribbean—Jamaica, Barbados, Haiti, Cuba, those areas. Four hundred thousand came to North America. Four hundred thousand. Whether they were dealing with slave ships, building slave ships, and going—and transporting Africans back and forth, the American economy—the agricultural economy of America in some way, directly or indirectly, depended on the institution of slavery.
So Jefferson from the very beginning of his life, there was an enslaved person who actually put him on a pillow and presented him to his father, Peter, and his mom, Jane. There was a slave at the end of his life, his name was Burwell Colbert, who actually fluffed up his pillow because he was the only one who understood what Jefferson was saying when he was at the end of his life and couldn't speak. He was the only one who understood that he was uncomfortable and that he needed his pillow adjusted. So, from the time he was born until the time he died, slavery was a part of the world that he lived in.
Here you see a series of items that relate to the period of the Enlightenment. You see an inkwell by Voltaire, that's an image of Voltaire's head. You see glasses and you see Jefferson—who was a voracious reader, by the way—you see this revolving bookstand where he could read one, two, three, four, five books at a time.
Speaker 1: You know how he had that bookstand, where he could read five books at a time and keep them open so you don't lose your place? And then you walk a couple feet that way, and some guy, his whole day every day is to pound nails. Like, so you get to do all of this fascinating stuff, and the people working for you are pounding nails over and over and over. And you saw, there were like five steps to making a nail and your sole goal is to make the most nails. So you get to be creative, thoughtful, and everybody around you has to be bored?
Christopher Hamner: You know, I took away like the "Paradox of Liberty," that there's this really uncomfortable connection there. That some people were free to do all this grand philosophical thinking about politics and government and the nature of morals because other people were bored. You know, the fact that Jefferson—the leisure time that Jefferson enjoyed was on the part built on the backs of enslaved people piling up all this wealth and stuff so that he was freed.
Rex Ellis: You will see here some sense of what we're suggesting about his view of enslavement. And you will find out as you read that Jefferson was not—that Jefferson believed in emancipation. He did not believe that emancipation was something that could happen here. He believed in emancipation connected with colonization. So that he felt that blacks and whites could not live together and once they were set free they should be delivered some place else in order to enjoy their freedom.
Interestingly, 1791 he has a letter—somewhere around August he has a letter from a man named Benjamin Banneker. He's an African American, he's a scientist, he is an author, a very, very learned person himself. He writes a letter, what he said was he wanted Jefferson to help and to assist in the liberation of his people, he used—he sent him a copy of the almanac, he used himself as a way of saying, "This is what's possible given the help, given the education, given the support, this is what's possible within the black community." Eleven days later, Jefferson wrote him back and said wonderful letter, wonderful almanac, but I don't believe that the enslaved can in any way rise to the level of intelligence and the level of sophistication that you have risen to. So I generally say to folk when they ask me what I think about Jefferson, I say he was a man who was in terms of his intellect, he was ahead of his time; in terms of his morality, he was a product of his time. I think, more than most, though, Jefferson grappled with this issue.
Speaker 1: I think that kind of summarized the entire exhibit, was that intellectually Jefferson was ahead of his time, but philosophically he was a product of his time.
Speaker 2: And that's so current for today, though.
Speaker 3: He did a good job at not giving you the answer for how we should judge him, not saying he was this or he was that. I think what it does effective to us is we're all a product of our time now, we might think that other people are wrong. Two hundred years from now everyone might think we're all wrong. So it kinda makes you step back, too, and think, well, how do I see my time?
Christopher Hamner: I think it shows we're supposed to—sometimes we forget but we're a fairly young country. And now we're kind of looking at it and saying, yeah, well, you know we got some things right and we got some things wrong and it's okay to look at both of those so that maybe we can be more right the next time.
Framing the Lives of the Enslaved
Christopher Hamner: What were the objects or the text or—what part did you stop and go, "Whoa."
Teacher 1: I thought that the map, the to-scale of his entire plantation in the back was really, really interesting.
Christopher Hamner: What was it that kind of—
Teacher 1: Well, there were two parts. One, obviously, his house is so built on that hill it's almost on a mountain compared with his farmlands. I thought that's interesting management-wise. He's got kind of like a little town up near his house, and yet he's got these dispersed houses throughout the farmlands. And then I started thinking did he give his slaves who lived in those farmhouses somewhat of an autonomy as they were farming those areas because his house was miles away on top.
Rex Ellis: Mulberry Row I think is very important. It's a 13-hundred-foot space on the northeastern side of the house. If this is Monticello here, and this is the north here, and this is the east, here is Mulberry Row. Somewhere around 20 homes is what it had on it, domestic spaces, as well as—there was a nailery, there was a blacksmith's shop, there was a textile shop, there were domestic houses, dairy.
You either worked as a domestic, you either worked as tradesman or a craftsman, or you worked in the fields. Generally those were the three areas. Mulberry Row became a real proving ground to determine which one of those might be your fate. Between 12 and 16, Jefferson would engage them in work, males and females, at Mulberry Row. He would use that to make some determination about where the aptitudes were and where he would then assign those who he had working there. Then he brought a variety of people from around the country and even outside of the country, Scottish tradesmen and craftsmen, to teach the enslaved at Monticello a variety of the skills. So a variety of those were sort of determined based on the experience at Mulberry Row.
Christopher Hamner: And then how was the other way that you encountered enslaved people at Monticello.
Teacher 1: Through their lineage.
Christopher Hamner: Okay. Whose?
Teacher 1: One of the most famous would be the Hemings. There was—
Teacher 2: The Grangers.
Teacher 3: The Fossetts.
Christopher Hamner: That second part of the exhibit, remember, the six families, that struck me as another choice. You know, what are we going to do? Instead of trying to cover all 600, they made this choice that we'll pick six—one well known and maybe some that are less well known, but we’ll really focus on that, just on those families' experiences.
Rex Ellis: Now, these families, George Granger is the only man I know that was actually assigned to be an overseer at Jefferson. During Jefferson's lifetime he must have had over 30 overseers on the property. Granger was the only one that he had that was from the black community. And Granger was one of those that we use at least to suggest that Jefferson wasn't someone who was so struck by color until he didn't understand that it was merit that was the most important in terms of whom he allowed to do work, whom he allowed freedoms, and whom he did not allow freedoms.
But there is an argument to be made for the precedent of the Hemings family. There were five generations of that family on the hill, over 70 people in that family on the mountain, started with Elizabeth Hemings who was the matriarch of the family and five generations of her family were at Monticello. The Hemings were treated differently, they were given freedoms no one else was given, several of them were even allowed to not only work, but to live off the mountain, and also to sort of move around as free people even though they were owned by Jefferson. You will find that the Hemings were the ones who did either the least work or worked as domestics or received privileges that others did not receive.
And then finally for me the Fossett family. They were also Hemings but they were—Joseph Fossett was the grandson of Elizabeth. Joseph, the reason I wanted to mention him is because Joseph was the only member of his family that was freed in Jefferson's will. He set Fossett free, but Fossett was not free at the time that the auction took place, so he could not bid on his family. He watched his family being sold away. But he also knew some folk in Albemarle County that he had done business with, so he made requests of them that they purchase members of his family, and that, as a blacksmith, he was able to work and he promised and whatever it was that they paid for the price for them that he would then pay them back the price of his family. Somewhere in 1837, he purchased five of his children and four of his grandchildren and they all moved to Ohio.
Teacher 1: The Hemings family, there were like these really nice pots from France and I just thought that helped paint a complex picture of Jefferson.
Teacher 2: Right, I thought that—I enjoyed learning about the families, it was interesting to see the different dynamic that that plantation would have had than a lot of others. But I thought, too, it kind of focused on the fact that these were his most skilled slaves. They had the chair that that one person built, I know he had a trained French chef as a slave, that's not normal.
Christopher Hamner: You get to know those six families really well, but at the same time you lose sight of all these people. And that's a trade-off. Do you want them to learn a couple of people's experience really deeply, or do you want them to get a bigger sense of the whole, the whole enormity of the operation.
The Exhibit in Context
Rex Ellis: Interestingly, that Joseph Fossett that I was telling you about, Joe Fossett had a great-grandson by the name of William Monroe Trotter, who founded—with W.E.B. Dubois—the Niagara Movement, he was an activist himself, a very, very well educated man. All of the families, the Hughes family, the Fossett family, the Hemings family, all took on responsibilities that in many ways were civic responsibilities. Frederick Madison Roberts, that you'll see on this end, was the first African American legislator in California. You will see also that the descendents of Sally Hemings and of Eston and Madison fought in the Civil War.
So that continuation of family, that continuation of faith, Peter Fossett became a minister. It was Peter who said this, "My parents were here in Ohio and I wanted to be with them and be free, so I resolved to get free or die in the attempt." Peter ran away several times and was recaptured. And finally with the help of his family his freedom was bought and he finally rejoined his family in Ohio.
Christopher Hamner: I thought this was one of the best museum exhibits that I'd ever seen. And I was particularly impressed because it's really sensitive. Plus, it's the Smithsonian Museum of American History, it's on the Mall, it's yards from the White House, and a stone's throw from the Congress building. There's a sense that this is the official history, it has this sort of weight based on where it is and the fact that it's the Smithsonian.
Teacher 1: What struck me, I was wondering if this means how far we've come as a society, because do you think that 50 years ago you could have had an exhibit like this?
Christopher Hamner: No, and that's something they didn't talk about, but I love the way that you're thinking in terms of this as a source. If you went back 50 years ago, totally different.
Teacher 2: I liked the human touch to it, because they're much more complicated and they have to deal with their times.
Rex Ellis: We know a great deal about a small number of the enslaved at Monticello. I told you there were over 600; I've introduced you to maybe 30 or 40 that we know a great deal about. Don't you dare leave thinking that those other 500 are not important as well. The fact that we have their names is a testament to Jefferson's record keeping and also to the history and the historians who have made this all happen.
But if you ask me why I would say that Jefferson was anomalous and he was not normal—Jefferson said that he did not want—and I'm paraphrasing—but he said he wanted his enslaved population to respect him; he did not want them to fear him. He tried to keep the families together, he discouraged abroad marriages, he tried to get them to marry on the mountain so that the family was together there. So all of that is what makes me suggest that as a slave owner—Now I don't think that there is such a thing as a "good" slave owner, especially someone like Jefferson—when you think of the fact that he was governor of Virginia, when you think of the fact that he was a two-term president, when you think of the fact that he was Secretary of State, he had a variety of opportunities to do something significant about the institution of slavery. He never did. So, there is that reality to him; but there's also the other reality. And I think the public Jefferson and the private Jefferson are two different Jeffersons all together. In order to see Jefferson clearly, you have to see him through the lens of his enslaved community as well.