Anyone who knows me is aware of my ridiculous obsession with presidential history. It started at a young age and has only grown more and more out of control. Last year I spent Presidents’ Day at Jefferson’s Monticello, touring the house and grounds with friends and sampling the new Monticello Reserve Ale from Starr Hill (if you haven’t tried it, you should). I wasn’t sure I’d be able to top last year, but I was wrong. Brad and I started the day at the National Museum of American History to visit a new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” The exhibition is actually created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (currently under construction next door to NMAH). The exhibition attempts to answer a few major questions. How could the author of the Declaration of Independence own slaves? How could a country founded for liberty and freedom have so many enslaved people? What was life like for these people?
I thought the exhibition did a good job of explaining how dependent the colonies were on slavery, including Jefferson. At the same time, he was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and the ideas of liberty and equality. Unfortunately, these ideas didn’t quite transfer over to the Declaration of Independence or Jefferson’s Monticello. While Jefferson thought slavery was wrong, he still owned slaves his whole life and only freed a few when he died. While we’ll never really know what was going on in Jefferson’s head, the exhibition does explain ways Jefferson attempted to improve things. He had several suggestions such as gradual emancipation, abolition of the slave trade, and diffusion of slavery. He thought that if slavery expanded to the west, it would somehow improve the slaves’ situation and slavery would end sooner.
The rest of the exhibition focused on the slaves at Monticello. They talked about different jobs the slaves would be doing on the property and focused on several big families that lived at Monticello, including family trees and background on each family. It was a lot more information about slaves than I’m used to seeing in a public setting. I appreciated how much emphasis was put on the slaves as people instead of just the issue of slavery. Even more surprising was the last section of the exhibition. It focused on where slaves went after they left Monticello, whether they were freed or sold (as many were because of Jefferson’s debt). It was really interesting to see where so many of them ended up. In 1993, Monticello started “Getting Word,” an oral history project about descendants of Monticello slaves. Reading and hearing stories from these families was the most rewarding part of the exhibition. Go here and explore their project online!
Overall, I really enjoyed the exhibition. While I didn’t leave with any real answer of why Jefferson owned slaves if he was so against it, I was glad to see that the museum didn’t shy away from his contradiction and tried to make the visitors understand what it was like to live at that time as a slave and as a slave-owner. There are many historic houses in the country where slaves lived and worked, but often there are few records kept of these people and what their life was like. Because of Jefferson’s meticulous record keeping, we are able to get a better understanding of these individuals. If you see anything in the exhibition though, see the oral history project information. It was fascinating to hear where the different families ended up and what they ended up doing with their lives out of the bonds of slavery. If this is the level of exhibition that NMAAHC is going to have, then they need to hurry up and build that museum!
I’ll stop there and save the rest of my Presidents Day for another post!