It was a two-hour drive though Virginian farmlands from our house to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate. The building and grounds have been a UNESCO site since the late 80s and if you are having a hard time conjuring an image of it, just look at the back of a nickel.
For the third president of the United States, the building was modest in size and betrayed his curiosity for learning, engineering and natural sciences. There were skulls and specimens decorating the house and a library full of books (although the collection was much smaller that it had been in his day).
The tour was interesting, but it had to run at a certain pace so that the many tour groups in various rooms didn’t overlap. A lot of information was covered, but I wanted something that went deeper and dealt with harder topics. That’s where the Thomas Jefferson Foundation slavery tour came in.
Jefferson was a man of contradiction- on the one hand he publicly opposed slavery and on the other he kept hundreds of slaves. While being an abolitionist might sound noble, he also believed Africans were racially inferior and that they should be sent back to either Africa or the West Indies.
Furthermore, it is widely believed that he fathered several children with one of his slaves named Sally Hemings. Her light-skinned children were the only ‘nuclear family’ that he freed before his death. He gave them funds to head north, where they were able to pass for white people. Maybe that was such a noble thing to do back then, but I couldn’t help wonder how consensual that kind of relationship could have been. Was Sally Hemings really attracted to such an older man? Was she in a position to reject his advances? It was a discomforting thought.
You might think that someone capable of creating the Declaration of Independence was cut from a better cloth, but Jefferson was disappointingly human.
The slavery tour moved down Mulberry Row, which once housed the industrious backbone of the plantation: servant’s houses, coal sheds, a joinery, wash house, smokehouse, dairy, nailry, and a smith’s shop. This road was on the same hill as Jefferson’s house and only a stone’s throw away from the main building. In fact, at one point before the kitchen was finished, all of the cooking was done outside the servant’s houses on Mulberry Row.
Our guide gave us a good history of the time period and of important laws that affected the slaves. At the end of the two-hour tour, my mom, sister, and I stood out overlooking the lush vegetable garden and the rolling blue hills beyond. The breeze lightly blew over us and the chirp of birds called out from the shady trees above us.
“This is some pretty beautiful real estate.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” my mom replied.
“People condemn Jefferson for having slaves,” I mused, “but maybe they forget that slavery still exists. ”
Does a sweatshop worker with polluted air and chemical-laden water suffer more or less than an 18th century slave? I don’t think there is really an answer to this. I know a million-dollar view doesn’t ameliorate a slave’s position or pardon Jefferson, but if as a society we say slavery in that form is unacceptable- what does that say about us today?
At what point do we stop relegating slavery to the history books and start realizing that perhaps all of us are no better?
How to get to Monticello: 931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA 22902