When I visit such a storied place as Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, I often feel the need to describe it with superlatives. I hear the expected questions in my mind, “How was it?” or “What was it like?” and I can feel the pull of my mind toward the expected responses: “amazing,” or “unbelievable,” or “unreal,” or “astonishing,” or … [And or, and or and so forth. Feel free to fill in your own superlatives.] Truly, there is much about Jefferson’s home that is remarkable. The clock in the foyer with its weights corresponding to the days of the week and a hole in the floor so that the weights could reach Saturday, which can only be seen from the floor below, testifies to Jefferson’s innovative resourcefulness and creativity. Touring his home, he seemed to me to be an early hacker, in the best senses of that word, except that, not having computers to play with, he was using and creating analog equivalents. He created an analog copier by means of a contraption that moved a second pen while he wrote with the first.
The stairs of his home are tucked away in the middle of the home and are narrow, because by doing so, he could conserve heat, instead of wasting it, by letting it drift up the kind of broad stairwells that were typically built in these sorts of homes. He built a dome in his home, something that had not been done before in North America. He was an early time and motion student, carefully documenting the amount of time it takes to make nails and then calculating how many nails a slave could make in a day. All of this and much, much, much more (can we say, Declaration of Independence?) is ture of Thomas Jefferson. And yet… and yet …
The number of nails that a slave could make in a day … A slave … boys between the ages of 10 and 16. Working with iron and hot forges for 14 hours a day, 6 days a week … right under Jefferson’s nose. But, of course, right under his nose. He was carefully watching and recording their production levels, as well as deciding which boys would be sent “down to the ground,” i.e. to work the fields, and which ones would be taught a skill, like joinery or blacksmithing or carpentry. Moreover, there’s the matter of Sally Hemings, his wife’s, Martha’s, half-sister, but born of a slave and hence a slave herself, kept in a small room at the bottom of the home, along with her three children, whose father was Thomas Jefferson. The children were slaves too, though Sally Hemings had managed to secure their manumission when they reached adulthood as part of a deal she made with Jefferson when she agreed to come back with him from France, a place where she was a free woman because France did not recognize slavery.
Hearing these stories in the context of Monticello, where I could experience and see the tight juxtaposition of Jefferson’s home, full of its wonders, with Mulberry Lane, where all the slaves lived and worked, and suddenly all the lightness of the Declaration of Independence became a tight, dark, weighted, black pit of despair. These two things should not exist together, and yet, they do. Jefferson would not have experimented and discovered and played in the manners in which he did, without the support of his laboring slaves, and he knew it. As it was, he still died hugely in debt, leading to the sell-off and separation of his slaves in order to repay his debts. The cruelty of that irony has no depth which words can reach, but so it was.
He wrote the Declaration of Independence and he had traveled widely and read widely. To give him the credit of being a genius, which he surely was, but to then turn around and dismiss his slaveholding as simply being a product of the times in which he lived is too easy an answer. It would perhaps suffice for others, but not for Jefferson. I, at least, cannot give him that pass. He knew very well what he was doing. To release his slaves would have meant to give up all of the toys and privileges and abilities and capabilities that having slaves gave him. He could not give up those things. I doubt he was even able to seriously consider it, though it is interesting to consider what a different legacy he might have left to us if he had had that ability.
So it is that in the end, I felt the relief of being able to leave a workcamp, instead of the wonder of having seen Thomas Jefferson’s home, with all of its innovations. That is not to say that Thomas Jefferson did not contribute in remarkable ways to our country, but it is to say I have a newfound feeling for my need to deeply consider all of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy and not just the flattened, denuded, superhero-like version that I received in school.