I visited Monticello this afternoon with my mom. I haven't been to Monticello in at least 23 years. In that time, the public's idea of Thomas Jefferson, as well as the elite historical consensus, has changed. Monticello now includes a special Hemings tour, which I didn't take. Instead, I heard a 45-minute talk on slavery at Monticello.
I only know so much about the Hemingses and just a little more about the institution of slavery, mostly from books I read in college, Roots, and 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013). Much of the information from the lecture particularized this general information for Monticello. And there are things you can't learn from books and movies.
Here was the cabin of John and Priscilla Hemings. John was Jefferson's carpenter. Priscilla took care of Jefferson's grandchildren. Unlike other slaves on the plantation, they had a bed. Ten people lived in their cabin.
When one of Jefferson's granddaughters got married, there was a happy celebration at the big house. Among the slaves, just down the hill, there was fear. A marriage of a granddaughter meant Jefferson had to pay a dowry, and that meant that he would be giving away a few dozen slaves, thus breaking up families, tearing children from their parents.
Here we stood at the site of a small nail factory. Boys as young as 10 were put to work from sunup to sundown -- 16 hours a day in the summertime -- to make nails, all of which were necessary to maintain the structures on Jefferson's property. The boys were beaten by overseers, but the beatings were rarely necessary. They had to make a daily quota of 800 nails, a bucketful. If they consistently or semi-consistently failed to make that quota, they would be demoted to field slavery. Two of Jefferson's children worked here.
There was a small structure which stood at the edge of a hill. It was a few feet down from the slave shops and the Hemingses' cabin. On either side of the structure lay the gardens. From the structure, you could look down further on the fields where the majority of the plantation's slaves toiled. Jefferson would walk down from his house, a fine structure which he based on neoclassical architecture he studied in Europe, a house filled with thousands of books on religion, politics, and natural history, eighteenth-century gadgets, gifts from American Indian tribes, and fossils of mastodons found on the North American continent. He would walk past the row of factories, including the building where his sons labored 16 hours a day making nails and the crowded cabin where his children slept. Then he would come to this small structure where he would survey the fields where his slaves toiled for most of their natural lives in conditions that would drive most people I know to suicide.
In academia, we deal with works of art that are "problematic." Many of my colleagues do their students a disservice when they treat fascinating, beautiful works of art as solely the products of the evils of capitalism or white patriarchy. Tosca is more than the product of colonialism and whatever we currently think is cultural appropriation. Winsor McCay's hallucinogenic, operatic comics are more than their racist imagery. Washington Square is more than its absences, namely the brutal factory conditions in nineteenth-century New York that Henry James does not depict in his novel. It's possible to study Puccini's phrases without long discussions of the economic relations between Europe and Asia. It's possible to study the formatting and structure of McCay's dreamlike visions of New York, at least for a few dozen pages, without focussing on his ugly depictions of people of color. It's possible, actually kind of easy, to talk about Washington Square without talking about the Industrial Revolution. The rejectionism can be taken to extremes. Our English departments are churning out graduate students who don't like novels, poetry, or plays, and who can only see the nineteenth-century novel as a bourgeois invention created out of a culture that enslaved millions.
I can't stand that form of fundamentalism, the joylessness that rejects genius because it fails to attain moral purity. Still, for a few minutes I started to see where my colleagues were coming from.
We tell ourselves that Nazi art was just kitsch. Only one of my colleagues has told me that he thought Olympia (Leni Riefenstahl, 1938) was good movie. A professor I admire who has the patience to sit through avant-garde films that would torture a tortoise, told me she couldn't sit through Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935) because she thought it was boring. Do we really believe Riefenstahl is awful, or do we tell ourselves that because we just can't honor a woman who cast concentration-camp prisoners as extras?
We don't tell ourselves Jefferson was a terrible writer, the way we tell ourselves Hitler was a bad painter, because we can't. Jefferson was a beautiful writer, trained in rhetoric, who understood the force of a good sentence. Among our presidents, only Abraham Lincoln bests him. Adams, Madison, Grant, and Obama are the runners up. His mind was eccentric and fascinating. We laugh at the Jefferson Bible. But he also lent his eloquence to his most vicious, racist tracts. He struggled throughout his life to define liberty, surrounded by hundreds of people whose very presence declared the very idea of America a lie.
After standing where I stood today, it seems downright dishonest, almost wicked, to ignore Jefferson the slaveowner when I think of Jefferson, the fierce advocate of religious liberty. But it would also be too easy to only talk about Jefferson the slaveowner. Teach your students difficulty. Tell them to try to answer the questions that can never be satisfactorily answered.