Thursday, February 2, 2012

Jefferson's Descendants

An article, last Friday in the New York Times, reviews a new exhibit opened on that same Friday at the National Museum of American History. (

After our discussions today about new museology, I was very curious to examine how this exhibit, focusing on Jefferson’s slave ownership, would present its ideas and evidence. A description of the entrance to the exhibit gives me most of what I want to know. In the picture below, we see a draft of the Declaration of Independence alongside a list, in Jefferson’s hand, of the slaves working at Monticello. Behind it is a life-size statue of Jefferson, and my favorite part, behind the statue is a wall with 600 known names of those Jefferson enslaved.

Surely, this museum is doing the kind of ideological criticism mentioned in Alan Wallach’s “The Battle Over ‘West As America’”. It directly, starkly presents the greatest paradox in American history. The placing of the Declaration of Independence and the list of slaves together is perfect. The same hand wrote these two documents. No man other than Jefferson can so wholly epitomize the complicated relationship between liberty and enslavement.
Edward Rothstein, author of the article, says, “It is to the credit of the Washington exhibition’s creators — Rex Ellis, associate director of the African-American museum and Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello — that we are not given the answers but are given enough information and perspective to begin to think about the issues, helped along by objects from Monticello as well as the new museum’s growing collection.” The style of this exhibit, then, in asking instead of telling, lacks the authoritative voice of “sacralised histories” Wallach describes when trying to explain the problems a museum faces when presenting a critical narrative (on page 98). Criticism undercuts timelessness and authority he claims. My next step, consequently, was to see if there was any resistance to this exhibit like there was for “The West as America.”

I found the Washington Post (,1222311/critic-review.html) really favored the exhibit. It focused on the “groundbreaking” quality of research that went into making it, emphasizing that, “The lives of Monticello's slaves have never been fully explored in an exhibit, even at the Jefferson plantation.” (On that subject, there is renovation going on right now of Mulberry Row, which is the name of the land surrounding Monticello where the slaves’ houses were. “Without most of the buildings, how can we effectively convey the sense of the place and the stories of the scores of people—enslaved and free--who lived and worked there?” : I felt that on the subject of Sally Hemings, however, it proceeded quite gingerly: “Over the years, this ambiguity has been explored in Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemings. The museum agrees with the most recent scholarship and scientific studies that four of Hemings's children were likely fathered by Jefferson.” Notice the likely. I’d say almost absolutely certainly.

I also looked on the Wall Street Journal, but found only a small blurb: “A new exhibit on how slaves lived at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello looks at six families, including the Hemingses, that worked at the president's Virginia plantation. ... Jefferson, who though he owned slaves called slavery an ‘abominable crime,’ is represented by the portable desk on which he drafted the Declaration of Independence.” Here, too, the news’s reception of the exhibit is on board with this Jefferson-as-slave-owner representation. (

Clearly (or did I not look deep enough?), this exhibit is not inciting the same controversy as the exhibit on the West. Is it that this is something that we remember and accept? But how is it possible not to want to disremember that the very roots our country lie in slavery? Is it just that we don’t associate ourselves with it much? Is it that we look at Jefferson and think that we are not that way anymore, that it does not matter?

Perhaps the exhibit should have introduced some ideological connections to today? The first comment for the New York Times article does so very provocatively. From Maria from Texas: “So here we have a founding father who despised slavery in theory but also profited from it handsomely. Today we have politicians who invoke the rhetoric of freedom and liberty but also participate in crony capitalism, enable corporate welfare, and argue that corporations are people. It seems that when it comes to protecting their own financial self-interests our political leaders are shameless.”

When I read that I thought of Mitt Romney because I saw a youtube documentary recently ( that talks about his company practices and definitely supports Maria’s statement. Financial self-interest. I wonder if the exhibit gave the perception that Jefferson was even a little bit greedy.

However, and this interested me most about the original New York Times article, there was some use to the rhetoric Jefferson used around the people he enslaved. Even as they were debased by him in daily life, they were empowered by his ideas. Says the New York Times,

" The most remarkable phenomenon is evident in the last gallery: Many descendants of Monticello slaves became community leaders. A project interviewing them began at Monticello in 1993; it discovered, we are told, a tradition of dedication to education, faith, family and freedom.

Peter Fossett, a descendant of the blacksmith Joseph Fossett , for example, became a minister active in the Underground Railroad and founded the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, Ohio, in 1870. Another Fossett descendant, William Monroe Trotter, founded the Niagara Movement with W. E. B. Dubois in 1905, declaring that “all men were created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights.” One of the Hemings descendants, Frederick Madison Roberts, became the first black member of the California legislature.”

Ideas passed along are more powerful than the people who possess them, I’d say.


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