Saturday, August 25, 2012

Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

Where: American History Museum

When: through October 14, 2012

One of the great conundrums in American history is how Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, could have been a slaveowner.  This exhibit at the American History Museum describes it as a paradox of liberty.  I call it gross hypocrisy.  Truth be told, Jefferson believed that his way of life would be threatened if he freed his slaves, and so they continued to live in bondage in order to support his lifestyle.  You can claim that I'm applying 21st century ethics to an 18th century situation, but there were plenty of people in the late 1700s who decried slavery, so I don't think that argument holds up.  Don't misunderstand me, I think that Jefferson was a brilliant man and the American colonies were lucky to have him as one of their leaders, but his personal conduct does not match his public achievements.

The exhibit begins with a bit about Jefferson, including the desk on which he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence.  I don't believe I've ever seen that before, and it was a thrill to realize I was looking at the very surface on which the document was written.  That's one of the best things about the American History Museum, they've got "the real things," artifacts that shaped our nation's history.  Another of Jefferson's possessions on display was a book stand that allowed the reader to look at five open books at once.  I confess I wondered where I could get one of these items for myself.

The bulk of the exhibit is a discussion of the slave families who lived at Monticello - how they lived, and what their descendants have done, to the extent this is known.  Everyone is familiar with the Hemmings family and their connection with Jefferson, but there were other families living at Monticello as well.  Many of them were skilled artisans, people who today, one hopes, would be able to practice their crafts in exchange for a profitable payment.  During their lifetimes, they were able to earn a bit of extra money to supplement their rations, but it was subsistence living at best.

After Jefferson's death, most of the slaves were sold on the chopping block to pay the debts of the estate.  How anyone could hear this and not be horrified at the fate of these people is beyond me.  I don't think there's a lot of discussion of slavery at this point in our history.  Thankfully, it's been illegal for well over one hundred years now, and no one alive today has had to endure its horrors, at least not in this country.  It's important to know that it did exist, though, and this type of exhibit, that focuses on the lives of real people helps to put a human face on this inhuman institution.

The exhibit itself is very well-organized, as I have found the other exhibits in this area (which features shows on aspects of African American life - a sort of stopgap measure until the African American History Museum is open, in 2015) to be.  It's easy to follow along with the stories, and there's a good mixture of text and artifacts on display.  This would be appropriate for children (tweens and older) as well as adults; I can only hope that school groups have taken advantage of this display, as it would be a helpful addition to class discussions of early American history.

Verdict: Go see this show; it's a very engaging and thought-provoking history lesson.

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