Dreamin’ of Monticello: The Irony of Jefferson and Slavery

I’ve been to Monticello once before, many years ago.  I started counting back and realized it had been 17 years.  A few things had changed about the tour on my return visit–but the house and grounds were as I remembered.  Ideal.

We walked around for a few hours admiring the handy work, the architecture, and especially the vegetable garden and orchard.  How did Jefferson do it all?

Then we remembered–he had over 100 slaves working on the plantation.  No wonder he was able to accomplish all he did.  Don’t get me wrong, by all accounts, he worked feverishly, never wasting a moment, adapting all the latest technologies in an effort to be more productive.  He was.  He could read 7 languages, was proficient in farming, writing, philosophy, architecture, etc.  You name it and Jefferson dabbled in it.  But the bottom line was, he had a huge workforce bound for life.

Just think about.  If you had a huge workforce bound to you for life, what could you accomplish?

Build a huge underground cellar and stock it with wines from France?  Sure.  No problem.

Eat fantastic meals cooked by a French-trained enslaved African?  Absolutely–and why not have dozens of guests daily, year round?  Again, sure–

You’ve got to wonder how these enslaved peoples felt about doing all this work, essentially creating an empire for one man and his family.

Wondering is all we can do, though.  There’s little written evidence regarding the enslaved at Monticello, especially from their point-of-view.

I have to say, the first question Emma asked the tour guide was about Sally Hemmings.  She diplomatically skirted around the answer, leaving our politially-correct 11 year old frustrated.  Emma wanted a more concrete response from the folks who represent Jefferson.  In short, she wanted to know the truth about this great but complicated man.

Fact is, the truth is always relative and Jefferson was a complicated being.  Perhaps because he was brilliant, he was more complicated than most.  In the meantime, we tried to explain to Emma how the man who wrote the phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” could bind and use enslaved Africans.

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