Like many historic attractions, you can’t just pull up in front of Thomas Jefferson’s house. You have to park at the visitor’s center and buy a ticket in order to get your assigned tour time and a spot on the bus. Once at the top, tours enter the house at ten minute intervals, giving almost no room for delay. It seemed like every employee is a white woman, usually over 50.
The first stop was the front porch, where the guide explained how the weather vane was attached to an arrow on the ceiling, allowing Jefferson to see which way the wind was blowing without having to leave the porch. She told us he tracked the weather every day for years, which is the sort of hobby I assumed a founding father would have. Inside the front door is the room in which guests would have spent most of their time. Apparently some visitors waited for Mr. Jefferson for hours before he was able to see them. He felt that this would be an excellent time to educate the public, so he decorated the foyer like a museum. The space is filled with art and artifacts, the idea being that people could learn while they waited. The tour guide was explaining which pieces were original and which were brought in after the home was restored. Then she pointed out the bust of Alexander Hamilton.
“Wait, really?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. Several members of the tour seemed confused by my incredulity, and I was still confused by the sculpture, so she explained. “Hamilton and Jefferson were fierce political rivals, but Jefferson always said that he respected Hamilton, even if they disagreed.” She turned to face another pedestal on the opposite side of the room, which held up the head of some ancient philosopher. “Had you been here during Jefferson’s time, you would have seen a bust of Jefferson over here, so that the two men could always be facing in each from opposite sides of the room.”
The guide took us through the rest of the house, showing us the unique design elements created by Jefferson, such as hiding the slave passageways under the decks, and collecting the rain that drained off those decks for drinking water. The rooms were painted in assaulting shades of yellow and green, which was surprisingly the style at the time. We saw the special device that allowed Thomas Jefferson to keep copies of all his correspondence. It was a sort of double pen system, which made a secondary pen follow the movements of the first. After we left the house I went to the back end of the lawn for what the guide affectionately called “the nickel view.”
Outside I joined the optional garden tour, where we learned about Jefferson’s passion for agricultural experimentation. The entire property still functions as a working plantation, and the garden has been restored to the original layout that existed in Jefferson’s time. Only one tree remains from that time, though as the guide explained it isn’t exactly a “Kodak Moment.” It’s a stick of a thing off to the side, barely noticeable and not terribly attractive. It was so uninsteresting I didn’t even think to take a picture, but we’ll see how I look when I’m 200 years old.
My last stop for the day was with the Slave Tour, which talked about slave life at Monticello and was led by yet another learned white woman of retirement age. None of the slave housing still exists. Not only were slave residences made of lower quality materials, there would have been no interest in preserving them until recently. The guide pointed to outlines on the ground that showed the foundations of little one-room huts the families lived in. She explained that they worked from dawn until dusk, with maybe one day off a week. On Sundays they might be able to sell their own vegetables at the market to earn a bit of money to buy small pleasantries, such as an additional layer of clothing for winter. These vegetables would have been planted, cared for, and harvested late at night, after the slaves had come in from working the plantation. They might find other work to do, such as mending. It’s a funny thing that we don’t often think about – the idea of a slave having a part-time job. The guide said the Jefferson family reported hearing the slaves singing and dancing late at night. “You’ll find spare time, no matter what your life demands,” the guide told us. I suppose that even when pressed into the horror of slavery, humans will always reach for what little agency they have. Be it selling veggies for a penny or singing at the fire after hours of brutal work.
The tour was stopped near the ruins of one of the slave homes when a 13-year-old boy raised his hand. The guide had been explaining Jefferson’s political opinions regarding slavery, and the boy had a question.
“If Thomas Jefferson didn’t like slavery, why did he have so many slaves?”
The crowd shifted in uncomfortable unison. The guide nodded her head.
“That’s the real question, isn’t it?” she said. She told us there was a short answer and a long answer. “The short answer is: He didn’t know what to do with them, and he didn’t know what to do without them.” As the guide explained it, Jefferson felt that the racism against blacks was so strong that it would probably never go away. He wasn’t sure what ought to happen to freed slaves, since he felt certain that equality in society was impossible. He also owned a lot of land that was managed by slaves, and he wasn’t sure how plantation owners like himself could stay in business without slave labor. While it seems that on an ideological level Jefferson would have loved to get rid of slavery from day one, he didn’t see a way around the practical problems of the day. As the guides at Monticello tell it, he felt that slavery was a problem for the next generation to solve.
In his will, Jefferson only freed five slaves, and even then they were only to be free once his wife passed as well. Many have pointed out that while Jefferson certainly could have “freed” all his slaves in his will, the estate was in debt and the creditors would have been able to lay claim to the slaves no matter what Jefferson had requested.
As I waited for the bus back down to the visitor’s center, I wondered why it is that we always think of Thomas Jefferson when we think of early American slavery. After all, George Washington owned slaves, as did many others. Perhaps it’s because Jefferson’s plantation was so large, or because his letters indicated a personal desire for abolishment. Maybe it’s because of the scandalous tales of his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings and the paternity rumors surrounding four of her children. It’s probably a little of everything, but I imagine mostly it’s because we think he should have been better than all that. We grew up in school learning about a man who wrote the words “All men are created equal” and we assumed he would know better. And by all accounts he did. But something stood between him and the courage of his convictions. Here was a man that was more than happy to risk being drawn and quartered to stand up against the British Monarchy. Here was a man who served as Secretary of State, Vice President, and President for a brand new country. Here was a man so passionate about education that he forced people to learn in his foyer. And we think with all of that on his resume, he should have at least been able to abolish slavery while he was at it.
It’s important to be honest about our heroes. We can’t forget their flaws for the sake of keeping them up on a pedestal. But it’s also important to be honest with ourselves. Jefferson could have done more to abolish slavery, but so could Washington, Hamilton, and Adams. So could the hundreds of white voters in the South. So could thousands of politicians and citizens for nearly a hundred years before passing the buck finally became impossible and we resorted to slaughtering each other to make a point. I think maybe we like to give Jefferson a hard time because he reminds us too much of ourselves. We may not be facing slavery, but there are a host of problems in this country and in this world, and there are a whole lot of us who have decided those problems are a bit too difficult and complicated to be worth our time. And we make excuses. I believe in equality, why is it so important that I actually do something about it? I donate to charity, isn’t that enough to prevent poverty? Can’t you just be proud of the fact that I managed to hold down a job and set up a nice home and not get too fat? Why do I also have to go change the world?
After all, the world’s problems are too big for us to fix in just a few years. We have to be practical, like Jefferson. We can’t just stop using fossil fuels or end hunger overnight. We can’t go passing laws willy nilly, taking moral responsibility for every problem we see. We might as well try to get rid of acid rain or put a man on the moon. We’ll have to wait for the next generation to fix things. I hear they’re really good at that.