Guest column: History through public records


In recent months, Virginia’s best known presidential plantations added enhanced public tours that more realistically explore the lives and the many contributions of enslaved workers who built Monticello, Montpelier, the University of Virginia and much of the South.

James Madison’s Montpelier and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello offer new tours that look at plantation life and discuss slavery. Public records, letters, family histories and fresh input from descendants of enslaved laborers bring different perspectives to the legends of Founding Fathers.

Such records are vital to fully understanding history, and a modern understanding of Thomas Jefferson helps to prove the point.

Jefferson, a deeply complex public figure, was worshipped and reviled during his 83 years on this Earth and throughout the 192 years since his death at Monticello on July 4, 1826.

If, as he wrote, “Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom,” then the records of the nation’s original sin of slavery stand as a painful chapter necessary to fully understand the sometimes deep chasm between Jefferson the idealist and Jefferson the slave master.

Letters and plantation records show Jefferson’s keen private interest in maintaining the profits of slavery, plus his rejection of chances to improve the lives of his enslaved workers — evidence that was undiscovered, ignored or downplayed by many Jefferson scholars of the past.

His 20th Century biographers often preferred the hagiography of a great man’s masterful leadership to exploring the slave sales, whippings and other cruel conditions that marked the lives of hundreds of men, women and children bred, kept and worked for profit by the master of Monticello.

Virginians were taught the great deeds and words of a Founding Father along with myths about how well slaves were treated, how unable they were to enjoy freedom if freed, and how unlikely he was to have fathered any children with his wife’s half sister, Sally Hemings.

The nature of Jefferson’s relationship with Hemings, once dismissed as fake news, is now accepted and explored by Monticello and Jefferson scholars. Frank discussion about the relationship prior to recent decades was rejected by Jefferson admirers and those who wrote histories.

How can Jefferson, or any renowned historical figure, be fully understood by people unwilling to discuss his flaws and fundamental contradictions?

This winter, Monticello initiated a daily Sally Hemings tour that includes discussion of race relations and the history of enslaved workers and the legacy of the Hemings family based on research into the previously less discussed topics at the Albemarle County plantation.

Documentary research, archaeological analysis and oral histories of Hemings descendants provide the new tour's narratives of struggle, survival, and family bonds across generations. Monticello’s website states that their story "echoes the history of race and slavery in America. The tour includes dialogue about race and the legacies of slavery in the United States in a seated small group setting as well as exploration of the site through the lens of the Hemings family."

A much-heralded exhibit at Montpelier, the “Mere Distinction of Colour," uses slavery to connect the past to the present through the lens of the Constitution. Montpelier touts its slavery tour as one that "honestly examines the paradox that is America's founding era. The tour is the culmination of years of archaeological and historical research, culminating in an emotional, fact-based account of slavery's influence on, and the contributions of the enslaved to, the founding of our country."

Monticello, Montpelier, UVA and George Washingon’s Mount Vernon deserve high marks for new recognition of the scholarship based on public records that paints a fuller picture of slavery and the contributions of all who built those historic places.

Older histories of Jefferson ignored long-buried records showing the tensions that pulled him away from public support for ending slavery to writing letters touting its profits.

The third president evolved from a young emancipationist to a businessman counting up what he called the “silent profits” gained from owning slaves. He urged a neighbor to invest in slaves.

Henry Wiencek, a Charlottesville author who delved deeply into Jefferson’s letters and business records, helped put his moral universe in starker light in the 2012 book “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.”

“Many people in his own time, taking Jefferson at his word and seeing him as the embodiment of the country’s highest ideals, appealed to him: Give us a plan, take the lead; show the country how to end slavery,” Wiencek wrote. “When he evaded and rationalized, his admirers were frustrated and mystified: it felt like praying to a stone.”

As a scientist and anthropologist might do, Jefferson at age 49 began writing about agricultural profits and losses of his plantation and noted clearly for the first time that “he was making a 4 percent profit every year on the birth of black children,” Wiencek wrote. “His plantation was producing inexhaustible human assets. The percentage was predictable.”

Jefferson used pre-teen boy slaves to make nails to keep his plantation household stocked with luxury goods and began to back away from antislavery just around the time he computed the profit he was making from the birth of slave children and began borrowing money with human beings as collateral.

In some of his letters, Jefferson paid lip service to emancipation while, as president, doing nothing to bring American slavery to an end. Indeed, he endorsed the expansion of slavery into the Louisiana Territory. He was not just a leading author of enlightenment or a secretive supporter of slavery. Instead, a fully examined trove of public records shows he was both.

Virginia’s presidential homes and scholars today are helping Americans understand the nation’s history of race and slavery as well as start new dialogue about the legacies they bring to us.


Bob Gibson is communications director and senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Cooper Center for Public Service. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of the Cooper Center. He is also a member of the board of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

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