The National Museum of American History (NMAH) has two exhibits that focus on Thomas Jefferson and to paraphrase a quote from another complicated U.S. president (William Jefferson Clinton), it is probable that Thomas Jefferson was ‘not as good as [his] biggest fans believe nor nearly as bad as [his] enemies suspect.’
The first exhibit is on Thomas Jefferson’s Bible and the second one, which is sponsored by the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture along with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, is entitled “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.”
The book known as Thomas Jefferson’s Bible that is on display at the NMAH is a handcrafted compilation of Jesus’ teachings in four languages that Jefferson referred to as “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He did not publicize this project because even before the days of the internet and social media, political figures had to be careful. The Smithsonian characterizes the book as “ambitious, even audacious…but not an act of disrespect.” You could say that Jefferson sought to distill the teachings Jesus is a way that highlighted what he thought was most essential, but one can see how his contemporaries would not have looked upon this exercise favorably. Still, years after it was discovered, a copy of the Jefferson’s bible was given to new senators from the early 20th century until the 1950s.
When I finished going through that exhibit, I saw that it was possible to go through the Parodox of Liberty exhibit first. So I read all about how Jefferson thought that religion was personal and how one should be free to practice religion as one chooses before I toured the exhibit that examined the lives of slaves who lived at his estate, Monticello. Even without touring Paradox of Liberty exhibit first, I had a somewhat cynical view of Jefferson. He was a man of his time who fought for men like himself to be free form the tyranny of British rule. He apparently thought slavery was a horrible institution even though he had slaves. He instructed his overseers to avoid physical punishments, although he was not always there to intervene when his orders were ignored. He favored gradual emancipation and offered incentives to get some of his slaves to work more efficiently. (The exhibit also shows how Monticello was a multifaceted enterprise—it didn’t just produce agricultural crops; free and slave workers there made things like nails and barrels).
Upon entering the Paradox of Liberty exhibit, you see a thought-provoking visual: a statue of Jefferson and behind him is a wall that bears the names of slaves at Monticello. There is a lot of repetition among the names and the last line repeats “Name Unknown” to indicate slaves who can be counted among the numbers but not named individually.
This exhibit really humanizes the slaves and Monticello, known and unknown, telling their stories and highlighting their dedication to keeping their families together. The exhibit’s circular “family trees,” while aesthetically pleasing, can be rather confusing. Nevertheless, there is a lot of great information to be learned through this exhibit.
This includes information on the Monticello slave family that has gotten more attention than any other: The Hemings. Sally Hemings was the child of a slave mother and Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. DNA has indicated that her children were most likely fathered by Jefferson.
And being the peculiar institution that it is, slavery divided Jefferson’s offspring as it did slave families. Strong family ties induced slaves with permission to travel to return, but some did run away. After Jefferson’s death, his slaves were sold at auction to pay his debts. But before he died, two of the children he had with Sally Hemings went to DC where they passed into white society. While scholars at Monticello have worked to find the descendants of Monticello slave families, the descendants of those children remain a mystery.
You can see Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty until October 14, 2012 and if you can’t make it to the museum, you can still explore the exhibit online.
You can also check out Getting Word: African American Families of Monticello.