Thoughts on Monticello

Going in, we had booked the Behind The Scenes tour (which was excellent) and hoped to take the Guided Slavery at Monticello tour (also excellent) and whatever else we could fit in.

I went in thinking we’d be in and out in just a few hours, not because I didn’t want to spend a lot of time at Monticello, but because I’d only added up the tours’ durations.  I had not sufficiently accounted for wandering around the grounds, taking self-guided tours, enjoying the gardens and views, and musing on the lives and acts that had played out on this land.

These gardens were walled-in and locked at night during Jefferson’s time

But, back to Monticello…

Parking and a short shuttle ride up the hill went smoothly, after a bag search and check to make sure my pocket knife wasn’t too long.  Lines of other tourists were non-existent since school had started up again in most places around the country and besides, it was a Thursday.

Once our tour time came up, our guide led the group to the front of the house, gave us a brief introduction and marched us past the famous entry, partly hidden for repairs, and into the home.  I don’t know if all the guides present their subject so animatedly, whether they take care to set the scene, to play upon guests’ imaginations, or to engage each individual, but our guide hit all those marks.  She did an outstanding job.

But I actually don’t want to dive into detail about the specific tours; perhaps we’ll do another post for that.  Instead what I’d like to talk about are some thoughts we had during and after the tours.

Bees abound on the beautiful flowers

Slavery and treatment of the topic by the guides

“Enslaved people” vs “slaves”

I’d noticed this difference in terminology right off.  When I was going through school, the people who were forced to work on the plantations were always referred to simply as “slaves.”  Our first guide very consistently referred to them as “enslaved people” and sometimes with their specific jobs, as in “enslaved cook.”  When I asked about that, she answered by asking several of us what we wanted to be when we were children.  Civil rights attorney, military captain and computer programmer (like her mother) were all mentioned.  These were all things that we could choose to be.  The “slaves” working on Jefferson’s farm did not choose to be joiners, cooks, coopers or smiths.  They were given those jobs the way that a farmer might choose a young ox to work the field.  When they came of sufficient age (for them, this was around 8-10) they would be given a very basic job to do, and at 16 or 17 they would be apprenticed to a craftsman or “sent into the ground” aka, sent out to work the fields.  If they were apprenticed and  excelled at their work, they might be permitted to move up in responsibility.

The people were enslaved joiners, enslaved cooks, enslaved field hands, enslaved coopers and enslaved smiths.  They did not have a choice in what job they did on a daily basis, but they did gain skills, some becoming accomplished craftsmen who were no longer interchangeable objects.

No, it was so bad

Jefferson’s attempt to end slavery in the Declaration of Independence

I don’t recall hearing about this in school.  Given my memory in general that’s not surprising, but Susan doesn’t recall it either and her memory is much better.

This bit of news hit me like a spitball between the eyes.  Shit, what?  The first draft of the Declaration included language abolishing slavery?  I’ve since done a bit more reading on the subject, and if there’s an argument for someone inventing a time machine and changing the course of the American Experiment at that point, this has got to be in the top ten list of Things To Do With My Time Machine.

Why wasn’t this language included in the final draft?  Too many people with financial interests in slavery argued against the text, and many that wanted it included, feared that it would alienate our supporters on this continent and abroad.  With that, it was replaced with “He has excited domestic insurrections among us” among other grievances listed against the King.

A recreation of a slave house on Mulberry row
interior detail of a slave cabin

The South today

Susan and I have spent a lot of our lives in “the South.”  We were Texas residents up until this year, have parents that grew up in Southern states and come from Southern ancestors.  Both our fathers are from Mississippi. We’ve most recently traveled through various places in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia.

In all those places we’ve been semi-regularly confronted with Confederate Pride – Confederate flags on the back of trucks, hanging from houses, decals on children’s bicycles and the very common front license plate.  These people see nothing objectionable and remain prideful about displaying the emblems of traitors, of those who sought to leave the Union and whose descendants today would argue that they’re proud Americans.

And butterflies. Lots and lots of butterflies

Our own family history

My family didn’t have a strong sense that “The South shall rise again!”  It was mostly a joke, at least to the generation born right after the Civil Rights Act was signed, growing up in the 1970s / 80s in suburban Texas.  Susan’s family carried a deeper sense of being wronged by Yankees, of having ancestors’ homes and livelihoods destroyed.  The South was viewed fondly, blatant racism was unacceptable, but no one in her family equated the Rebel Flag with cruelty, hatred, and murder.

We have one family member in particular who is quite proud of their Confederate ancestry and doesn’t have any truck with the recent moves to take down Confederate monuments and move them out of the town square and into museums.  While we didn’t discuss the subject with them in any detail on a recent visit, they mostly just let us know how they felt; they’ve written on the subject on more than one occasion.

Touring Monticello just a few days after our visit with family made the experience more interesting.  Refreshing.  Refreshing that no one attempted to soften the reality of a slave plantation, even under Jefferson.  There was no argument that at least Jefferson wasn’t as bad as other slave owners.  In fact, guides made the point that being enslaved to a kinder master isn’t a thing – zero freedom of self-determination crushes nicety into the dirt.  There was also no shrinking from the fact that Jefferson was both a slave owner and wrote against slavery.  He was complicated.  The guides were open about that, and they encouraged discussion in the groups.

I wonder what our Southern relatives (and ancestors) would think of these tours, how a person reconciles Confederate pride with the South’s dependence on human enslavement as a driving force for their economy.  Perhaps one day we’ll have that conversation.

I had never seen flowering artichokes before. There were squash, peppers and all sorts of vegetables in the garden.

Jefferson’s bible

This was an interesting bit of information.  I’d heard random references to “Jefferson’s bible” over the years but never seen a description of why it was special.  Honestly, I’d never gone looking for it either.  The subject was raised by another tour member at a pause, when the guide had invited us to sit in a circle of chairs after climbing stairs and ask any question we liked.  The description of Jefferson’s bible as a work devoid of miracles resonated with both of us.  We giggled (silently) at the image of Jefferson cutting and pasting passages.  While many religious groups would like to claim Jefferson as a member, he said “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”  The tour guide told us that the closest fit, if we must put Jefferson’s views into a box, would be as a Unitarian and a seeker.

In closing

If you find yourself near Charlottesville, do take the time to visit Monticello and take a tour or three.  Unless you’re a historian of all things Jeffersonian, you’re likely to learn something new and possibly unexpected.  Archaeological research continues to find clues to life in Jefferson’s time, and the caretakers use these to add exhibits and build replicas.  Science, through DNA and historical records, proves beyond doubt that the Jefferson, Hemings, and other families who lived together on this land were intertwined.  On top of this little mountain, you can learn, analyze, reflect, and be inspired by nature and a particularly educated man’s striving.


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Michael Harrison

Husband, Programmer, Irish dancer, tinkerer, astronomer, layabout (as much as possible)

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