By MARSHA MERCER
Searching for the right words to condemn slavery, Thomas Jefferson called it an “abominable crime,” a “hideous blot” and “moral depravity.” Yet he owned slaves all his life.
Nor was Jefferson alone. Twelve of the first 18 American presidents were slave-owners.
For most of our nation’s history, Americans have swept these uncomfortable historical facts under the red, white and blue rug. Some have romanticized Jefferson and the rest of the founding fathers while others have regarded them with cold-eyed contempt.
Finally, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington focuses with compassion on the inherent contradictions of a nation that was founded on the lofty ideals of liberty and freedom while it relied on the institution of slavery.
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” open through Oct. 14, neither celebrates Jefferson nor makes him into a monster. The sponsors -- the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is slated to open on the National Mall in 2015, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, where a companion exhibit also explores slavery -- present an ugly, painful era with calm sensitivity.
I draw heavily here from the exhibit in Washington and the web site, www. slaveryatmonticello.org.
Jefferson owned about 600 slaves over the years, and his life and theirs were intimately intertwined. Slaves helped build his beloved home at Monticello, tended his crops, ran his household, made his furniture, cooked and served his meals, almost certainly gave birth to his babies, cared for his children and grandchildren, comforted him as he lay dying and then dug his grave. Enslaved children and adults worked six days a week, sunrise to sunset.
The exhibit displays items handed down in the Jefferson family that portray an active life of the mind – the revolving bookcase on which Jefferson could keep five books at a time to appease his “canine appetite” for reading, his silver spectacles from Philadelphia, his inkwell in the shape of Voltaire’s head and his silver-and-gold fountain pen.
It’s jarring to turn to the sad remnants of slave life also on display. Iron shackles, called bilboes, from slave ships come in two sizes – for the ankles of children and adults. The nails made by boys just 10 years and up who crashed their hammers 20,000 times a day. A few buckles and fragments of ceramics are all that’s left of personal belongings.
Slavery in the New World started as a trickle and grew to a flood. In 1660 only a fraction of Virginia’s planters held slaves, and white indentured servants worked the tobacco fields. But by 1700 slaves worked the fields instead.
No doubt the growth was fueled in part by those born and bred into slavery. The Virginia Slavery Act of 1662 declared that children would be slave or free “only according to the condition of the mother.”
When Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men are created equal,” one of every five men, women and children in the “free and independent states” were slaves.
If the exhibit did no more than explain Jefferson’s ties to slave labor and what slaves’ lives were like, it would deliver a strong, if depressing, dose of American history, but the exhibit turns the corner to offer a hopeful look at slave descendants’ struggle to make Jefferson’s ideals real for everyone.
Since 1993, researchers at Monticello’s “Getting Word” oral history project have interviewed almost 200 slave descendants. The exhibit highlights six families, including that of Elizabeth Hemings, whose daughter Sally likely was the mother of four of widower Thomas Jefferson’s five children.
Descendants of the slave families served in the Civil War, formed and led churches and businesses, and, imbued with the love of learning, became teachers and professors.
As for Jefferson, despite finding slavery abhorrent, he never freed his slaves, and his will granted freedom to only a handful. He died deeply in debt, his 130 slaves sold with his other property at auction, tearing apart families that had served him for generations.
“You don’t know who you are until you know where you came from,” says a descendant in the exhibit’s video. Amen.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.