I recently read an article entitled, “Will History Only Remember the Founding Fathers as Slaveowners?” The author is Suzanne Sherman, a lawyer who took her homeschooled children on a road trip from Utah to East Coast to visit sites associated with the some of the great men in U.S. history. She describes her visits to a number of historic sites (Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier, John C. Calhoun’s home, and the Peyton Randolph House). Sherman is unimpressed with how many of these sites work to include the narratives of the enslaved people who lived and worked in these spaces, and harries the docents about their apparent insistence on interpreting the lives of enslaved people (except at Poplar Forest, where she found an ally against the scourge of “revisionist-style” history.
The author of the article makes two points in particular that I would like to discuss. First, this paragraph:
“Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.”
Aside from the pearl-clutching (but apparently sincere) tone of “What about our precious liberty?,”that final line is telling, “…the slaves… are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.” What strikes me about this sentiment is that the author does not consider that enslaved people have always been used as the means to further a political agenda. For a very long time, (white) historians have used the idea of the so-called benevolent master who took care of his slaves, who were child-like and ill-prepared to live in the world without their white master’s guidance. The author herself states that, “had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved.”
That’s obviously not the case; thousands of enslaved people fled captivity and did not starve, nor did the many freedmen who lived throughout the country at a time when there was no real place for free people of color in many parts of white society. Beyond that, in many plantation settings, enslaved people were responsible for growing their own gardens to supplement whatever rations they received from white masters. Sherman positions herself as an expert on slavery relative to the docents she encountered, yet she cannot see past her own impressions of what slaves were like. In her view, they were helpless and unintelligent, an attitude that slave-owners used to justify their own actions and one that was perpetuated after Emancipation to legitimize the denial of civil rights and full citizenship to African Americans. Sherman refuses to acknowledge the implications of her attitude, and would no doubt disagree vehemently with my assessment.
The other issue I’d like to bring up is the question of interpretation at house museums. Sherman is at pains to point out that these sites neglect to interpret “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” I wonder if she ever visited any of these sites before they began openly interpreting the lives of enslaved people? I certainly did. I grew up in Virginia, and I lived in Williamsburg for three years in the 1990s. I remember hearing enslaved workers referred to as “servants” with little or no reference to the fact that they were engaged in forced labor. I knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but I knew it in an abstract way that allowed me to retain a sense of awe at his achievements. For what it’s worth, I’m still impressed by his achievements, but my awe is tempered by my awareness of him as a deeply flawed human being. His lauded efficiency, for example, was facilitated by the fact that he had dozens of enslaved workers who took care of the mundane tasks of daily life like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
The real point is that in my (admittedly flawed) memory, these sites never focused on “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” They instead described the daily lives of the white people who inhabited these spaces using the landscape, building, and material culture (furniture, art, artifacts). If you wanted to learn about Peyton Randolph’s historical contributions, you could read a book. Being the physical space was an opportunity to imagine daily life in this setting.
This is why so many of these sites have worked to include the stories of enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson lived at Monticello and Poplar Forest intermittently during his adult life. During that same time, hundreds of enslaved people lived at those sites for their entire lives. Their forced labor made Jefferson’s lifestyle possible, and their lives literally shaped the landscape and built environment.
This is obvious to me as a public historian and preservationist, but it’s clearly not obvious to visitors. So what is the solution? Do we take Sherman up on her suggestion and return to hagiographic interpretations of great white men that obliterate the lives and contributions of thousands of human beings whose enslavement was justified by the color of their skin? There are, first of all, plenty of sites that still do that. I would argue that we need to take our educational initiative further. Let’s talk to visitors about why interpret what we do. Let’s explain that these sites were never used to explore Madison’s political philosophy, but rather his daily life, which was informed by his status as a man who owned enslaved workers. And let’s talk about how we are trying to give them a more authentic sense of his life, one that explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that make lives challenging and interesting.
And in the meanwhile, let’s all take a minute to thank the docents for being on the front line of these tough conversations.