I’ve recently seen a number of things on the social media with this quote of Jefferson’s:
“I cannot live without books”
The quote is from a letter to John Adams, and I can understand why it appeals to people. I love books so much that I am dragging a shocking number of them halfway across the country, but I don’t own or want any of the myriad items floating around with this quote on them.
Jefferson was a brilliant man who played a pivotal role in the founding of this nation. He also owned thousands of human beings throughout his life, despite his extensive writings on liberty, and repeatedly rapedSally Hemings from the time she was 14 (he was 44). Jefferson’s lifestyle was possible because of the labor of enslaved people, and he periodically struggled with bankruptcy because of the instability of agriculture and because he consistently lived above his means, in part because of his compulsive purchasing of books. In order to fund this lifestyle, Jefferson often mortgaged his property, including his human property.
Jefferson mortgaged human beings to pay for his lifestyle. He only ever freed two enslaved men during his lifetime. He claimed that black people were not suited to freedom, and that they should be sent back to Africa rather than permitted to live in the land of their birth. He claimed that they could not be integrated into white society. These beliefs were convenient for a man who wished to justify keeping human beings as property and capital, able to be mortgaged or sold to cover his debts when it suited him.
Yes, Jefferson loved books, but he purchased his books with the lives of the people he owned, and that is worth keeping in mind when you see that brief quote stitched on a pillow or emblazoned on a tshirt.
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 politicalagenda. For a very long time, (white) historians have used the idea of the so-called benevolentmaster 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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about interpreting uncomfortable history. It’s something I’m engaging with in my dissertation, and it’s something that seems to be popping up a lot.
On Wednesday night, I made the trek up to Nashville to see a documentary, Freedom Summer, being shown as part of the Nashville Film Festival. As you might have guessed from the title, the film focuses on the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” Project of 1964, during which hundreds of college students from around the country poured into Mississippi under the auspices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to assist and encourage black Mississippians in attempting to register to vote. The registration effort led to the establishment of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative integrated delegation of Mississippians who unsuccessfully attempted to replace the all-white official delegation. Freedom Summer gained national attention when three civil rights workers (James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner) disappeared while investigating a church burning in Neshoba County. Their bodies were later found buried 12 feet beneath an earthen dam. The story was dramatized for the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.*
Thursday night, I went up to Nashville again for a curator-led tour and roundtable discussion of the Tennessee State Museum’s new exhibit, Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation.** The exhibit, which was two years in the making, is a close study of life and relationships on a 13,000-acre Robertson County tobacco plantation. It’s a great (and free) exhibit, and if you find yourself in Nashville before August 31, you should make a point of visiting. The event was organized by the Inter-museum Council of Nashville, so attendees included museum professionals, historians, and people in related fields, and we had a great conversation about the evolution of the exhibit and some of the challenges of interpreting the painful past. The Wessyngton Plantation story is unique in that nearly all of the plantation’s records from the antebellum period survive, including farm records that detail the involvement of the plantation mistress in both industry and punishment of slaves. The exhibit also features a math workbook that belonged to one of the Washington men, which includes word problems that talk about dividing workloads among overseers and slaves, showing how the institution of slavery shaped every aspect of the antebellum plantation world.
At the same time that these conversations were taking place, a friend sent me a link to this great video describing what’s going on in the Central African Republic. I love the vlogbrothers, and if you’re not familiar with them, you should remedy that maybe right now. Anyway, aside from the content, what really grabbed me about the video was the point John makes about how as Americans, we’re very attached to good vs. evil in our narratives, and that this is something that we both deliberately and subconsciously project onto our history. I also came across a good piece on History@Work (NCPH’s blog) about finding a balance between the need to tell a story that won’t put visitors off without backing away from hard truths.
The thread that pulled these various moments/experiences together for me was that tension between the need to be good historians who confront the truth in all its ugliness and good storytellers who can engage and entertain visitors. Sometimes we do this well, and other times we do it less well. For me, the success of the Wessyngton Plantation exhibit in presenting the lives of the enslaved people is that alongside accounts of punishments and a display case with neck shackles is the story of individuals who created their own lives and families within bondage. The exhibit does not fetishize the violence and brutality of slavery, nor does it try to paint a picture of happy slaves under a “good” master. It simply describes what was and leaves it to the visitor to make what he or she will of it.
I had more mixed feelings about Freedom Summer. While it was an excellent documentary, I found myself a little frustrated by the ending, which on the one hand connected rejection of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party with the rise of black separatism (yes!), but then on the other hand tied it to the success of the Voting Rights Act. Now, I agree that the Freedom Summer Project had an important impact on that legislation, but the connection with the material presented in the film felt like an afterthought–a need to tie a bow and put a “happily ever after” on a story that frankly didn’t need one. So much of the film focused on how the experience of Freedom Summer changed the way both the civil rights workers and the black Mississippians thought about themselves that tacking that connection on at the end felt awkward in an otherwise beautifully made film. The film would have been stronger overall if the creators had simply let the work speak for itself and left viewers to decide for themselves whether the ending was happy or not.
I think that sometimes as public historians we can fall victim to that desire to create a neat, tidy narrative arc with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and in particular, we want to end on an optimistic note. There’s nothing wrong with at impulse, and a huge part of our job is presenting content in accessible ways that encourage people to think critically. While I don’t have any great magic trick for solving that problem, I think it’s worth looking at pop culture for ideas. I think we’re at a really good moment in pop culture for engaging with complicated stories that go beyond the epic good vs. evil grand narrative of say, Lord of the Rings.*** There are popular shows with much more complicated stories that engage in much more complex narratives, shows like Mad Men where the characters do terrible things to each other and themselves and yet we still care about them, or Game of Thrones where good guys die, bad guys live, and it’s hard to find a hero(ine). While I’m not suggesting we pattern the history we present after these programs (both of those shows have serious issues with representations of people of color, for one thing, and we have enough trouble with that already), they point to a willingness of the public, or at least parts of it, to be entertained by and engaged with complicated stories and multidimensional characters. If people can (and do) follow along and be fascinated by complex characters like Don Draper and Varys, surely they can do the same for figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The way we think about and understand the past has a tremendous impact on how we think about and understand the present. Is emancipation a happy ending for enslaved people? Does the civil rights movement have a happy ending? Does it have an ending at all?
*Mississippi Burning is a problematic film in a lot of ways, not least of which is the passivity that characterizes all of its African American characters and the heroic role it assigns the FBI.
**Much of the research for this exhibit is based on the work of John F. Baker, Jr., who has published a book on the topic. Full disclosure: I have purchased the book, but not yet read it.