A Visit to Jefferson's Monticello

Packaging Barbarism as Genius

May 9, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us



From two Revolution readers:

Thomas Jefferson's slave plantation, Monticello, sits atop of a small mountain in the rolling green countryside of Virginia. As many busloads of school kids know, it's a national monument. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important historical sites to the founding, legitimizing myths of this country. 500,000 people visit Monticello each year.

A couple of us learned this on a recent visit to Monticello while browsing the official brochure titled "Discover the GENIUS of Thomas Jefferson."

The centerpiece of any visit to Monticello is the House Tour of the mansion designed by Jefferson—considered by many as the most advanced example of architecture in the U.S. at that time. Our tour guide was a friendly copper-haired man sporting white linen trousers, a blue blazer, and a red tie emblazoned with signatures from the Declaration of Independence—the 1776 document penned by Jefferson which declared that all men are "created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness...."

The people not included as human beings in that document were also largely absent from the House Tour. When the guide started in on the history of the house, one of us interrupted, "Wasn't this place built by slaves?" This was cut off quickly with "Yes, it's an unfortunate fact that although Jefferson wrote about how he abhorred slavery, he owned 600 slaves in his lifetime and freed only nine. We don't really know why he did this, but the man was, believe it or not, constantly in debt." He added, a bit sadly, that DNA evidence now shows that Jefferson probably also fathered a number of children by his slave Sally Hemings. (This admission, it turned out, was forced on the Monticello Foundation, a result of public battles waged by descendants of Sally Hemings and others to win acknowledgement of paternity after 200 years.)

Depiction of plantation life, with overseer beating slaves and taking a child to be sold.

Before the moment could totally sour, the group was herded into Jefferson's "inner sanctum"—a lovely library (TJ owned more books than most institutions in the U.S. at the time), and a series of well-lighted rooms, a greenhouse and aviary, where Jefferson wrote letters, gardened, and tinkered, while gazing out over thousands of acres of beautifully-tended fields. Hereafter, our guide referred to the slaves as "servants" ("that's what Jefferson called them"), and attention was directed to Monticello's art works and architectural wonders like the innovative revolving door Jefferson had the slaves build, so as to keep most of them out of sight at his nightly dinner parties.

Our urge to visit Monticello was the product of engaging Bob Avakian's extensive work delving into Jefferson, democracy, and the foundations on which the United States was forged, in particular Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy. We were also prompted by reading Revolution's recent review of Henry Wiencek's book Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves. The book has incited upset in some quarters for bringing into sharp focus Jefferson's ruthless expansion of slavery including across the entire continent with the Louisiana Purchase. And he's particularly despised by some Monticello historians for highlighting evidence that, far from being a "reluctant slave master," Jefferson was "a calculating, brutal owner of human beings who drove them relentlessly for his own profit, punished them without mercy, and saw the forced labor of black people as the surest path to his own enrichment." ("Thomas Jefferson: 'Flawed Giant' or Hardcore Defender of Slavery?," Revolution #288, December 16, 2012)

When we pulled Wiencek's book from our backpack, the House Tour guide, somewhat rattled, announced that the important thing to know about the author is that he simply "hated Jefferson." We challenged this epistemology and asked him to name one national policy decision Jefferson made as president which did not strengthen the slave system. His answer: "The 1807 law banning the importation of slaves into the U.S." We pointed out that this measure actually enhanced the market for slave owners living in the U.S.

Eventually we were politely told to take our "concerns" to the Slave Tour. So at 1 pm we joined a group of 25 or 30 outside the gift shop. The new tour guide, a young well-informed radical scholar, arrived and bluntly announced, "I have to warn you right now that what I will show you and tell you will not be pleasant. Slavery in the U.S. is one of the most horrific chapters in human history. You can leave now if you want to." No one did. What followed was an un-sugar-coated and highly detailed exposure of life on Jefferson's mountaintop as experienced for decades by hundreds of human beings, forced through physical and social coercion to erect Monticello, starting with removal by hand of the entire top of the mountain we were standing on—150 feet of stones, trees and dirt. This order-by-Pharaoh is brightly described in the brochure: "In 1768 Jefferson began leveling the Monticello mountaintop for a house"—as if TJ did the digging himself!

Notwithstanding the searing exposures by our guide on the Slave Tour (which we found out was called the "Plantation Community Tour" until nine months ago) and some revealing facts and figures on slave life on the Monticello website, the actual conditions for slaves has been rendered largely invisible for tourists on the grounds, or sanitized. No displays explaining how the slaves lived; the blacksmith, weaving, joinery and nail shops are not even reconstructed. You simply see outlines of foundations perched on a hill overlooking a bucolic landscape. The only viewable slave "home" is one nice-sized room next to the kitchen on the lower floor of the mansion where Jefferson's enslaved chef, Edith Fossett, and her blacksmith husband, Joe Fossett, lived.1 It is tastefully furnished, walls whitewashed, a great view... think Rough Guide bed-and-breakfast.

Also omitted was just how central slavery was to the founding of the United States of America. Recently one scholar noted, "It is not simply that the labor of enslaved people underwrote 19th-century capitalism. Enslaved people were the capital: four million people worth at least $3 billion in 1860, which was more than all the capital invested in railroads and factories in the United States combined." (Walter Johnson, "King Cotton's Long Shadow," New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 30, 2013,)

This, more than Jefferson's personal financial situation, explains why he not only didn't free his own slaves, but consistently fought to defend and expand the slave system, as Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy details. As Avakian succinctly puts it in the opening quote in BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian: "There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth."

Wiencek makes an important observation in his book: "The very existence of slavery in the era of the American Revolution presents a paradox, and we have largely been content to leave it at that, since a paradox can offer a comforting state of moral suspended animation. Jefferson animates the paradox. And by looking closely at Monticello, we can see the process by which he rationalized an abomination to the point where an absolute moral reversal was reached and he made slavery fit into America's national enterprise." (emphasis ours)

Indeed, every single day thousands of (overwhelmingly white) tourists are instructed to marvel at how this whole operation was orchestrated by an innovative Enlightenment thinker to run like a well-oiled clock, everything in its place, a garden setting... the slaves "allowed" to live as families and even taught trades. The take-home message: Yes, Jefferson owned these people but, let's be adults here, look at the "context": he was smarter and kinder than most planters, and how bad could it have been for anyone to live up on that beautiful mountain. Plus, it was an unfortunate trade-off but consider what the slaves' labors freed up Jefferson to do—establish a state built on the great principles of freedom we Americans continue to enjoy.

As we were leaving, we ran into the head tour guide, who stood and listened to a round of criticism: How is it conscionable to move people from room to room describing furnishings and lavish parties, while virtually erasing the fact that hundreds of lives were ground up to make this possible—generations forced into back-breaking labor; whippings for insubordination (including 10-year-old boys); the ever-present threat of being sold down the river, ripped from family and all you know (which by the way happened to 135 members of this "plantation community" days after Jefferson's death). The guide replied, "Well that's discussed on the Slave Tour. People really don't want to hear about that on the House Tour."

The true "genius" of the modern-day Monticello experience: how this founding father's ruthlessly run slave plantation has been re-invented in a glorious house-hunter-style reality tour, with the peculiar barbarism of slavery soothingly rationalized, even "humanized"—all the way to the cookbooks in the gift shop featuring French sauces created by the slave-chef Edith in Jefferson's state-of-the-art kitchen.

But we also got a sense from the Slave Tour, the Hemings revelations, and the furor over the Wiencek book—that these issues—Jefferson, slavery, democracy... and what America was and is actually based on is a live wire fraught with contradiction, touching on core issues concerning the legitimacy of the current horrendous order.

Monticello is a key monument to Jefferson and the founding of the U.S., and as the good old narrative has been buffeted, the Monticello organization has had to incorporate some "painful truths" into the whole "flawed genius" narrative: (Slavery is a "flaw," but don't let that overshadow the genius of the founding fathers in creating the greatest political system in human history.)

There are cracks in that edifice, and we went home with a renewed appreciation of the tremendous—dynamic and here-and-now—importance of the work BA has done on the question of democracy and Jefferson—work which should be widely disseminated as part of the effort to get BA everywhere. Including at Monticello!



1. For a flavor of how Jefferson regarded even the most favored house slaves in his "family," see his letter recounting Joe Fossett's attempted escape to reunite with his wife who'd been forced to move to Washington when Jefferson became president:
1806 July 31. (Jefferson's letter to Joseph Dougherty). "...in pursuit of a young mulatto man, called Joe [Fossett], 26. years of age, who ran away from here [Monticello] the night of the 29th. inst[ant] without the least word of difference with any body, and indeed having never in his life having received a blow from anyone...We know he has taken the road towards Washington...he may possibly trump up some story to be taken care of at the President's House till he can make up his mind which way to go, or perhaps he may make himself known to Edy only, as he was formerly associated with her." (So much for the fact that they were actually married. Emphasis ours) [back]


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