Wednesday, February 01, 2012

People of Monticello

From the New York Times, an impressive review of what sounds like two impressive exhibits: one at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, and a permanent one at Monticello, the historic-site estate of Thomas Jefferson. Both exhibits focus on the community of enslaved black people who sustained Monticello  -- some 600 named individuals, over the years, not counting the anonymous ones.  The exhibitions sound like superb museology, and fascinating.

The review also suggests the difficulty Americans still have with seeing Thomas Jefferson as something other than, or more than, the white-marble paragon of liberty. Where the exhibit praises Jefferson, reviewer Edward Rothstein declares "there is no idealization here of course," (my italics), but when it states what seems to be the plain fact that Jefferson's Declaration of Independence “did not extend ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness’ to African-Americans, Native Americans, indentured servants, or women,” he denounces its "political boilerplate."  He concludes, rather astonishingly, that Jefferson helped make global abolition of slavery possible. For Rothstein, Jefferson was an abolitionist at heart, and that's what really matters, not the 600 slaves.

I'm struck again by the truly immense achievement of historian Annette Gordon-Reed, who to my eye rises to remarkable dispassion and fairness in The Hemings of Monticello and other works on Jefferson's slave family. She would not assume that idealization of Jefferson is impossible.
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