Thursday, September 5, 2013
September 5, 2013: Virginia Daytrips: Monticello
[In honor of my recent trip to Virginia, and to parallel my earlier series on New England daytrips, this week’s series will highlight AmericanStudies trips in ole Virginia. Add your nominations, whether in the Commonwealth or anywhere else, please!]
On two tours that help visitors think about the contradictions inherent in one of our most beloved historic homes.
Like Thomas Jefferson, the man who built and lived in it, Charlottesville’s Monticello is a hugely challenging and contradictory place. Those contradictions exist on multiple levels: the thinker who wrote so frequently about the dangers of an overly powerful government was also the president whose Louisiana Purchase was perhaps the most sweeping exercise in federal authority in American history; the champion of the yeoman farmer was also the speculator who ended his life so deeply in debt that his home had to be sold off. But the most defining Jeffersonian contradictions, and certainly the most embodied in his home, are those related to slavery: that the man most famous as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the line “All men are created equal” lived in a house where well more than three-quarters of the inhabitants were enslaved African Americans (a contradiction, to be fair, that was present at the national level, and with which Jefferson had tried to deal in his draft of the Declaration).
When I was a schoolkid visiting Monticello (in the 1980s), the site did a pretty lousy job addressing that latter contradiction: to the best of my recollection (and my parents bear this out), the tours (which were and remain the only way to get into the house) referred to slaves only as “servants,” among many other elisions. But of course the times they have a-changed, and to its credit Monticello has most definitely changed with them: the site now offers an hourly (free) Slavery at Monticello tour, as well as numerous exhibitions, conferences, and online articles dedicated to the subject. It’d be fair to ask whether it might not make more sense to fold the slavery tour into the main house tour, not least because that would force each and every visitor to engage with those issues and contradictions (rather than opening them to the self-selected group who choose the slavery tour). But on the other hand, the separate slavery tour has far more time and space through which to tell those histories and stories than would be the case if it were part of the broader overall tour, and is thus far more able to bring to complex and vital life those hundreds of enslaved Monticello inhabitants.
Because I visited Monticello with my two young AmericanStudiers, I was able to experience another new tour: one that specifically targets elementary-age kids. This wonderful tour highlighted another, less dark contradiction to Jefferson and Monticello: that the president and statesman was also a grandfather, one whose many grandchildren played in and around the house throughout his years there. But our particular tour guide, Tom Nash, ended the tour with a beautiful moment that brought home the themes of slavery as well: having shown us many of the ways in which the Jefferson grandchildren played in the house, Tom brought the kids on the tour close to him and took out a small bag; in it he had replicas of the kinds of small, homemade toys that Monticello slaves made for and passed down to their children, items that have been found in the site’s archaeological digs. As Tom put it, Monticello’s slaves wanted the best for their children and families just as fully as did Jefferson; and those shared and human—if too often tragically denied—desires are part of the histories and stories of Monticello as well.
Final Virginia trip tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Daytrips you’d recommend?