Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Main Street of Monticello

We were standing, our guide, Bill Bergen, said, on the Main Street of Monticello, along which were lined the homes of slaves and the many workshops where they made cloth, nails, furniture and other necessities of life in the young state of Virginia.  The slaves of Monticello made it possible for Jefferson to be a man of leisure, amassing the largest library in the United States, reading in seven languages, serving as a statesman and revolutionary.  I have always adored Thomas Jefferson, so I was shaken to my core by Bill's description of the experiences of slaves on Jefferson's plantation.  Bill, a lawyer, Civil War buff and retired UVa faculty member, is a stickler for data.  He shared with us material from slave narratives, Jefferson's letters, letters of other family members, and observations of visitors like the Marquis de Lafayette.  Jefferson, on one occasion, said that a slave was to be punished in a manner that would terrorize the other slaves on the plantation.  And he was to disappear in the night -- no one knows what happened to that man.  On another occasion, Jefferson, responding to the news that Jupiter, a man he'd known since they were boys together, had died, said that was too bad, but who was to look after the stables?  Bill had that genius of the storyteller to share the data with us in a way that helped us to see and feel what this treatment meant for the enslaved people.
I knew, of course, that slaves built Monticello and their work maintained it.  I also knew that slavery was horrific.  I had not connected all slavery with Jeffersonian slavery as in the syllogism:
Premise:  Slavery was horrific.
Premise:  Jefferson participated in slavery.
  Conclusion: Jefferson's slavery was horrific.
Bill urged us all to grapple with this much more complicated view of the man, the times and the nation.  This is hard emotional work, as we let go of cherished illusions.  It gave me new sympathy for people who are further away from the reality of slavery than I am, because I did not want to know that Jefferson's overseers were brutal, that his slaves got two pieces of clothing a year and were expected to raise their own food if they wanted to get along.
Thank you, Mulberry Row, Main Street of Monticello, for educating me.

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