By Nat Krieger
No one else was in the place—just me and Tom Jefferson.
The only sounds came from a brutal wind lashing the bare branches of the cherry trees just outside. Austere even in warmer times, the marble walls of Jefferson’s memorial wrapped themselves in the cold, believing as marble often does that frigidity equals immortality. The early morning sun, all light and no heat, poured through the memorial’s open sides transforming the white Ionic columns into black cylinders that fell across the floor and left most of the third president in darkness.
The wind flips my notebook open but Jefferson’s bronze pony tail remains unmoved. He isn’t saying much either, strange in view of what we know of the man.
I came with a couple of questions for the author of the Declaration of Independence–how did he square his Enlightenment belief in liberty and equality to the way he conducted his personal, economic, and political life? And what did he feel was the significance of gracing both the nickel and the two dollar bill?
Looking around the memorial I saw that sages living closer to our time than Jefferson’s had carved four of the man’s quotations into the wall circling around him, each paragraph standing at a point on the building’s diagonal compass. The Exultation of Certainty of Sources! I felt myself born aloft, and it wasn’t by the wind. I smiled down with empathy and sadness at everyone else, the rest of the world outside, lost in the turgid sea of dubious digital links.
Bathed in the frozen geologic glow of real, marble History, I came gently down in front of the passage to Jefferson’s front and right. By the third sentence my eyes had focused:
“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.”
Jefferson wrote so directly against slavery? And he supported education for the emancipated? The man who would not release his own mistress from human bondage, even at his death? Really? I felt the magnetic pull of the web addicted masses beyond the white citadel trying to lure me back into the profane precincts of doubt. I shook it off and turned to the panel behind and to the left of Jefferson.
I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
I had formally introduced myself to the master of Monticello the night before, along with maybe three dozen of my freezing fellow Americans, and it was beneath these words arguing for the inevitability and rightness of change that I heard a middle aged man robed in multiple sweat pants of diverse materials saying to another, “that’s what you call eloquence; they don’t write like that anymore.” Indeed.
This was the Jefferson who so many admire. After all, in that world of divinely ordered hierarchies how many men welcomed progress rather than fearing it?
Not far from Jefferson’s right foot, a father was explaining to his three children the meaning of the word tyranny. I saw how the T-word came up by following the gazes atop the acutely angled necks of a school group. The kids were piecing together the words that ran around the base of the dome directly above Jefferson:
“I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
So why do all these laughing, serious, whispering, whooping, silent, selfie-taking citizens of the republic and visitors from other shores keep washing up over the Memorial’s Parthenon style portico and sloshing into the sanctuary?
For those owing allegiance to the Basileus of Bucket Lists the visit is just another order followed, but for the folks who park themselves below the marble oratory, or slalom in slow-motion figure eights among the columns, there is an almost visible wrestling, maybe admirable, maybe futile, with the founders and their ideas. Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster in London, the Zocalo in Mexico City—what other capital manufactures national shrines that call so insistently for citizen appraisals of the past and future course of their nation?
Although Thomas Jefferson has been clinging to death for nearly 200 years, his character continues to change before our eyes, becoming ever more sinister as we discover what earlier generations of historians and admirers chose not share from the great man’s voluminous correspondence and plantation records.
In his 2012 biography, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves, Henry Wiencek reports that by the beginning of the 1790s the Sage of Monticello had concluded that slaves, specifically the births of enslaved babies, were the best investment a gentleman planter could make.
Jefferson scolded a cash strapped Virginia farmer that he “should have been invested in negroes”, and in a 1792 letter to President Washington Jefferson makes a brief calculation in the middle of the page followed by “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent. per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.”
What changed in Jefferson during the ten years separating his letter to Washington from the anti-slavery passage on the wall that he wrote as a younger man? Well, kind of. Except that the passage on the wall was never a passage on paper…
And so it came to pass: my expulsion from the hallowed of halls of marble history. The fall from grace occurred back home in San Diego, set in motion by the difficulty I was having making out the words of the marbled passages in the iphone pictures I’d taken. Rather than copy the photos to devices connected to bigger screens I went on line to get the quotations in black and white.
Monticello.org looked appropriately official. Under the Jefferson memorial section, the anti-slavery quotation was listed as Panel Three. Just below the quote, I read the red subheading: Original Passages.
Within seconds my marbleized grasp of history had crumbled to dust and I fell back into the infinite cyber sea girding the known world. An infinite sea is actually quite big, especially when surveyed from a great if rapidly descending height, yet every wave looked taken, crowded with bobbing, jostling hoi polloi.
Back among my people I learned that Panel Three is a misleading mashup of four different documents. Wikipedia is more accurate.
“Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever” is drawn from Jefferson’s 1782 Notes on the State of Virginia, and is actually followed by a line perhaps deemed too radical for inclusion, especially if we remember that the memorial was built as the nation was still struggling to emerge from the Great Depression: “that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events”.
In a weird way this sentence also hints at Jefferson’s later hardening against even the possibility of eventual emancipation: again and again an older Jefferson would conjure up scenes of mass slaughter, blood baths of revenge that would surely come if slaves were ever granted freedom, let alone equality. It was because Jefferson knew exactly how cruel slavery was that he could see no middle way.
Wiencek delves into correspondence that shows Jefferson justifying the whipping of young boys because the beatings instilled “a vigor of discipline to make them do reasonable work.” These particular enslaved children worked from dawn to dusk in the smoke filled little nail factory just down the hill from Monticello, the villa Jefferson had built on the summit. The nail factory proved so profitable that two months’ work by the children provided the master with enough money to buy gourmet food to supply a year’s worth of Monticello dinner parties.
We know there was at least one child, named Cary, who cracked under the strain of Jefferson’s nail production quotas. Another boy had hidden Cary’s nailrod (the raw iron lump from which each boy had to form his nails), and knowing he would be whipped if he did not meet quota, the enraged and panicked Cary brought his hammer down on the prankster’s head, nearly killing him.
Jefferson reserved the most fearsome punishment for Cary, claiming that “it will be necessary for me to make an example of him in terrorism to others”. Jefferson sold the boy to a slaver from the Deep South who took the lad away from family and home “so distant as never more to be heard of among us.”
The words, “Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free” comes from Jefferson’s autobiography but it’s the following line, nowhere to be found in those circular marble walls that transforms the meaning: “Nor is it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government. Nature, habit, opinion has drawn indelible line of distinction between them.”
By 1799 Jefferson’s horror of slave rebellion had grown so acute that when the self-emancipated black revolutionaries of Haiti reached out to the U.S. Government in the name of the principals of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson labeled the revolutionaries “the cannibals of the terrible republic.”
Upon assuming the presidency two years later Jefferson reversed the Adams administration’s mild support for the New World’s second independent republic, slapping a trade embargo on the island and letting Napoleon know that the U.S. would support the French invasion force that was preparing to re-impose slavery in Haiti.
Jefferson warned his fellow planters that “…if something is not done soon, we shall be the murderers of our children.” (France recognized the Black Republic’s independence in 1826, but it was not until 1862, a year into the American Civil War, that the U.S. recognized Haiti.)
As for the panel’s final two lines, not only are the words altered—Jefferson actually wrote “establish and improve the law for educating the common people”—but he wrote them in a letter to George Wythe and they have nothing to do educating slaves.
Wikipedia, my new gold standard in Historiography, quotes the words of conservative historian Ronald Hamowy who sees a nefarious attempt to make the third president a New Dealer: “Jefferson’s admonition that an educated electorate was essential if liberty were to be preserved is transmuted into a call for universal public education.”
So what happened, Tommy? In 1784 you proposed a law to ban slavery in ALL of the nation’s future territories. Twenty years later you supported a law expelling freed blacks from Virginia, along with any white woman who gave birth to a mixed race baby—cold blooded hypocrisy of truly Jeffersonian proportions.
Greed happened, cold, calculating greed: greed for fine wines and foods, for the standing that came with entertaining in the grand manner.
Jefferson filled Monticello with the latest books, furniture, tableware, and paintings from France and Italy. Eighty-six crates followed him home from France in 1789, and that was just the beginning. Jefferson was in debt most of his life, no matter how much he had, he spent more. That’s why the nail factory down the hill was so critical.
The D.C. memorial is a marble echo of Monticello, Jefferson’s pride and joy: a summit crowning vision of whiteness and light literally built upon the unceasing toil and sweat of the enslaved below. An architectural ode to Jefferson’s ideal of practical modernity he filled Monticello with cutting edge 18th century technology.
Jefferson’s love for gadgets found expression in a system of dumbwaiters that removed slaves from the people they kept fed and watered.
Astonishing his guests, Wiencek writes that “Jefferson would open a panel in the side of the fireplace, insert an empty wine bottle, and seconds later pull out a full bottle.” Dirty dishes also disappeared into the wall, to be ‘magically’ replaced by clean plates carrying turkeys, hams, or pastries. The wizards behind this 18th century version of the happiest plantation on earth, or at least in Virginia, were teams of slaves hidden in the walls cleaning, replenishing, and powering the dumbwaiters.
The witty conversationalists who filled the slaveless, skylight topped rooms above were entirely dependent on the people running into each other in the cramped service tunnel running deep into the hill and connected to the mansion above. Jefferson was not only a pioneer in the marriage of technology to slavery, he was also a trail blazer in monetizing his slaves, bundling them as a line of equity for a Dutch merchant house that lent him $2,000 for home improvements. And yes, Thomas Jefferson knew firsthand exactly how bad slavery was.
Panel Three’s Commerce between master and slave is despotism, is a shortened and toothless gloss over what Jefferson actually wrote in 1782: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it”.
It can certainly be argued that Thomas Jefferson means more than slavery. He founded the nation’s first secular university, he was a consistent defender of religious liberty, and James Madison leaned heavily on Jefferson’s ideas when he crafted the Bill of Rights. There was also the Louisiana Purchase, and that Declaration thing.
And in a nation that avoided dealing with slavery for the first 90 years of its life, and then, just one generation after emancipation handed the former slave lands back to the former owners for 90 more years of Jim Crow, the lack of interest in black lives that historians displayed for so long isn’t surprising. But if black lives matter now, why shouldn’t they matter 200 years ago?
William Faulkner, another son of the South, wrote that “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.” Peering out across the Tidal Basin, Thomas Jefferson reminds us of that.
Some old timers insist that Jefferson’s bronze expression has undergone a subtle change, one that only folks who know him well would notice … a slight furrowing of the brow has given his face, especially late at night, a look of unease, halfway to perplexed. The change was first noted the day after an official-looking crowd unveiled a huge, white statue directly across the water: A granite man 11 feet taller than Jefferson, is striding out of the stone towards the shore. His name is Martin Luther King Jr.
Nat Krieger works for San Diego Unified where, on good days, he fixes computers. Nights spent wandering though 10th Century Andalusia resulted in a recently completed work of historical fiction.