A few weeks ago President Bush welcomed 72 new Americans as they took their oath of citizenship at Thomas Jefferson’s famous estate, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. 72 new citizens got a healthy taste of free speech as Bush was continually heckled from the crowd.
I happened to be in Virginia too, visiting relatives, and as I watched Bush give his speech on TV, I wondered what it must feel like to become a citizen on such hallowed ground. I had an urge to visit Monticello and so a few days later there I was- standing atop Jefferson’s mountain, guidebook in hand.
Many considered Jefferson a man of great genius. Born into one of the nation’s wealthiest families he began as a lawyer them moved into politics serving as Governor, Secretary of State, Vice-President and President. Interestingly enough he did not enjoy public service saying, “I have no ambition to govern men; it is a painful and thankless office.”
He had a few hobbies to distract him from his dreaded day job. He was a respected horticulturist, architect, archaeologist, paleontologist, inventor, collector, and author.
He was a radical. He spoke out against religious tyranny, persuasively argued for the separation of church and state and access to public education. He also opposed slavery, notably in the Declaration of Independence, however that section was removed by Congress before the document was approved on July 4, 1776. He once said, “I have no fear that the result of our experiment will be that men may be trusted to govern themselves without a master.”
Yet Jefferson inherited 200 slaves and “owned” approximately 200 slaves at all times throughout his life. It’s believed that he fathered several children with a slave named Sally Hemmings, herself the daughter of an enslaved black mother and white slaveholder.
This was on my mind when I arrived at Monticello; when I saw the one room dwellings that an entire slave family would have shared situated next to the pillared perfection of Jefferson’s mansion, and when I learned that Jefferson freed only seven slaves during his life, most of them Sally’s (and his) children. As I glimpsed the life of an iconic man, the words of another American icon, Langston Hughes, came to mind:
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)*
I believe that Jefferson would have had a deep understanding of these words. He was an oppressor who was keenly aware of the dehumanizing affects of his oppression.
In the 1780s Jefferson brought Sally’s brother, James, to France with him to learn the culinary arts, and James returned to Monticello to train other slaves to be gourmet chefs. Guests at Monticello were served macaroni, waffles, and ice cream, considered novelties at the time. Some of his favored slaves became skilled craftsmen, creating equipment, furniture, and mechanical devices out of raw materials according to Jefferson’s specifications, many of which contributed to modern inventions.
He imported squash and broccoli from Italy, beans from the Lewis and Clark expedition, French figs, and Mexican peppers, planting them in his abundant fields, groves and gardens, all of which were tended to by slave hands. Many of the items grown on his land weren’t seen anywhere else in the country and today are staples of American diets. Who should we thank for these influences? The man who fancied foreign commodities or those who ploughed, planted, and nurtured the land to produce those commodities and lay them at his table?
“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.” Jefferson wrote, and yet he could not forgo his conveniences in order to grant liberty to those who spent their lives in his service. He spoke of releasing his slaves once he had paid his debts, but that day never came. Jefferson continued to collect, import, and spend until his death, and his slaves, some of whom would have been his grandchildren, were auctioned off on Monticello’s sweeping lawn.
He wrote of his hypocrisy, “We have the wolf by the ears; and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
Thomas Jefferson likely was condemned by no one but himself. What is it that we, today, do not condemn each other for? What injustices committed for today’s conveniences will bring tomorrow’s scorn?
I believe those who stand on emblematic mountains each day and take oaths to this country will help us as we struggle with these questions. In the meantime, I’m going to continue reading words that inspire me to go rightly into the future while never forgetting the past.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!*
*Selected excerpts taken from Langston Hughes’ poem Let America Be America Again.