“Paradox of Liberty” Tells the Other Side of Jefferson’s Monticello

Presented by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this exhibit looks at the iconic founding father through the eyes of his slaves

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's plantation, was run by hundreds of enslaved African Americans in his lifetime. Image courtesy of Monticello

In June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” But after he signed his name to that now immortal document, he returned home to Monticello and resumed a lifestyle that denied this equality to more than 600 men, women and children who toiled as slaves on his Virginian plantation. Over the course of the third president’s lifetime, Jefferson would set only two of them free.

A new exhibition, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” now on view at the National Museum of American History, addresses this fundamental contradiction in the life of one of America’s greatest leaders. “Jefferson wrote and saved 19,000 letters in his life, so we know a vast amount about him,” says Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello and co-curator of the exhibition, along with Rex Ellis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “But all we had of these enslaved people,” Chew adds, “was his list of their names.”

From this list, Chew and Ellis, wove together a picture of another Monticello, home to the weavers, spinners, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, nail-makers, carpenters, sawyers, charcoal-burners, stablemen, joiners, and domestic servants that kept the plantation operating. The exhibit features Jefferson’s records and artifacts from Mulberry Row—the slave quarters. But most importantly, it follows six families through the generations: arrival at Monticello as slaves; dispersal at Jefferson’s death in 1827; migration across the country down to their descendants today.

These families are descended from Elizabeth Hemings and her children, Edward and Jane Gillette, George and Ursula Granger David and Isabel Hern and James and Cate Hubbard. Thanks to the Getting Word oral history project at Monticello, which has collected interviews from more than 170 descendants, the exhibit tells colorful stories about how they lived, what their work was, what skills they had, where they came from, and where they went.

According to Chew, looking at Monticello through the eyes of slaves is a relatively new perspective. Until the mid-1980s, tours at Monticello avoided the topic of slavery, often referring to slaves more euphemistically as “servants.” Sometimes they were cut out of the story entirely; tour guides and signs “would say things like “the food was brought” from the kitchen to the dining room,” Chew says. “Now we would say, the head cook Edith Fossett and her assistants brought the food from the kitchen to the dining room.”

For Chew, the most significant aspect of this exhibit is “the degree to which we can make the story of slavery the story of individual people and families.”

Bringing these people back into the narrative is essential to understanding Thomas Jefferson’s life and work. As Ellis said in a press preview, “They represent the community who brought him to his father on a pillow when he was born to those who adjusted the pillow under his head when he died.”

By extension, understanding Jefferson’s own complexities illuminates the contradictions within the country he built. “Most Americans probably don’t think of it, but the founders founded this country as a slave society, and that didn’t go away for a hundred years,” Chew says. The paradox of Jefferson, who called slavery “an abominable crime” and proposed several plans to end the slave trade, is a perfect lens for the national tensions that resulted in the bloodiest war in American history.

At their core, however, these stories are first and foremost about individuals and families. Because many African Americans cannot trace their family back past the Civil War, the stories collected here are especially precious. Bill Webb, a descendent of the Hemings family, explains his decision to try to find out his lineage: “I love history. I think it’s about a sense of who you are, and knowing some of your history.” Webb’s ancestor, Brown Colbert, was sold by Thomas Jefferson to another slaveowner in Lexington, Virginia, before he was freed by the American Colonization Society on the condition that he leave the United States for Liberia in Africa. Though Colbert and the children who accompanied him died shortly after arriving in Liberia, one of his daughters stayed in America and became the matriarch of Webb’s family. “They kept his name through generations–Brown, Brown, Brown,” Webb says.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Webb, for one, plans to return to the exhibit many times with his family: “I’ve warned my friends who live in DC that they’ll see a lot of us, because it takes time to absorb everything. There’s just so much to see.”

“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” presented by Monticello and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is on view at the American History Museum from January 27 through October 14, 2012.

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