Thomas Jefferson, Slavery, Monticello, Sally Hemings
In January 2012 the Smithsonian Museum of American History mounted an exhibition, Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty. The exhibition was jointly sponsored by the Smithsonian's nascent National Museum of African American History as well as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home, as a museum. The exhibit focused not only on what Jefferson thought and wrote about slavery but, more importantly, on the experiences of Jefferson's slaves—he owned approximately six hundred persons over the course of his long life.
The exhibition received rave reviews and attracted large crowds. When I went to see it on a Sunday in February, it was crowded and the visitors moved slowly through the galleries, examining each artifact and carefully reading the descriptions and commentary. There was a great deal of hushed conversation as families and friends sought to address the [End Page 350] questions raised by the exhibition. As Edward Rothstein wrote in his review in The New York Times, "Jefferson didn't just embrace the new nation's ideals; he gave voice to our conception of 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality? These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones."1
It is no exaggeration to say that we would not be able to address such questions and the exhibition would not have been possible without the scholarship of Lucia "Cinder" Stanton, the recently retired Shannon Senior Historian at Monticello. Her major publications on slavery at Monticello are gathered in this important collection. Cinder Stanton worked at Monticello for nearly three decades. During that time she acquired an unparalleled knowledge of Jefferson's life and times, particularly the operation of Monticello as a working plantation. Together with James A. Bear she edited Jefferson's Memorandum Books, the daily record of Jefferson's financial transactions that he kept for more than six decades.2
The Memorandum Books are replete with information about Jefferson's day-to-day life including his management of the enslaved persons that he owned, hired, and sold. Building on her intimate knowledge of Jefferson, Stanton led the way as Monticello began to confront the reality of slavery in Jefferson's life in the 1980s. It has been a long road, culminating in the exhibition at the Smithsonian and the recent dedication of a permanent exhibit on slavery at Monticello's Mulberry Row. These developments reflect the path-breaking scholarship published in this collection.
Stanton's first major publication on the subject was " 'Those Who Labor for My Happiness': Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves," an essay that she wrote for a collection marking the 250th anniversary of Jefferson's birth in 1993. While a generation of scholars had taken Jefferson to task [End Page 351] for the hypocrisy of holding slaves while extolling human equality, this essay was (and remains) a revelation for its focus on the people Jefferson held as slaves rather than on Jefferson's dilemma as a slaveholder. Over the following decade, Stanton published a series of essays (and an important monograph, Free Some Day: The African American Families of Monticello, reprinted here) on the experiences and lives of Monticello's slaves and on Jefferson as a slaveholder. Among these are seminal works such as "The Other End of the Telescope: Jefferson through the Eyes of His Slaves," which reverses our approach to the topic. Rather than approach slavery from Jefferson's perspective, this essay considers how Jefferson appeared to his slaves. In this essay, the characteristics of Stanton's approach to scholarship are on display. Through a careful reading of the sources she is able to tease out and re-create the lives and thoughts of Monticello's enslaved residents in order to see...