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Posts Tagged ‘Monticello’

We arrived here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia on Sunday afternoon and spent awhile talking to Charlie, a very courtly gentleman, in the big house, wide verandas, pleasant rooms filled with water colors and oil paintings.

He is a real Virginian with the manner and the accent.  Dismissive, in an amusing way, of the other Virginians, those along the coast and the West Virginians. The farm is circa 1825, and parts of the house are from that era.  Big stone verandas surrounded two sides of the house, big enough for 100 guests to mingle, but we seem to be the only guests in residence on Sunday evening.

The next day we visited the home of another house-proud Virginian.  This is Monticello, the home of our third president, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Foundation has owned the home since the 1920s and made every effort to maintain it as a kind of functioning historical experiment, like it was in Jefferson’s time.  For him, it was an experiment in democracy, in growing the new nation.  That may be why the guides, the literature, and the tours are upfront about the issue of slavery and Jefferson’s moral dilemma.  Jefferson’s signature belief , enshrined in his Declaration of Independence, is that individual freedom is a basic right of every human being.  He put his life on the line for this belief in Philadelphia, like all of the plotters of the revolution.  And he served the ideal for thirty years in his political career.  He believed that slavery was the rock that could break up the young ship of state.  But he kept hundreds of slaves and worked them from first light to dusk.

In confronting the issue of Jefferson’s dilemma, the Foundation makes an interesting choice, which I suppose is widely familiar to everyone but me.  The descriptive material uses enslaved people, enslaved workers, etc., rather than the more usual word slaves.  This shifts the moral burden off the persecuted, who after all, did not ask to be enslaved, and onto the persecutor, even if it was the founding father of American liberty.  Interesting and fair, even in hindsight, even in the South.

It was cool on the long winding drive to Monticello along the Skyline Drive, stopping now and then to photograph the view.  But as we wandered the gardens below the house, we grew dizzy and faint.  It would have been a hard life to work the fields and the gardens in this heat.  In those days most everyone died young, not just the enslaved working the fields.  Jefferson and his friend John Adams * were exceptions, dying on the same day, Independence Day, fifty years to the day since the Declaration of Independence was signed.  They led long, extraordinary lives, Jefferson into his 80s, Adams* to 90.  Neither of them lived to see the awful war that their compromises would bring about.

* This post has been updated to correct which president it was who died on July 4th along with Jefferson.  Thanks to  Gail for the correction.

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