Perspectives

July 30 2017

Image of Perspectives

Pictures: BG

[Warning; this post has nothing to do with art history!]

My family and I were in America recently, on a meandering road trip from New York to Kentucky. History buffs that we are, we visited whatever ‘historic’ sites that we could, and a highlight was Thomas Jefferson’s house in Virginia, Monticello. Jefferson was, amongst all his other achievements, an amateur architect, and he designed Monticello himself. It’s small but pleasingly inventive to look at, and sits in a beautiful location on a spur looking east towards the coast, and west towards the Blue Ridge mountains. Like Mount Vernon (George Washington’s house) Monticello has become a Holy of Holies for Americans, and it was busy with visitors paying homage to Jefferson’s memory and achievements. Such is Monticello’s status as an American national symbol that it features on one side of the nickel. Jefferson himself appears on the other side, beneath the word ‘Liberty’.

Monticello was built by slaves. Jefferson owned well over 150 slaves. Some he inherited from his father, and 135 came with his marriage. The original slave dwellings at Monticello (one could barely call them houses) crumbled away long ago, and have sunk, like their inhabitants, unremembered into the soil. But two have recently been recreated. They had one room, were built of wood, with tiny windows, and situated only yards from Monticello on the edge of the garden. Jefferson would have seen them every time he admired the beautiful view.

Jefferson treated his slaves just like other slave owners of the time. That is, harshly. He employed overseers known for their cruelty and keenness to whip. One was called Gabriel Lilly, an illiterate white man in charge of Jefferson’s nail-making business. Many slaves attempted to escape. In 1811, James Hubbard, a nail maker, ran away. He was 27 and would have been making nails since the age of about 10. Jefferson rated him as one of his more productive slaves, and once noted that he made seven pounds of nails in a single day, meaning he raised a hammer about 20,000 times between dawn and dusk. Adverts were placed to track down Hubbard, a ‘negro man… strong made, of daring demeanor’, and he was caught. Jefferson brought him back to Monticello, and had him "severely flogged in the presence of his old companions”. He was then sold and separated from his family (he had been born in Jefferson’s ownership). Nothing more is known of James Hubbard.

Jefferson was especially keen on breeding slaves. It was cheaper than buying them. ‘I consider a woman [slave] who brings a child every two years’, he wrote, ‘more profitable than the best man of the farm. What she produces is an addition to the capital, while his labors disappear in mere consumption’. Account books from Monticello show how much interest Jefferson took in his slave’s offspring, and although ‘family’ was not a concept he sought to protect amongst his slaves, the names of each slave’s mother and father were diligently recorded.

Except in one case. The ‘father’ column beside that of ‘mother’ Sally Hemmings in Jefferson’s account books is blank. Hemmings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha, having been fathered by Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wayles. She was also Jefferson’s slave, and was no older than sixteen when she gave birth to the first of his six children (he was 44). Four survivied, and in turn became Jefferson’s own slaves. He freed them when they were much older, but he never freed Hemmings, not even in his will. 130 slaves were sold by auction after Jefferson’s death, with families split up and children as young as nine separated from their parents.

For more than two centuries, Sally Hemmings and the remainder of Jefferson’s slaves were forgotten about. Actually, forgotten is too forgiving a word; they were ignored. There have long been suggestions that Jefferson fathered some slave children. But most Jefferson scholars said the story was a myth put about by Jefferson’s political opponents. It took a series of DNA tests in 1998 to prove that Jefferson was the progenitor of Sally Hemming’s descendants. 

Now, I’m not in the business of judging Jefferson. As a historian, it’s not my role to judge the morals of people acting in a different moral age. A historian deals in facts, motives, reasons. What interests me about all this is how we instinctively create our own perspectives on history to suit our own values, beliefs and judgements. In America, I believe, the limits of those perspectives are more acute than many realise.

Throughout history, and just as much today as ever, Jefferson is lauded as the man who wrote those famous words; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” His memorial in Washington D.C. is second only to Lincoln’s in terms of prominence and recognition. But its design pays homage to Monticello, the house built by slaves, serviced by slaves, and financed by the unrewarded labour of slaves. It is a monument to a ‘liberty’ born out of hypocrisy.

And yet, the actions of every generation, when judged by succeeding ones, are always open to charges of hypocrisy. Never will mankind reach a state where no person, no being, and no place is not somehow exploited or persecuted. We cannot know now why future generations will look at us, and ask, ‘how could they have done that?’, but they will. And if we should resist judging Jefferson’s actions in the 18th Century by the values we hold in the 21st Century, then at least we must be more honest in how we remember the 18th Century. Because we abhor slavery today, as well as forced marriage and rape - all of which Jefferson indulged in - we cannot pretend that our heroes did none of these things. 

I should make it clear that at Monticello they are making renewed efforts to deal with this less attractive side of Jefferson’s life. One can go on ‘slavery tours’, and, as I mentioned, see recreations of how the slaves lived. The Monticello website has detailed research of slave life during Jefferson’s time there. But there is nothing too revealing; no chains, no whips, no jails. It’s like watching a PG-rated version of an 18 film. In most American historical sites one gets the impression that slavery was something abstract, a concept to be sympathised with, rather than individual stories of pain and torment.

Another site of Jerffersonian homage in the USA is Colonial Williamsburg, an immaculately preserved and recreated set of buildings from Virginia’s colonial capital. We always enjoy visiting - it really is like stepping back in time - and went again this year. The scene is set in the 1770s, at the moment when the American colonies transform themselves into states. The flag hung on every building is not the stars and stripes, but the Union quartered flag of the 13 colonies. Re-enactors give speeches about British oppression, and their desire for liberty and freedom. Some of these speeches come of course from someone playing Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was twice Governor of Virginia, and lived in the Governor’s mansion at Williamsburg. He called the city "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America."

In the 1770s, the majority of people living in Williamsburg were slaves. But slavery is largely non-existent at Williamsburg today. We stopped by a re-created tobacco garden to hear all about how tobacco was grown, and how the crop underpinned America’s early economy. We learnt everything from the guides except the fact that tobacco farming, a very labour intensive process, was entirely dependent on slave labour. However - and this is the crucial point - such historical amnesia is not necessarily by design of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (who own and manage the city) but by the desire of the people who visit. The Foundation tried, some years ago, to show visitors more of the reality of slave life in the 1770s, and even held recreations of slave auctions. But these proved too upsetting for audiences to bear, and were discontinued after distressed families made their feelings known. 

Shying away from history is of course not a uniquely American trait. As a Briton I must face the uncomfortable fact that, as a recent poll revealed, 65% of us are ‘proud’ of the British Empire. That is, we take pride in the colonisation and conquest of places like the Indian Subcontinent, as well as much of Africa, to say nothing of specific moments like the Amritsar Massacre and the botched partition of India and Bangladesh. When it comes to Empire, we Brits tend only to remember things like ‘the railways’, and those nice Lutyens buildings in New Delhi. 

Is British imperial pride, like America’s, built on ignorance? Or is it our selective memories? And how do we chose those memories? Indeed, do we choose them, or are we simply relying on what historians tell us? Do we feel embarrassed into sugar-coating those memories by a sense of inherited complicity? Certainly, there’s a debate to be had on the relative ‘badness’ of Britain’s Empire. But Britain’s pride in Empire still reflects the fact that everyone, whether it’s a matter of race, religion or nationality, choses a view of history which suits our own perspectives. 

And the point of this long-winded post (forgive me) is that I couldn’t help noticing the uniformity of one particular historical perspective in America today. Whether we like it or not, the story of revolutionary America told habitually in museums, books and films is from the perspective of only one group of people; white people. If you’re the descendant of a black slave you might have a very different perspective of the selective liberty ushered in by the American Revolution. If you’re a native American you might have a more radically different perspective, with little interest in celebrating the ethnic cleansing and conquest - there are no other words for it - of Native American lands. 

For all of the people affected by the American story, life today can still resonate with the legacies of actions taken centuries ago. Acknowledging that is not about assessing the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of our predecessors, but about viewing their stories and legacies with candour and humility. We must learn to face our historical demons. Can we ever honestly address the injustices of our own era unless we do?

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