Monday, February 15, 2010

feb. 15, 1810 (thur.)

Today Mr. Jefferson received five years worth of weather data from someone who collected it while living in Arkansas, west of the Mississippi River in the new Louisiana Territory. It will be interesting for him to compare this information with the observations he has made here in Virginia.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

feb. 9, 1810 (fri.)

A couple of days ago a package came from Joseph Milligan, a bookseller in Georgetown Mr. Jefferson had done business with when he was living in Washington as President. It was The Parent's Assistant, by Maria Edgeworth -- not, as the title might suggest, a book on parenting, but rather, a two-volume collection of stories and plays for children. The grandchildren will really enjoy this book.

Mr. Jefferson doesn't believe it's good for children, especially girls, to read novels; idle romances waste time and spoil a girl with longing for a world of fantasy. But Mrs. Edgeworth's stories are an exception. They teach morals, and for that reason, are useful tools for education, in a lesser, but similar way as nonfiction works of history and moral philosophy do.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

the view from 2010: the elephant in the room

Actually, there are a couple of elephants. The biggest is slavery. Monticello was built by enslaved people. Slaves raised the cash crops and provided the labor for any money-making project, from making nails for sale to packing and shipping the boxes of books sold to the Library of Congress. The food eaten by Thomas Jefferson, his family, and anyone who visited Monticello was grown and cooked by slaves. Slaves cleaned the house and washed the clothes. The fact is that every white person (and free black person) in any of the colonies or later, states, who lived at any comfortable level of society at all did so, directly or indirectly, on the backs of slaves. Slave labor (and the products thereof) was an integral part of the whole economic system. It was the fuel -- the coal, the oil -- of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

There is no doubt that slavery was unfathomably evil. But when writing about any group of people living in an evil system it's important not to confuse the people with the system. The exploited are not merely victims; they also experience love, hope, joy, courage, and other positive aspects of the human condition. I think most current historians are getting much better at presenting enslaved people neither as completely miserable and degraded nor as being minstrel-show happy-go-lucky.

It's harder to give a fair view of the exploiting classes. For one thing, is it fair to the exploited to even try to be fair to the exploiters, to cut them any slack at all? On the other hand, in the case of institutionalized evil, this would mean condemning thousands, even millions of people -- people who are not deliberately being cruel, but for whom doing the right thing would be overwhelming, if, indeed, they're aware at all of what the right thing to do is.

One solution to this dilemma is to judge them as we judge our peers in our own time. If you're rich enough, if you're enough of a part of a technological, commercial society to be looking at a computer screen, you are an active participant in a system that elevates the comfort of some (of you) at the expense of the comfort and even the lives of other human beings. But we consider a person to be a decent citizen who lives a quiet, noncriminal life, even if that person doesn't think very often about social issues. We consider a person to be downright good who drives a fuel-efficient car, who buys some of their vegetables at the local farmer's market, who volunteers at a soup kitchen. Few of us would condemn those who haven't completely given up driving or riding in oil-fueled vehicles, who drink caffeinated beverages (all caffeine-producing plants have to be transported from the tropics, and many (most?) are grown by exploited workers), who don't open their houses to as many homeless people as will fit into the rooms.

Thomas Jefferson was not a martyr, sacrificing his life (although he did risk his life by writing the Declaration of Independence; British soldiers were sent to Monticello to bring him back to be hanged for treason), nor was he a saint, completely sacrificing his lifestyle and that of his family. He was an activist. And it is for his activism he should be respected. Unlike martyrdom or sainthood, activism does not have a state of perfect completion. It makes no sense to talk about "falling short." One can only list what has been attempted or accomplished. Nor is activism an all-or-nothing, lifetime thing. Activists rest. They even retire, and it does not subtract from what they have done.

Every piece of writing has a focus, and the focus of this blog is Thomas Jefferson, and, to a lesser extent, his family. They're the people I know the most about. But it must be remembered that also present were enslaved workers, free white workers, neighbors, and visitors.

A couple of excellent books about slavery at Monticello are:
The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed (W. W. Norton, 2008)
Free Some Day: the African-American Families of Monticello, by Lucia Stanton (The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 2000)

Or go to
Monticello: Research and Collections
and click on "Plantation and Slave Life"

One of the best books about American slavery in general is:
From Slavery to Freedom, by John Hope Franklin (Alfred A. Knopf, 1947 & subsequent editions)

A second topic, closely related to the first, is the question of Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings. The only thing the DNA proves is that one of her children was fathered by some descendant of Thomas Jefferson's grandfather.

In addition to Callender's spiteful, gossipy accusations, we have accounts by decent, intelligent people who were close enough to the situation to know. And somebody was lying, lied to, or mistaken, because the accounts don't match.

I personally would like to believe that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a long and loving partnership. I like him, and I want him to have been happy during the last decades of his life. And from what little we know about her, I like and admire her, too.

However, there are a couple of pieces of information that indicate Thomas Jefferson's brother, Randolph. He was known for hanging around with the slaves fiddling. (Sort of the 18th-19th century equivalent of the 20th century white musicians who went to Harlem or Chicago or New Orleans to play jazz.) More interesting is the timing. Sally Hemings had her last child in 1808. She was only about 38 years old. (By contrast, Martha Jefferson Randolph had her youngest when she was 46; a quick check of my own genealogy shows most women in the days before good contraceptives to have their last child in their 40s.) Thomas Jefferson came home to Monticello to stay in early 1809. Now he would've been available all year 'round. However, Randolph Jefferson, a widower, re-married that same year, becoming unavailable. Of lesser importance as evidence, but perhaps not insignificant -- Randolph was closer to Sally's age. And she wasn't his sister-in-law.

The logical conclusion, therefore, has to be the least satisfying one: we don't know.

We do know that the Hemings family were relatives of the Jefferson family, both by marriage and later by blood. Betty Hemings was the longtime partner of Thomas Jefferson's wife's father, and Sally Hemings and some of her siblings were therefore his wife's half-siblings. (Why all the fuss about a possible love affair when the really shocking thing is the more accepted fact that he owned his in-laws?) Sally's children were either Thomas's children or his nephews and niece. Either situation would explain their position of privilege. Either situation reveals a dimension of the plantation system that was kept hidden (or at least not talked about).

Friday, February 5, 2010

feb. 5, 1810 (mon.)

Even in the depths of winter Mr. Jefferson's thoughts are on the coming growing season. This morning he wrote to a friend in Baltimore asking if he could get him some gypsum to enhance the soil in the fields. Mr. Jefferson is up on all the modern, scientific farming methods, and John Binns, another Virginian, recommended the use of gypsum in his recent book, "A Treatise on Practical Farming." It doesn't matter whether it's pre-ground or comes in lumps; it can be ground at the mill here.