Jefferson, Slavery, and the Smithsonian

Peale, Thomas Jefferson
Rembrandt Peale's 1805 portrait of Thomas Jefferson

If you happen to be visiting Washington, DC between now and October, be sure to stop by the National Museum of American History and see its new exhibit, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” Created by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (whose own building is scheduled to start construction this spring and be completed in three years) together with the Jefferson Foundation (which has its own, parallel exhibit on slavery at Jefferson’s estate, Monticello), the exhibit was recently the subject of an extensive review by New York Times critic Edward Rothstein, who frames the topic’s significance well:

The astounding thing about American slavery is not that it existed — the enslavement of one people by another may be one of history’s universals — but that it persisted. It lasted into an era when its absence could be imagined and its presence could become an outrage.

That was one of the chilling peculiarities of slavery in the United States: As revolutionary ideas of human rights and liberty were being formulated, slavery was so widely accepted that contradictions between the evolving ideals and the brutish reality of enslavement were overlooked or tolerated.

We look back now, shocked at the cognitive and moral perversity. And that is one reason why a prevalent reaction has been to assert that the champions of those revolutionary ideals were hypocrites, including 12 of the first 18 American presidents, who were slave owners.

Which is why Rothstein was struck by the “far more subtle and illuminating assessment” of Jefferson presented by the new exhibition:

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.

It is to the credit of the Washington exhibition’s creators — Rex Ellis, associate director of the African-American museum and Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello — that we are not given the answers but are given enough information and perspective to begin to think about the issues, helped along by objects from Monticello as well as the new museum’s growing collection.

If you can’t make it to DC, you can always check out the slavery exhibit’s companion website, which has a variety of essays and documents on the subject, including four of Jefferson’s proposals to end what he called “This Deplorable Entanglement.”

– Chris Gehrz

PS: If you are headed to the capital… Through May the Jefferson and slavery exhibit in Washington will overlap with another fascinating exhibit on the United States’ third and most intellectually curious president: “Jefferson’s Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” And the permanent collection on “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” is scheduled to remain open while the museum’s west wing undergoes a major renovation.

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