You know, people stood in line for a long time to vote for President Obama. That means an extended black family will be in the White House for the next 4 years. A far cry from US founding father Thomas Jefferson who as MHP smartly points out is featured in the background of Michelle Obama’s official first term portrait. Was a racist who kept his mistress prisoner and therefore rightless even as he freed their children together:
There is, it is true, a compelling paradox about Jefferson: when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, announcing the “self-evident” truth that all men are “created equal,” he owned some 175 slaves. Too often, scholars and readers use those facts as a crutch, to write off Jefferson’s inconvenient views as products of the time and the complexities of the human condition.
But while many of his contemporaries, including George Washington, freed their slavesduring and after the revolution — inspired, perhaps, by the words of the Declaration — Jefferson did not. Over the subsequent 50 years, a period of extraordinary public service, Jefferson remained the master of Monticello, and a buyer and seller of human beings.
Rather than encouraging his countrymen to liberate their slaves, he opposed both private manumission and public emancipation. Even at his death, Jefferson failed to fulfill the promise of his rhetoric: his will emancipated only five slaves, all relatives of his mistress Sally Hemings, and condemned nearly 200 others to the auction block. Even Hemings remained a slave, though her children by Jefferson went free.
Nor was Jefferson a particularly kind master. He sometimes punished slaves by selling them away from their families and friends, a retaliation that was incomprehensibly cruel even at the time. A proponent of humane criminal codes for whites, he advocated harsh, almost barbaric, punishments for slaves and free blacks. Known for expansive views of citizenship, he proposed legislation to make emancipated blacks “outlaws” in America, the land of their birth. Opposed to the idea of royal or noble blood, he proposed expelling from Virginia the children of white women and black men.
Jefferson and Hemmings ancestors are still disenfranchised by descedendants of Jefferson and his wife:
My shock has evolved to sadness and wariness as I watched some of my European American family publish papers, write books, send letters to editors and speak at gatherings, denouncing the descendants of Sally Hemings and anyone who associated with them as frauds, impostors, or ignorant fools and asserting conclusions that are unsupported by many historians, genealogy experts and most of the American public. I have also experienced the manipulative disrespect and abuse directly. The MA refused to allow people attending the Monticello Community Gathering to enter the Monticello cemetery on the grounds that they might damage the grass and the plantings. But a gathering of Virginia Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) members is invited to visit every July.
The only hopeful aspect of the MA’s membership dispute was that one cousin prepared a proposal for a new organization with a larger scope, one to include descendants of everyone who lived at Monticello in Jefferson’s time, linking people through home and heritage, skirting the troublesome kinship connection. There was no support in the MA but it reignited my long-lost fantasy of bringing together the black and white Monticello descendants.
Even in the work around solution was racism. It was called “hopeful”, but it’s intentionally creating a gray area where Hemmings and Jefferson’s ancestors are treated as just descendants of slaves who worked the plantation. Not the master of the plantation.
Yes. The Jefferson portrait indeed matters.
More from MHP on the Obama Family’s time in the White House: