The spouse and I recently took a trip to Charlottesville, Virginia, and visited the presidential homes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Jefferson’s Monticello and Monroe’s Highland Plantation (now called Ash Lawn—Highland) are a few miles apart in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Madison’s Montpelier is a forty-five minute drive away. Six weeks earlier we had gone to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. We were struck by many things including the fact that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all owned hundreds of slaves.
We noted also that the guides at each of the homes referred to slaves as “enslaved people.” The informational placards at all the homes also refrained from using the word “slaves.”
I asked a guide at Montpelier about this. She replied that we should be seeing those in bondage as individuals with multi-dimensional lives. They should not be defined solely by their status as slaves. Thus, “enslaved people” is the preferred term. I understood that, but while better capturing the humanity of those in slavery, it also, at least to me, undercuts the force of slavery as an institution.
“Enslaved people” sounds too much like “indentured servitude,” a temporary and often voluntary condition. Yes, we should see the enslaved people as part of the humanity of which we are all part, but we should also recognize that the white slave society existed because it saw the slaves as less than fully human. You can say and even believe that “All men are created equal,” but you can own others only if you believe that those others are not fully human. We should see those in bondage as human, but realize that many who founded our country could not recognize the complete humanity in them. And perhaps then we might reflect on how many today do not see others who have different skin colors or eyes through the lens of “All men are equated equal.”
All the homes now deal more forthrightly with slavery than on a visit decades ago and admit freely that those presidents could live their affluent lives only because they held others in bondage. The homes now try to provide some understanding of slave lives. Montpelier has an extensive exhibit called “The Mere Distinction of Color” that is informative, profound, provocative, and moving. Monticello and Montpelier show us the primitive cabins where the slaves lived. A sign at Jefferson’s home taught me a lot. It stated that the slaves were allotted only eight pounds of cornmeal and one pound of pork a week. (It is hardly surprising that slaves often tried to steal meat, and Jefferson’s smokehouse was carefully, if not always successfully, locked.) But I doubt that no matter what I might see or read, I can ever truly understand what it was like to be an enslaved person.
On the other hand, for a more complete understanding of slave lives in their context, I wish I had a better understanding of non-slave lives at the country’s founding. Visiting the homes, I got some understanding of the luxurious lives of the presidents, but I know little about how ordinary people of that time lived. I assume, but do not know, that many northern farmers were only eking out a living. What were their accommodations and diet? What was the life like for the majority of the whites in the south at that time? In a number of southern states, a graphic at Montpelier revealed, blacks comprised up to 40% of the population. Since people like Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe owned up to 300 slaves, the vast majority of the whites in those must not have owned slaves. What was life like in a slave society for the whites who did not own slaves? What were their attitudes towards enslaved people and slavery? How did they regard those who owned hundreds of slaves?
It was not the mission of the presidential homes to explore such questions, but the visits made me wonder about them.
(To be continued on May 16.)