Invisible Lives: Hunting for Slave Quarters at Montpelier

posted on: September 8, 2012

Part II: Monticello and Jefferson’s Biracial Family


We drive south from Michigan on a sunny day, angling through the hills of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  Beside us are cliffs of shale, signaling the coal that once was there, mountaintops carved away, their heads chopped off and their guts—the coal—shipped, sometimes on trains driven by my son bound for China.  As this crossroads election heats up, angry signs are plastered  at the regulations curtailing the destruction of the mountains and rivers for the gold of coal. What is left are trees curtained with kudzu, and skirted with dense ferns. To capture the America away from the highway, we drive back roads, noting the picturesque towns, some with old-fashioned buildings of stone, or artfully patterned bricks, flowery hanging planters.  But poverty. White rural poverty.  And signs about coal everywhere.

We start down Skyline drive, a curvy road through the Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.  Off to the right, at the edge of the mountain lays the plain of rich green squared off crops and farms, ponds, lakes. We hike on the ridge, climb a rock pile and reach the highest summit of the Appalachian trail to overlook the Piedmont.  Beyond the ancient hills are the double blue ridges of mountains ringed with clouds.

“Look at this, this rich, magnificent land.  This is where they dreamed up the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Here. This is the land they fought for, wanted the freedom to have and own,” my daughter says. I do not consider until then that we are voyaging to the place where America democracy and freedoms were envisioned. Or that this land shaped their desires and our destinies. The richness of the land was not able to be harvested, not able to be turned into cash crops without slaves. They were necessary for the massive growing of tobacco, a labor-intensive crop. Tobacco wore out the soil almost as quickly as it did its laborers, testament to greed of mankind.

On the way down the mountains, a baby black bear walks beside the road.  An eagle soars next to us.

The next day, we visit Thomas Jefferson’s mansion, Monticello.   Jefferson’s relentless curiosity, constant inventions as well as his timeless artistic sensibility are apparent everywhere. Indian history robes from the plains, European art, bones of mastodons, crazy clocks that tell the time and the day of the week by intricate weights, a set of French doors that both close when one closes, a polygraph that automatically copies what he writes. His bed is between his library and his writing room; from it, he can he gaze through a series of French doors into the garden. He figured out how to have indoor privies and improved plants with his knowledge of botany.  All this. And of course the Declaration of Independence and his supreme belief in science and rationality as a way to make life better. All men are created equal and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  In his day, all men meant white males who owned property.

Jefferson lived in one of the more bizarre, and difficult family situations, indicative of the complex relations slavery engendered.  He inherited his father-in-law’s slaves and plantation. Included in this were the Hemings family  and several children including the infant, Sally, who were his wife’s half siblings. His wife died. When Jefferson was in Paris, Sally came to take care of his daughter, Martha.  Sally became pregnant and gave birth to 6 children fathered by Thomas Jefferson over the next thirteen years; two died before reaching adulthood.  The tour of the house and museum reveal scads of stories about the Hemings family who worked in the house, his blacksmith and furniture crafts, and helped Jefferson build and design the mansion, and gardens. The stories of their lives could—and have—been retold as novels.

When Jefferson retired, he wanted his daughter and her eleven children to live with him and cloistered the dining room, inventing a doubled-doored closet so that no servants would interrupt the conversation. Except for two eight and ten-year-old slaves who happened to be Hemings, related to the people they served. Thus both Jefferson’s families were around him, his white family as well as his slave family. I wonder if Jefferson felt smug about the irony in this as if he were getting away with something and arrogant in his power, or if he were merely exposing his slave children to the discussions of ideas and books.  And I wonder what Jefferson’s slave family thought about their free relatives.

It’s impossible to know what Jefferson felt about Sally or their four children. Or to presume how she felt about Jefferson: was she doing what she was forced to do, what was expected of her, to guarantee her children the easier life of house slaves?  Did she love him? He freed his four living children with Sally; the daughters moved into the white world.  Jefferson’s sons ended up taking care of Sally and, after she died, moved to Ohio. One of his grandsons, endowed with Jefferson’s red hair and grey eyes, was a Colonel in the Union army.

Jefferson died penniless.  He had inherited debt along with the slaves from his father-in-law and tobacco as a cash crop was no longer profitable.

Though he believed in the slaves should be free, Jefferson feared for the safety of whites at the mercy of former slaves who had, in his words, been subjected to “unremitting despotism” and “degrading submissions.” I wonder if those degrading submissions were Sally’s.

His daughter sold his slaves to pay debts. Ultimately, the slaves, even those who were related to her, were property, a way to get cash when necessary.

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