Monticello and Lost Genius
See, I have a strange and unshakeable crush on Thomas Jefferson, and have for a long time. I told my husband this was like the hometown date on The Bachelor. I was checking out Thomas’s hometown and at the end I’d decide if he or my husband of six years would get the rose.
Michael won, btw, because it turns out Jefferson owned slaves and is now a skeleton.
However, other aspects of Jefferson’s life are incredible: the architecture, the library, the gardens, and the University of Virginia all blew me away. He had an amazing mind – a mind worth flocking to and admiring, there’s no doubt.
We took a near-private “Slavery at Monticello” tour, which I was thrilled to do after visiting the companion exhibit at the National American History Museum. As we strolled down Mulberry Row and heard about the lives of Monticello’s enslaved workers, our white tour guide told us that he and many black visitors to Monticello believe the site belongs, at least in great part, to the African-American community.
After all, slaves built every impressive Monticello archway; slaves developed the French recipes that made the house’s kitchen famous; slaves tended the massive terrace garden. Slaves even flattened the mountain’s landscape to make construction possible in the first place.
With about 160 slaves working the property on a given day, these men and women made up around 75% of the population of Monticello. In a way, 75% of that little mountain belongs to them and should be their legacy.
The guide added that a lot of people don’t agree. When he gives these figures, he says a lot of times someone from the back of the group will yell out that the site belongs to everyone, and most of all to Jefferson.
It takes some humility to admit otherwise; to say yes, this is a famous house of one of the greatest minds in history – and yet, quite literally, he “didn’t build that.”
Walking back toward the house after the tour, I pointed out to my husband that Jefferson’s mind was still amazing, even if slaves were the ones who implemented his ideas. He read and wrote in six languages; and his designs are a big part of what makes Monticello so impressive.
Michael responded with something I hope I never forget:
“That’s true,” he pointed out. “But maybe the slaves here could have done even better if they were free and had the same opportunities. Imagine how many languages they might speak. You don’t know: maybe we could be at a different estate right now, admiring their minds even more, if they’d been given the chance to use their gifts like Jefferson did.”
Monticello naturally reminds visitors of the human potential, as it should. But it also reminds us of potential never realized. It’s possible to see both in the same elegant, miserable house, and wish for a better world where we never miss out on the best that each person, “created equal,” has to offer.