WWJD?

That’s "Jefferson," you fools. Over at Matthew Yglesias, commenter "small ‘r’ republican" gives the following assessment of my new blog:

This is terribly impolite, but is anyone else filled with ressentiment by smug young Ivy League bloggers? I’m not one very much for the politics of cultural resentment, but I do think Jefferson would really despise our current square-framed-glasses-wearing urban elite.

On the other hand, the mega-city post is interesting in a frightening way, so maybe an equilibrium is reached between irritation and edification.

Ivy League? I confess. Square framed glasses? Only when I’m too sleepy for contacts. Urban elite? Sure. Filled with "ressentiment?" Never. Okay, sometimes. But thanks for the mixed review.

As for Thomas Jefferson, I visted Monticello for the fist time over Memorial Day weekend and highly recommend it. Since DNA evidence conclusively linked a Jefferson male to the children of Sally Hemmings, who was enslaved on the plantation, the foundation that runs Monticello has worked to humanize Jefferson’s slaves. Yes, he allowed his overseer to beat them. Yes, he sold husbands away from wives. Yes, he publicly humiliated runaways. And Jefferson was thought of, both in his own time and now, as the model of a benevolent slave-owner.

Of course, slave-owning was never benevolent. But that historical truth hasn’t penetrated in the Florida panhandle, where two weeks ago I toured the plantation Goodwood and was told by the otherwise excellent guide that the 200 enslaved people there were "actually more like family than slaves." Uh-huh.

8 thoughts on “WWJD?

  1. Joseph

    Quick story: My best friend Bill was engaged in a barroom debate with an acquaintance about our founding fathers and, in the acquaintance’s mind, their awesomeness. When the topic of Jefferson came up, Bill said, “Oh, yeah, well Jefferson owned slaves!” To that, the acquaintance said, “Yeah, but he treated them well,” which generated one of those needle-being-yanked-off-of-the-record, everyone-look-in-your-general-direction, show-stopping moments. Your story only confirms the hilarity of that comment.

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  2. Dana

    Yep, it’s such a common take on TJ. I’m reading a book about myths of the founding fathers right now, and I’ll post more about it later.

    Reply
  3. Mavis Beacon

    Yeah, there’s nothing Thomas Jefferson hated more than the idea of a select group of educated elites running the show. Especially if they aren’t landed white males.

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  4. Sean

    I’ve been to Monticello three times in my life. The first was when I was ten. The second was my senior year of high school, just as the Hemmings claim was becoming big news in the present day (many people don’t realize that Jefferson’s purported frolicking with his slaves was actually a campaign issue in his presidential runs thanks to the blatant partisanship of the press at the time). Actually someone in the group of students I was with asked the guide, an older white man, about the issue and he quickly became rather tongue-tied as he tried uncomfortably to move on.

    Fast forward to the last time I visited, last March, and the change in Monticello’s presentation was evident. Not just the several-times-a-day supplementary tour focusing on the lives of enslaved people at Monticello– I missed that actually– but in terms of the general presentation of the history. We’ve made some interesting strides in terms of public history and slavery in the last decade or so, though with a ways to go and clearly a lot of places that still are completely stuck in the old “Gone With the Wind” and benevolent slave-owner myths. James Horton, a historian at George Washington University, and his wife Lois, a sociology professor at George Mason, have done some interesting work in that regard, in particular related to Monticello’s treatment of slavery and attempts to incorporate its reality into Colonial Williamsubrg.

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