So, what is your favorite place in America? Yellowstone? Yosemite? Bourbon Street? The Met?
For me, it’s Monticello. To begin, I love the drive there from my home – 2 ½ hours of rolling hills through the Virginia Piedmont. The perfect length for a wonderful drive. Then, when I get to my destination, I can celebrate the lives of one of my heroes. This was the tribute I gave to him in The Creed Room, my first novel:
“Jefferson may not have been the most ethical or courageous of our Founding Fathers ... but he remains the quintessential American genius. Put aside that he wrote our defining political document. That’s just the beginning of his accomplishments. Whether you’re a lover of art, music, philosophy, science, anthropology, religion, nature, language, architecture or literature, you’re mining ore that Jefferson explored at a deep level. I’ve always loved that line from President Kennedy when he brought in a number of Nobel laureates for a formal dinner and announced that this was the greatest assemblage of intelligence at the White House since Jefferson dined alone.... More than the other southern aristocrats, Jefferson created a day-in day-out routine that was remarkable for how it enabled him to cultivate so many scholarly and aesthetic interests and still have time to attend to the affairs of the state. Jefferson strived to create a nation whose citizens could live in freedom, think for themselves, worship whomever they wanted, and develop their talents as much as possible. For the vision of a statesman ... what could be greater than that?”
I went on to say (speaking through a character) that “when I was a kid, I especially loved Monticello’s inventions, like the two doors that open when you only pull one handle. Today, I marvel mostly at the books. He once owned 6,000. Jefferson was like the lead character in ‘Good Will Hunting’ – pick any subject, he’d learn it quickly and never forget what he’d learned. At Monticello, you can see how he learned it. He surrounded himself with beauty, and he treated every hour as a divine gift. Sometimes, when I go there, I turn to face D.C. And I try to keep this in mind: Jefferson wasn’t content just to lift himself up. He felt a duty to help the rest of us too. He and his friends forged a vast wealthy republic unlike any this world had seen. Jefferson was truly a great man.”
If someone had penned that tribute during my childhood, most Americans could easily ignore what was missing. But that was before Annette Gordon-Reed, one of my law school classmates, enlightened the world about Jefferson’s love life. We all already knew about his deep affection for his wife, Martha. But Martha passed away in 1782, when Jefferson was still in his 30s. He was destined to live for another 44 years, and thanks to Gordon-Reed, the world is well aware of the woman with whom he spent many of those years, fathering children.
This weekend, for the first time, visitors to Monticello can attend an exhibit dedicated to Sally Hemmings, Jefferson’s slave ... and the mother of several of his children. The fact that Jefferson owned slaves has never been a secret, but his willingness to sleep with one of those slaves was brushed under the rug for centuries. Instinctively, everyone knows what’s wrong with that relationship. Whenever any man has power over a woman, he can abuse that power by bringing sex into the equation. But nowhere is a power relationship less equal or palatable than when the man is a slave owner and the woman is slave. How can that woman ever be seen as meaningfully “consenting” to sex under those circumstances? Even to ask that question is to answer it.
Jefferson understood the evils of slavery; he even wrote about them. Yet Jefferson was too full of himself and his special mission in life to free his slaves. Their labor power helped turn him into the icon that people like me have been admiring ever since. If you have the chance to be truly “great,” why would you give that up to do something that is merely “good”? That must have been the way Jefferson reasoned, or should I say rationalized, in keeping his slaves. He also rationalized his conduct by writing that African-Americans were intellectually inferior to white people, even attempting to prove his point by contending that the orangutan male is more attracted to black women than to other orangutans. Now in the 21st century, it’s difficult to fathom how a man could be as brilliant as he was in so many ways and yet so unabashedly racist.
To this day, I display a bust of Jefferson in my dining room. That bust is also the image that appears on my cellphone. I recognize his hypocrisy, but it doesn’t destroy my ability to appreciate him, or even to view him in some respects as a role model. (My African-American friends have more difficulty doing that for obvious and damned good reasons.) The term “Jeffersonian Democracy” remains among the most hallowed in political philosophy. That won’t change any time soon.
Yet this weekend, I celebrate the inclusion of an exhibit on Sally Hemmings in Monticello. And I tip my hat to the work of Annette Gordon-Wood. Her unmasking of Jefferson, while appropriate, is far less important than her revealing of the slavery experience – and the fact that the “field” slaves must never be forgotten, even as we focus on the personalities of the “house” slaves like Sally Hemmings. Thanks to Gordon-Wood, Monticello is no longer simply a tribute to the wonders of science, political philosophy and the capacity for individual excellence. It is now also a tribute to the study of history, and the principle that historians must never again ignore uncomfortable facts.
Jefferson was indeed a “great” man. And yet great men are flawed, because all human beings are significantly flawed. Jesus, Muhammad, Moses, all of them. At least that’s my opinion. I have never claimed that Thomas Jefferson is among the greatest of men. I will simply say that he is a personal role model of mine, despite his obvious flaws, and that his house, which he called “Monticello” (little mountain), is my favorite spot in America. This weekend, it just got even better.