Will History Only Remember the Founders as Slaveowners?
Last year, I decided to take my teenage sons on a trip across the country. We traveled in our motor home, starting in our home state of Utah, visiting sites of historic significance along the way. I am not a historian, but on this trip I discovered that left-leaning benefactors doling out large grants have ensured that visitors are presented with a version of history driven by political correctness—all while ignoring the essential contributions that the American founders made to our Constitution and founding ideals.
Two weeks into our journey, we arrived at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. In front of the ticket office was a sandwich board display advertising a smartphone app called “Slave Life at Monticello.” The goal of the tour and experience was an attempt to divert attention from the man who owned this property, one of America’s Founding Fathers, to slavery. The docent leading the tour of the house never missed an opportunity: as we moved from one floor to another, we were instructed to imagine how difficult it was for the “enslaved servants to carry meal trays up and down this narrow stairway.” At every hearth: “imagine enslaved servants having to carry wood up to these fireplaces…” It just went on and on.
Jefferson’s philosophical and political viewpoints were omitted to leave time for an explanation of how difficult life was for his servants. Not once did the guide omit the adjective “enslaved”—his demeanor was patronizing and condescending to those who made the journey to see Monticello, for anyone vaguely familiar with Thomas Jefferson would know that he owned slaves.
Interestingly, this revisionist-style performance was not presented at Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson’s other home west of Charlottesville. I complimented the docent for enlightening us on the details of the home and the family, and told him how much we appreciated him not making the tour all about slavery, as they did at Monticello. In response, he asked if I would repeat my comments to the staff at the main visitor center, as there was a faction trying to shift the emphasis of the presentation to slavery. When I did so, my comments were met with obvious displeasure by a woman working in the gift shop, who likely disagreed with my feedback.
Later that day we arrived at Montpelier, the home of James Madison. The introductory movie there was a laughable exercise in self-contradiction. On the one hand, masters and slaves were said to experience a mutually beneficial relationship. The movie concluded by evoking the image of “hundreds of African-Americans … enslaved to benefit a single white family.” I am still wondering why they didn’t bother to edit their own efforts upon completion of this feckless presentation.
After viewing the film, we took a tour of the home. The dining room featured cardboard cutouts of individuals who had been known to visit James and Dolley Madison. One such figure was the Marquis de Lafayette, who our guide indicated chided James Madison for not freeing his slaves.
I took this moment to inquire as to whether the Marquis considered Mr. Madison a caring human being, because had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved. She said that it would be necessary to provide for them, so I asked for how long, and would that include descendants. Would he also be responsible for slaves he inherited in perpetuity? Where would she draw the line? She even answered in the affirmative when I asked if history would view Madison in a better light if he released his slaves and they perished.
I also asked if the Marquis would respect laws making the emancipation of slaves illegal. She responded that emancipation was illegal in “some states.” I informed her she was standing in one such state, Virginia. She admitted that today we do not look at the slavery issue in the context of the time it existed, yet she seemed to be completely at ease with her flawed analysis.
Her parting shot on the subject was that Madison did not think blacks and whites could live together. I replied that neither did Lincoln, the Great Emancipator. At that point another visitor asked if we could please go back to talking about the room. (By all means, let’s instead discuss the color of the wallpaper.)
Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.
We experienced the same approach at other sites, including the home of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun and in Colonial Williamsburg.
Calhoun’s home lies in the heart of Clemson University. The home is beautifully maintained, and gives visitors the impression that it is still lived in, with one exception: poster boards with pictures of slaves and their stories are everywhere, even in the doorways of bedrooms, so you are forced to look around them to see the room. I mentioned to the docent that their placement was a distraction, and she agreed, but admitted there was nothing she could do about it.
Our journey would not have been complete without a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. While waiting outside of the Peyton Randolph House, we were informed that the tour would cover the home itself, its rooms, architecture, and a brief description of the family who lived there. After that, the tour would concentrate on the many slaves who served the Randolph family, what life was like for them, and the hardships they were forced to endure.
When I inquired if the tour guide would inform us of the philosophical and numerous political contributions the Randolph family made in Colonial Virginia and in the founding of the American republic, the guide shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, indicating he would not. One of the other guides, a man portraying a slave, admonished me, “We’re not gonna sugarcoat anything.”
Peyton Randolph, a formidable figure from the era of America’s fight for independence, was a cousin to Thomas Jefferson. He presided over the first Continental Congress, was a leading figure opposing the Stamp Act and was the first American to be called “Father of his Country.” Peyton’s brother John was born in this house, and when Peyton was elected speaker of the House of Burgesses, John was his successor as the Colony of Virginia’s attorney general.
Edmund Randolph went to live with his uncle Peyton after his father returned to England. He later became the aide-de-camp for General Washington, served in the Continental Congress, and was the Governor of Virginia during the Philadelphia Convention. He was one of the drafters of the Virginia Plan, served as attorney general under President Washington, and was secretary of state after Jefferson resigned. I find it incredible that this family was not worthy of discussion.
After we returned home, I received newsletters from The Montpelier Foundation and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Both featured stories about a common benefactor who seems to have influenced the way these sites are presented to the public. According to billionaire David Rubenstein, a major donor to both organizations, our “founders’ homes are out of context without slave quarters.” His philanthropy has contributed to the restoration of the main houses and of the slave quarters of both Monticello and Montpelier; however, the edict seems to have gone far beyond restoration and ventured into shifting the focus from two of America’s most significant founders. And other donors seem to be making the same push.
The point is not that the issue of slavery is unworthy of recognition; it is that slavery is dominating the theme of these places to the detriment of the discussion and sharing of the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded. The Montpelier Foundation and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation have lost sight of the ideals these men stood for. Both Jefferson and Madison are buried on their respective properties, and if you go to their places of rest and sit quietly, you can hear them rolling over in their graves.
Suzanne Sherman is a licensed attorney who spends her time home schooling her two sons and lives a homestead lifestyle in the mountains of Northern Utah.