The National Museum of African American History and Culture and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation have collaborated in presenting a Washington, D.C., exhibit examining the complex and often contradictory life of slaves at Jefferson’s home Monticello. “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” opened today in the NMAAHC Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on the National Mall. It looks at not only the lives of slaves during Jefferson’s lifetime but also the successor generations who went on to become leading figures in politics and the civil rights movement.
The New York Times story about the display raises one of the more popular and controversial moral questions surrounding Jefferson and slavery: It’s easy to call the man who wrote “all men are created equal” a hypocrite, far more difficult to prove the accusation. “What does it mean that such a man not only held slaves but also devoted considerable attention to their status, their mode of life and, yes, their profitability? What was the connection between his ideals and the blunt reality?” the story asks. “These are not just biographical questions; they are national ones.”
I hope to see the display sometime this summer. It looks like one of the better museum-based efforts to examine Jefferson and the world of his slaves, the world of Monticello slaves and their problematic master who was also the American Pen of Liberty.