Monticello and Beyond
“Getting a job at Monticello is harder than getting into this country,” warned a new acquaintance when I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1999. At the time, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most popular Founding Fathers, and his historic house museum had long retained an aura of reverence in his hometown. I was thrilled when I managed to land my dream job as the editor-in-chief’s first hire for the newly launched Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series.
I couldn’t believe my luck as I traveled around the house and property during my full-day orientation, meeting the curators, archaeologists, tour guides, and researchers who would be my new colleagues. But the beautifully restored house and grounds belied the controversy that was challenging its complacent reputation.
Applying legal standards of evidence, lawyer and scholar Annette Gordon-Reed had published a damning book demonstrating how (white, often male) historians had for over a century applied different standards to historical evidence about Jefferson’s relationship with his enslaved servant Sallie Hemings. They had accepted white descendants’ oral tradition denying that Jefferson had fathered her children, for example, while discounting black descendants’ oral tradition that he had. A DNA report linked the Hemings and Jefferson genes. The same month I started my new job, the head archaeologist completed a statistical analysis showing the vanishingly small likelihood that the children had been fathered by anyone other than Jefferson, whose trips to his plantation were well-documented, along with notations of the birth of Hemings’ children nine months later. Monticello’s administration put out a statement, since updated, that Jefferson had likely fathered one if not more of Hemings’ children.
I was surprised by the backlash. Docents quit. People called for the resignation of Monticello’s president. A new group of Jefferson fans and historians formed to refute the claims. Trying to understand these reactions, and how closely (and selectively) people identified with the past, planted the seeds of what became my novel Folly Park.
Today, Monticello tour guides unequivocally state that Jefferson fathered Sallie Hemings’ children. Gordon-Reed sits on Monticello’s board. In 1999, those developments could hardly have been imagined. By reconsidering accepted history and standing by the new truths uncovered, Monticello’s administration created the foundation for eventual change. Similarly, when Jefferson included the idea that all men are created equal in the Declaration of Independence, he laid the groundwork for later Americans to claim it as their birthright.
We can’t know the future, but perhaps we can make it better by doing the right thing today.
Image above: Me at Monticello in 1977 and in 2000.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.