More U.S. Presidents have called Virginia home than any other state in the union. I don’t know what makes me think of that every President’s Day, but there it is.
Within just a few short hours’ drive, we can visit the homes of several of these influential men and one presidential library.
Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, is just outside Charlottesville, a mere hour and fifteen minutes away. I visited Monticello as part of a required day trip with my American and the Enlightenment class. It was required, but I would have gone anyway if it had been optional.
James Madison’s home, Montpelier, is also less than two hours away, and though I haven’t visited yet, I plan to while I still live so close. Woodrow Wilson’s Presidential Library is also nearby, in Staunton.
On a D.C. Travel Study trip, I visited Mt. Vernon, the estate that George Washington built. Wandering the grounds was a spiritual experience in some sense. It was an earnest, patriotic respect for the man who first occupied the executive branch and proved the great American experiment could actually work.
And yet, a cloud hangs over these beautiful places. Because, down the trail from George Washington’s elaborate mansion, is a marker for a mass grave site for his slaves. The marker is new. The burial site remained unmarked for years. A little further down the trail is Washington’s tomb, a giant brick monument to our founding father. Walking along that path, it’s hard not to recognize that Mt. Vernon was built on the backs of nameless souls who never experienced the freedom Washington fought for.
Monticello bears a similar dichotomy. Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, a document that boldly declared that “all men are created equal.” And yet, Jefferson too owned slaves. I’ve heard apologists defend Jefferson’s plantation lifestyle by pointing out how well he — and Washington for that matter — treated slaves, and imply that he wouldn’t have owned slaves if he didn’t have to because of the economics of the time. This argument ignores the example of John Adams, a rival of Jefferson and the first man to live in The White House, and his staunch abolitionism. Jefferson owned slaves at a time when it was morally questionable to do so, and he did it of his own volition.
Does this mean he doesn’t deserve our respect? I don’t think so. Jefferson’s positive influence as a figure of the enlightenment is immeasurable. Humans are flawed, complicated, and prone to failure. When we study history, or the liberal arts, we don’t skip over the ugly parts to perpetuate a false account that fits our imaginations. Washington and Jefferson the slave owners are just as much a part of history as Washington and Jefferson the American revolutionaries. And that perspective gives us more depth, more understanding of the world we’ve built our society on.
I think that’s why President’s Day is important. We need to look at our history, to examine what we value. What is it about Jefferson that we admire? Not his involvement in slavery, but his revolution with the idea of equality as a necessary virtue of democracy. We need to embrace our past, warts and all, so we can prepare for the future.
(Post by Cody Ray Shafer ’14.)