Riding back from Savannah this afternoon, I caught most of a public radio story on a local GPB station. The show was Studio 360 and it featured Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, one of a series on American Icons. There was quite a bit about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. That’s a story we all know well today. The best evidence suggests he fathered six children with his Sally Hemings, one of the 600 slaves he owned in his lifetime. Of course, this makes Jefferson’s opposition to ending slavery based primarily on his fear that the mixing of the races would dilute the quality of the genetic stock a bit disingenous. In terms of new information on this front, I learned that many of Jefferson’s white descendants continue to fight the vicious and unfounded “rumor” that their ancestor could have possibly behaved in this way. His moral and religious beliefs make such actions inconceivable, they argue. Hmm. Those beliefs didn’t make his owning 600 slaves impossible? Let’s move on.
Did anyone know that shortly after Jefferson died (in financial ruin, by the way), his estate sold Monticello to a fifth-generation American Jew, Uriah Phillips Levy, who ancestors landed in Savannah in 1733 to join the colony established by James Edward Oglethorpe that same year. Uriah Levy was the first Jewish commander of the United States Navy, the highest rank possible at the time. The Levy family owned and cared for the estate for 90 years. After the turn of the 19th century, there was a widespread, vitrolic, anti-semitic attempt to “take back” Monticello from this immigrant and alien family (recall, at this point the family was about eight or nine generations old). And again here, people associated with the “pure” Monticello story worked hard to keep this part of Monticello’s history buried.
There is much to admire about Thomas Jefferson. As the introduction to the Studio 360 piece suggests, he represents both our highest aspirations and our deepest contradictions.