Blog Post Lucky #75-On the Jefferson Exhibit

As some of you may notice, this is my 75th blog post. This milestone has special significance for me, as 75 is my favorite number. I am also glad that I no longer have only seventy-four blog posts published, as I despise the number 74. It is so close to 75 and yet falls just short of it. (76 is a perfectly nice number.) Now onto the main point of today’s post. I regret not going to the Atlanta History Center more often. It’s a very good museum with some wonderful exhibits. However, prior to yesterday, I had not been since Fall 2010, perhaps because my historical work is rather eclectic. Still, I was determined to attend the Center’s exhibit on Thomas Jefferson and slavery, since taking most of the Founding Fathers to task and demonstrating that they are not heroes is a longtime goal of mine. I was concerned that this exhibit would engage in rationalization of wrongdoing, but I had hopes that it would give Jefferson the excoriation he deserves. When I left the exhibit, my reaction was mixed. On the one hand, they did not do a lot to sugarcoat the details of Jefferson’s slaveholding. Upon walking in, viewers are greeted by a statue of Jefferson. I would be disgusted by the presence of such a statue were it not for the thing behind it: a wall listing the names of slaves held by Jefferson. I thought it was a good way to really drive the point home about the ugly side of America’s third president. There was a very human touch to the exhibit, as visitors are treated to the stories of individual blacks enslaved by Jefferson. It is made clear that children were forced to work alongside the adults, some of them in the nailery, where boys had to swing a hammer over a hot forge up to 20,000 times a day. The horrors of slavery in general are illustrated partly through the display of devices used to restrain slaves. There is not much in the way of the “not all slaves were abused” tripe we still hear from some people. The people who designed the exhibit seem to grasp an obvious fact: holding someone as a slave is automatically abuse. One plaque had a piece of information that was correct but worded in a confusing way. The plaque said, in essence, that Virginia slaves were typically given off Christmas, Easter, and “Whitsun,” seven weeks after Easter. Whitsun, better known as Pentecost, is a holiday that falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter. Of course, it is only one day. The intention of the plaque was probably not to mislead. Still, I first thought upon reading it that the writer of the plaque had intended to imply that slaves did not have to work for seven weeks after Easter, a very different meaning than saying slaves got ONE DAY off and that this day took place seven weeks after Easter. This is only a minor criticism and is actually less of a problem than a part of the Center’s Lincoln exhibit from 2010. In that exhibit, a quote from the Sixteenth president was featured with the last sentence missing, an omission that made Lincoln look more racist than he actually was. Much more problematic than the confusingly worded sentence about Whitsun is the way in which the exhibit refuses to take its own facts to their logical conclusion. Rather than saying that Jefferson was not an admirable man or simply letting visitors form their own views, the exhibit seems to try to excuse his actions to some extent. For one thing, there is talk about how he “could not” extricate himself from the system of slavery. “Could not” implies some sort of concrete impossibility. It would have certainly have been possible for him to become a proto-Garrisonian abolitionist (yes, I know Garrison was not even born until Jefferson’s presidency), tell his slaves that he would not stop them from leaving his plantation, and refuse to enforce the system of slavery in any way. If he had done these things, Jefferson would have been a hero. He chose not to. At the end of the day, money, power, and convenience mattered more to him than the freedom of blacks, and his actions were also tinged by racism. It was not that he could not do the right thing with regard to slavery. Rather, he would not. The other disturbing part of the exhibit is that it tries to give Jefferson at least partial credit for events like the Civil Rights Movement. Because, the thinking goes, Jefferson wrote “All Men are Created Equal,” he should get credit for the strides of individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This idea is absurd. The fact that someone wrote down a moral principle, then chose not live up to it, does not mean they should get credit for the fact that nobler people decided to actually put that principle into practice. It is also very faulty logic to assume that the Phillipses, Douglasses, Truths, and Kings of America decided to fight for freedom, justice, and equality because they read Jefferson’s words. Could one not just as easily say that they came to their conclusions independent of Jefferson and then simply used Jefferson’s words in support of these conclusions? And if the various equality movements of America only existed because of the work of Jefferson and other founders, why has the United States not consistently been the first country to enact the goals of these movements? A slew of nations banned slavery in 1830s and 1840s, avoided a comprehensive legal of system of Jim Crow, and many countries have made far more progress on gay rights than the United States. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence was less revolutionary than it is commonly made out to be. In 1769, an Englishman named Granville Sharp, who was better at living up to his ideals than Jefferson, wrote an antislavery tract. The Atlanta History Center’s exhibit is a good one, but it falls victim to the practice of turd polishing.

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