Monticello, Virginia, was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the man that all American students learn was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, the third President, and responsible for doubling America’s size with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase (into which he then sent Lewis and Clarke). Monticello was not only where he rested when not in Philadelphia, Washington or Paris, but also an artwork of his own architectural design, and the only house in America to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the Jefferson-designed and equally beautiful University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville).
I was visiting the site as one of 14 teachers attending the Monticello Teacher Institute’s ‘Barringer Research Fellowship for Teachers of American History’, an “immersive professional development opportunity” where, through a week of tours, activities and library visits, teachers have the “opportunity to research and study at Monticello and the Jefferson Library in Charlottesville, Virginia”. When the programme ended, the attendees were expected “to bring conversations about Jefferson’s ideas and Monticello into their classrooms, schools, and communities”, and create teaching materials that make use of the resources at Monticello for a store of lesson plans and supporting materials on the Monticello website known as their ‘digital classroom’. Courtesy of the British Association of American Studies, I was the one British attendee, and was soon pleased to be labelled ‘the redcoat’ by a wonderful Texan.
Each teacher in attendance was given the means and the time to develop lesson plans and teaching resources on their own topic of interest, before presenting to all other attendees on what they had created at the end of the programme. The American teachers focused on many areas: the changing historiography surrounding Jefferson; Monticello and the plantation economy of the American South; the Hemings family and Sally Hemings, who historians now largely agree fathered six of Jefferson’s children; and Jefferson as an inter-cultural communicator. Coming at it from having taught much US politics at A level, my own focus of study was Jefferson’s relationship with the judiciary. The ability of the Supreme Court to take upon itself the right to determine whether legislation was in line with the Constitution was established in the 1803 Marbury versus Madison decision, while Jefferson was President, building on implied aspects of the Constitution and Alexander Hamilton’s ‘Federalist No. 78’. A core statement from that decision – “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is” – is carved into the marble wall of the Supreme Court building in Washington DC. Jefferson wholly disagreed, leaving him at odds with how judicial review functioned in America from then until the present day. His own views on how states and the people could resolve questions of constitutionality laid foundations for the secession crisis of the 1830s and the constitutional arguments that would lead the republic to civil war in the 1860s. The capacity to explore his views through the study of primary material in the surrounding of the home where he had written much of it was truly exceptional.
Monticello is a thorough and exceptionally well-supported training environments for teachers. It has incredibly dedicated staff who know how to support history teachers in developing their own understanding of historical events and the management of primary sources and the teaching of secondary interpretations and shifts in historiography. The staff at Monticello have ensured that it is not merely a temple to American exceptionalism, and Jefferson is not subjected to hagiography in his own home – as one tour guide noted, “we’re not here to turn him into marble”. But at the same time, Jefferson’s impact is not lost – his works and words are celebrated as they are contextualised, the impact of the Declaration explained alongside accounts of the daily exploitation of the enslaved of the plantation. Monticello, although existing to champion the study of Thomas Jefferson, knows well his immense contradictions, and, like Christopher Hitchens, believe it would be “lazy or obvious to [merely] say that he contained contradictions or paradoxes. This is true of everybody, and of everything.”
In summary, Monticello presents itself as the home of the key enlightenment figure Thomas Jefferson, a renaissance man and author of the possibly the finest statement of human liberty put in writing. Yet it also presents itself as a plantation, one among what were many in Virginia and the South, which sustained the high living standard of a white master and his family through the exploitation of enslaved peoples, with a master who physically and sexually exploited his slaves and yet was arrogant enough to think himself enlightened and fair in his treatment. In taking on this role, Monticello is also home to the ‘Getting Word’ oral history project, seeking a greater understanding of the lives of the enslaved at the plantation from the recollections of their descendants. To further make the many facets of Monticello known to its visitors, at one major point in our tour we were stopped and reminded that when Jefferson died, he was in severe debt (Monticello rarely made him money). Unlike Washington, there was no commitment to free the many enslaved people of Monticello, except for five members of the Hemings family. Instead, to cover his debts, his property was sold off. One hundred and thirty enslaved people were auctioned at the house in 1826, most likely on the steps under the portico that faces the garden. This is the façade that has appeared on the reverse of the nickel since 1938; Jefferson’s profile, and the word ‘Liberty’, appear on the obverse. The Monticello Institute can provide for a thorough understanding of not only the ideals of American liberty, but the experience of American slavery, and how slavery, the original sin of the American Republic, must be fully comprehended alongside early America’s virtuous and lofty rhetoric.