Thomas’s father gave him a farm. It was a small farm, compared to the family holdings in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He took possession of it when he turned 25.
Thomas was a special man. He was not a good farmer, a husband, a slave owner, who could not have made his farm work without his slaves. He had wealth and it afforded him a good education at William & Mary. He was able to tour Europe, sketching architectural elements that later would become the Rotunda of the University of Virginia.
He lived at a time that was significant in the development of mankind. He was one of a few who instituted the first significant democracy of size and scope, with documentary evolution on this earth. I hear so many tell me what a great man he was. Certainly he was surrounded by great men such as Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Patrick Henry. Certainly he was a man of words – truly great words. He had flaws, too.
To many of us, his home on the top of a small mountain near Charlottesville, Va., represents a shrine to a great man, to many, it represents a time and place best forgotten – or perhaps, best never to be forgotten.
For those of us who look into the mirror in the morning and see a black face, it may be a representation of a horrible time. It is much like the confederate (stars and bars) flag. It has real historical significance, yet it has, too, an association with the worst part of humanity.
Certainly, Monticello is best known as the home of a great man. All of us are great – and terrible – all of us contain elements of good and evil. Thomas was no different. He wrote a thesis, when at William and Mary which stated that the negro was equal to 3/5 of a human being. It was a paper that truly failed to understand the value of humanity.
Later, the same man wrote the grand words that constitute the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
What a disparity of thought! His actions, too, reflected this duplicity of self when it came to the “problem” of the African slaves. He wrestled with this throughout his later life. One of the most notable and interesting things about Thomas was his love. When his wife died, Thomas came to love Sally Hemings, his slave. It was not a love of convenience, anything but. It was the most uncomfortable kind of love.
From an article in The Recorder; or, Lady’s and Gentleman’s Miscellany, a Federalist newspaper in Richmond, accuses Thomas Jefferson of keeping one of his slaves, a woman named Sally, “as his concubine” and fathering a child with her. “The President, Again” was published on September 1, 1802, while Jefferson served as president. Written by Thomson Callender.
Certainly, he must have seen the light, the conflict of his words, the disparity and inequity of his actions, as he held his dear Sally in the darkness. Never would he have thought that DNA would, one day, document his secret, laying it before the world for eternity.
He was untrue to himself. He knew better, but failed to act. He loved, but he hid his love, lest it be thought poorly of by his peers. I must say, I am deeply disappointed at this opportunity lost by so great a man. It was another time, if that excuse holds.
Many of us, too, hold such secrets. We harbor prejudices that we pretend not to harbor. We hide them in a closet, locked from the world, only taken out amongst those who we “trust” with such conversation. We believe one thing on the surface, but another hides deeper down, a secret truth, one which will not hold up in the light of day.
There are so many “truths”, so many layers. It is easy to do as Thomas did, to hold one forth, forsaking a greater one. Truth shifts through time. It manifests itself as we age, our experience shapes it, defines it, exposes it, perhaps as fiction.
Sally made meals at Monticello for Thomas and his grand friends. She toiled in the kitchen, then put the plates in the lazy-suzan cupboard to be served to the guests. She, unseen, cleaned, and pulled the covers back, helped the great man off with his boots, and laid with him as the guests retired.
Perhaps there was a greater man at Monticello. Perhaps she was a lady. Even in chains, she rose above it all to show compassion and caring and love to even an imperfect man, imperfect, yet grand.
There is much to learn from Thomas, his successes and his failures. There is much to be learned from Sally, too. I choose to remember her for her soul. Sometimes the least of us can be the greatest. Often things are not as they appear. Truth has many layers.