Last week, I traveled with some friends to visit Monticello, the home of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. My friend and I had both visited it as young children and we shared a remarkably consistent set of memories: fried chicken at Mitchie Tavern; the beautiful, welcoming estate on the mountain; lovely gardens to savor.
This time, much was the same, but there was also change. The fried chicken was still delicious, but the Tavern had added a wing. The estate was still lovely, but the emphasis in the presentations had changed to reflect current trends in scholarship on Jefferson, particularly the continuing controversy about the tension between Jefferson’s democratic ideals and his ownership of slaves. Tour guides in the house talked openly about his relationship with Sally Hemmings. Visitors could take a “slavery tour” in addition to the “garden tour.” The explanatory placards had been updated to reflect not only Jefferson’s life and habits, but also the lives and experiences of the enslaved persons who made his lifestyle possible. There was even a discussion about how Jefferson may have seen himself by the end of his life, sparked by a set of portraits that placed him among representations of some emperors. It was a profound shift from the very idealistic treatment of Jefferson I remember from earlier times.
One of my friends is a man who cannot say Jefferson’s name without derision, so acutely does he feel the contradictions between the greatness of Jefferson’s ideas and the failings of his mortal life. To me, this seems overly harsh. When I stand before the throne of judgment, I hope be judged by the best I have achieved, and not simply condemned for the worst. There is enough hypocrisy in anyone’s life to condemn us if we are received without mercy.
For myself, I would rather remember Jefferson for the gifts he has given this country, without airbrushing him into a false sanctity. I would rather look for the good in people, even if I have to look very hard, than seek a reason to dismiss them. I think my own salvation may depend on it.