The paradox of Jefferson and slavery

120510_HISTORY_Jefferson.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeApril 2, 2012 – If you live in the Philadelphia area, or are planning a trip to the region this spring or summer, be sure to stop at the National Constitution Center to experience the new exhibit on Thomas Jefferson. A visit to the Old City area is not complete without remembering one of America’s most famous forefathers.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello organized the exhibit, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello”, in partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Monticello was Jefferson’s Virginia home, built on land inherited from his father.

It’s difficult to believe the man who wrote, “All men are created equal,” kept slaves. We can save debating what he actually meant by that phrase for another post, but its common knowledge that Jefferson had a relationship with one of his slaves (Sally Hemmings), whose six children were likely fathered by him. It is historically recorded that he treated his slaves as he would any member of his family. Aside from free labor, he acted as a mentor in a sense, teaching his slaves trade skills so they could find work if they were freed. Historians can’t understand why Jefferson did not free his slaves, especially since he was opposed to slavery.

Susan R. Stein, vice president of museum programs, explains that the exhibit is an attempt to make slavery understandable to a modern audience. That is a challenging task, but Stein says that slavery was omnipresent in America at the time, and that the records kept by Jefferson give us a lot of information on how they lived at Monticello.

The exhibit includes several of Jefferson’s possessions, such as an inkwell in the shape of the philosopher Voltaire, his eyeglasses, and his whalebone ivory and gold walking stick.

While visiting the exhibit, be sure to walk by Graff House, a few blocks away at 7th and Market Streets, the home Jefferson rented while in Philadelphia, and the site where he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Once written, it was signed by the 56 delegates a few blocks south at 5th and Chestnut Streets, at Independence Hall.

As a resident Philadelphian, I am ashamed to admit I didn’t know about Graff House, or that Jefferson wrote the Declaration there. I thought Independence Hall was the site of both the writing and the signing. (Some of the writing also occurred at The City Tavern, at 2nd and Walnut Streets).

I found out about Graff House accidentally last week after a tourist stopped me on 6th Street and asked if I could point him in the direction of Jefferson’s Philadelphia house. Embarrassed, I had to tell him the only home I knew of was in Virginia (Monticello). Unfortunately, Graff house is not presently open to the public.

“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” runs from April 9 through October 19, 2014.

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