James Hemmings, an enslaved man, addresses Thomas Jefferson while Ben Franklin listens. Also listening are a young man, an enslaved servant and a man and woman dressed in ostentatious 18th-century-style clothing and wigs made of paper.
The company of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden, directed by Nataki Garrett. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

What Should We Teach about Thomas Jefferson?

5 min read

Part of my job at Ford’s is to interpret our plays for student audiences. To prepare for Jefferson’s Garden that meant diving into the legacy of our founding fathers. I first considered, What do students think they know about Thomas Jefferson?

Family hijinks at Monticello circa 1991. I’m in pink.

I imagined my students are familiar with Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Students, I figured, probably knew all about Thomas Jefferson the Writer and maybe Thomas Jefferson the President, but in studying Jefferson’s Garden and history I’ve come to understand there were many roles Jefferson took on.

If I was going to meet visiting students where they were, I had to revisit my own teen impressions of Jefferson. 

Thomas Jefferson image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Jefferson of My Youth

In 1991, when I was 16, my family took a road trip to Charlottesville, Virginia. It was part college visit to see the University of Virginia and part sightseeing at Monticello. 

At both institutions, much was made of Thomas Jefferson the Architect. There was also a great emphasis placed on Thomas Jefferson the Inventor, as well as Thomas Jefferson the Author of the Declaration of Independence. When slavery was mentioned at Monticello, we were introduced to Thomas Jefferson, the Benevolent Slaveholder. He was, I was told then, “good to his slaves.” I was a young student and I believed what I learned in textbooks and on this historic site visit. I left believing Jefferson was a genius.

More than two decades later, this past July, I accompanied a large contingent of Ford’s Theatre staff and the cast and director of our play, Jefferson’s Garden, on a visit to Monticello. There, we were treated to tours of the house, gardens and Thomas Jefferson’s private quarters. Once again, I learned about his many inventions and his great intellectual contributions to America and democracy. This time, though, we had a frank discussion of race and slavery led by one of Monticello’s historians. 

A More Honest View

On this summer’s visit to Monticello, I was able to understand that Thomas Jefferson was a great thinker, but maybe that was because he had the time to study. He had this time because his income was produced by the profits from his land and the enslaved people he owned at Monticello. Jefferson could invent great things and design great institutions because someone else was making his living for him. He had an affinity for fine French goods, books and wines. He had the luxury of travel and the finer things because he exploited human beings who were laboring to make him profit. 

And what about Thomas Jefferson being “good to his slaves?”

Our Monticello guide told us that Thomas Jefferson himself designed the enslavement work regime for the estate, which consisted of 14 hours in summer and nine in winter. Enslaved children began work at age 10 and, according to Monticello’s website, “at the age of 16, enslaved boys and girls were considered full-fledged workers, becoming farm laborers or learning trades.” 

Our Monticello guide also insisted that, “There is no such thing as a kind slaveholder,” and reminded us that violence and beatings and threats of being sold away from one’s family were used routinely against the enslaved people there. I learned that Jefferson supported a system in which enslaved women were reproductive machines, writing in a letter, “I consider a woman who brings a child every two years as more profitable than the best man of the farm.” One enslaved woman on his plantation delivered nine children in 12 years.

Michael Kevin Darnall as James Hemings and Kathryn Tkel as Sally Hemings in the Ford’s Theatre production of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Jefferson’s Garden, directed by Nataki Garrett. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This time, I left Monticello confused about what I felt about Thomas Jefferson. I also felt betrayed by my education. How could I not have been taught this other side of history? I decided to do more research on my own, both in preparation for our presenting the play Jefferson’s Garden and for my own understanding of American history.

In my research for Jefferson’s Garden, I’ve learned that Thomas Jefferson believed black people to be intellectually inferior, writing in his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia, “I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.”

At the same time, Jefferson agreed that slavery was wrong and, in his presidential inauguration speech, he advocated for an end to the international slave trade. His Declaration of Independence is a civics marvel, revolutionary in its scope and definition of government and freedom. And yet, he freed only a handful of his more than 600 enslaved people over the course of his entire life.  

And, then there is Sally Hemings, who was only a young teenager when Jefferson fathered her first child. It is believed that Jefferson’s interactions with Sally Hemings became sexual while she was in Paris with him, when she was between the ages of 15 and 16. Historians and The Thomas Jefferson Foundation believe that Jefferson fathered six of Sally Hemings’ children. Our Monticello guide maintained that Sally was an enslaved girl who had no rights and could not refuse Jefferson’s advances. She was ordered to live in his house, in his room as Jefferson’s chambermaid and so she did. 

How should we teach Jefferson today?

With all this in mind, I’m left wondering what to make of Thomas Jefferson for today’s students.

Can we discuss with students if it is appropriate for schools and libraries to be named for him? I’m wondering how D.C. students should regard the glowing white monument to Jefferson on the Potomac? And, should Thomas Jefferson be featured on our currency? How do we, in our classrooms, reconcile Jefferson’s achievements with his slaveholding?

In short, what should we do about Thomas Jefferson?

Should we erase him from public consciousness entirely? Should we put an asterisk beside his name with a footnote that says “hypocrite?”  Do we continue to maintain, “Times were different then,” or do we do what the now non-profit organization at Monticello seems to do and confront the history, not make apologies or explanations on Jefferson’s behalf, and acknowledge that the actions of our Founding Fathers continue to affect our current racial disparities? 

It isn’t a coincidence that last summer’s protests about Confederate monuments played out in Charlottesville, right in Thomas Jefferson’s backyard. As 16-year-olds today are learning a more honest portrayal of history, I’m hopeful they will use that knowledge to change our country to more truly represent the ideals the Founding Fathers set out—but that they themselves did not follow.

Additional Reading:

Jennie Berman Eng is Arts Education Coordinator at Ford’s Theatre. 

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Jennie Berman Eng was Arts Education Coordinator at Ford’s Theatre.

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