Reimagining Monticello after Jefferson’s Fall

Monticello. Credit: NPR

by Kenneth W. Gatten III

Among the American founders, Thomas Jefferson is most enduring: as historian Jon Meacham writes, “With… his sense of taste and love of beautiful things – of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine – Jefferson is more alive, convivial.” On display at his home and museum of Monticello, these qualities have also made the third president a uniquely controversial figure. Jefferson’s fame even seems approaching notoriety as thorny facts continue to emerge about his treatment of slaves and illicit liaison with a 15-year-old Sally Hemings.

During the summer of 2020, nationwide protests against racial injustice condemned Jefferson, whose statues were shrouded from public view after an outcry in Decatur, Georgia, and spray-painted with the word “Confederate” and toppled in Portland, Oregon. As a focal point of potentially the largest movement in U.S. history, the fate of historical figures including Jefferson is at the front of the collective public conscience. Should he be rebuked, forgotten?

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates the Monticello museum, claims to offer an experience for visitors to answer this question by “bring[ing] history forward into national and global dialogues.” But my recent visit proves otherwise.

Others and I recall emphasis placed on Jefferson’s genius; his authorship of the Declaration of Independence; his European architectural influences, et cetera. In short, I feel as though I encountered something historically monumental. But it was entirely relegated to the abstract past. I never interacted with an exhibit that described Jefferson’s activities as part of a continuous timeline of human action—as ideas with relevance in current affairs.

To devise a solution, one must first ask what a museum, or memory site, is. As French historian Pierre Nora explains, lieux de memoire “are created by a play of memory and history.” So, while Monticello is a monument to history – to man and era of the distant past – it must also offer the visitor a story that explains why it deserves to be remembered.

Locked in a permanent tug-and-pull relationship, Nora explains, memory “is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present,” and history “is a representation of the past.” According to Nora, the role of historians and archivists at Monticello, therefore, is not only to sort out “the gigantic and breathtaking storehouse of a material stock of what it would be impossible for us to remember.” It is also to form a narrative. Curators must select and deselect certain events to present a story that helps visitors make sense of the memory site, a historical artifact, and convince them that it is worth remembering in the present—that the past is relevant now.

To make Monticello an effective memory site, I propose that a small theater be erected in the visitor’s center to offer a free, 20-minute documentary to append tours. The film will feature commentary by historians (such as Meacham), journalists, and civil rights activists, who will review the legacy of Jefferson’s ideas in American history, discuss the current protests, and evaluate pro- and anti-Jefferson arguments.

As such, the film will not advocate a form of “restorative nostalgia,” coined by scholar Svetlana Boym. The film will not “pretend to rebuild the mythical place called home” by reducing and romanticizing its subject like some historians, who ignore the inequities of Jefferson’s circumstances and behold them as a perfect past to restore.

It will instead exemplify Boym’s notion of “reflective nostalgia,” or be “aware of the gap between identity and resemblance.” By fairly representing a dialogue between diverse and differing opinions, the film will, of course, make a case for honoring Jefferson’s legacy. But it will equally represent compelling counterarguments—arguments rooted in the values of an American identity that is fundamentally different from Jefferson’s.

Ultimately, the sine qua non of the Monticello museum is to illustrate that Jefferson is very much alive, and that his voice rings in ongoing debates to remember or rebuke figures of American history.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation should fulfill its mission by adding an auxiliary exhibit that brings history forward into national dialogues. Otherwise, Monticello and Jefferson himself might end up on the wrong side of it.

Kenneth W. Gatten III is managing editor of the Kalliope Undergraduate Literary Journal at Pennsylvania State University.

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26 responses to “Reimagining Monticello after Jefferson’s Fall

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    The first thing Monticello should do is reimagine the cost of admission.
    29 bucks for a self guided tour.
    350 bucks for private 5 person guided tour.
    10 bucks for a virtual tour on your computer.

    The irony. When Jefferson lived here it was all free. You could be a total stranger, take a horse up the mountain, knock on the door, and be fed/lodged and housed. You might even meet the sage himself. The old time Virginia tradition of hospitality was something Jefferson never forgot.

  2. Thanks, Mr. Gatten, for an interesting post. The ideas of “restorative nostalgia” and “reflective nostalgia” are new to me but do seem to be useful as we discuss as a nation how to deal with important figures of the past with many great accomplishments who also were imperfect people, many of whom would be considered repellent to us if they behaved in the same way today (i.e., holding slaves, raping a 15 year old girl (“illicit liaison” is insufficient) etc.).

    I like the idea of presenting multiple narratives and perspectives informed by present day morality and schools of thought. I think there is also room (not in a 20 minute video, but in other museums and textbooks, etc.) to also present information about how these figures have been interpreted in the past by others, and how our understanding of their lives and contributions have changed over time.

    There is no need to “cancel” these historical figures. We can both admire their virtues and condemn their faults and failings. I sometimes wonder if we are reluctant to do the condemnation part because we fear that in some future where our own actions are viewed from a new lens, we will be found to have great failings of our own.

    As a side note, I wonder when people will start to try to “cancel” Abraham Lincoln, everyone’s favorite president. Despite his intriguing relationship with Frederick Douglas and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he was a pretty serious racist and not actually an abolitionist.

    • *Frederick Douglass

      • Not an abolitionist? Damn. Secession over nothing. Very quickly abolition resulted, so he was an abolitionist after all. But also a politician. Oddly enough, another historical lesson about violence backfiring badly on those who resort to it.

    • “As a side note, I wonder when people will start to try to “cancel” Abraham Lincoln, everyone’s favorite president. Despite his intriguing relationship with Frederick Douglas and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, he was a pretty serious racist and not actually an abolitionist.”

      You need not wonder about that as it’s already happening. I personally think that is both unfair and destructive to our national unity.

      Lincoln was sufficiently opposed to slavery that before he had even taken office the South was ready to secede. On the spectrum of abolitionist feelings, I think it fair to conclude that Lincoln was ready to do whatever possible just short of breaking up the Union. Prior to the election at least I think he favored a gradual elimination, but the injustice of slavery tormented him greatly.

      To gage his true feelings on the matter, it’s helpful to read his personal correspondence, which he had no way of knowing would one day become public.

      “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor or degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].”

      Were it not for the issue of slavery, Lincoln most likely wouldn’t have reenter politics after his short time as a U.S. Representative. As he stated:

      “I was losing interest in politics, when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again.”

  3. Just have to avoid that whole “feet of clay” thingy.

  4. It has been many years since I have been to Monticello; it is on my to-do list. Also, I have not been to Mt. Vernon for many years. It is my understanding that Mt. Vernon has a visitor’s center in which one can watch an interpretive film before taking the tour, much like what Mr. Gatten is proposing for Monticello. It was pretty costly to construct–there was a major fund-raising drive.

    Coincidentally, I am reading a book of essays by Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist. In an essay on memory, he defines “nostalgia” as being “about a fantasy that never takes place, one that maintains itself by not being fulfilled. And yet, such fantasies are not just idle daydreams or fancies; they press toward some sort of fulfillment….”

  5. FYEO…
    Master Frye, Master Frye…

  6. Monticello has done an excellent job of continually telling the story of Jefferson. The idea of a 20 minute film by historians like Meacham is excellent. And, he is the Chair of the Foundation.

  7. In Alabama there is something called the RTJ Golf Trail. It is a coordinated collection of 11 golf courses, all designed by Robert Trent Jones (RTJ). The theory is that people will come to Alabama (usually in groups evenly divisible by four) to play one golf course after another as part of a golf vacation. The effort was established by The Retirement System of Alabama. As Wikipedia writes … The mission was to effectively diversify the assets of the state’s pension fund and economically help the state of Alabama, the philosophy being that “the stronger the Retirement Systems of Alabama can make Alabama, the stronger the Retirement Systems will be.”

    Enlightened bureaucracy.

    Should Virginia consider the “American History Tour”. It could start at Jamestown and and at Gettysburg (OK, I know – that Pennsylvania). Or, end at Appomattox.

    The goal would be to promote tourism (and historical understanding) in Virginia.

  8. “…and illicit liaison with a 15-year-old Sally Hemings.”
    A guess not a fact. Could just as easily have been his Uncle or several nephews that did the deed.
    And why didn’t he free his slaves. Sadly they were collateral for debt, and if he had freed them the bank would have gone and gotten their collateral and sold it (them) off. Maybe to better owners ,,, or worse, but families would surely have been split up….

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