Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello: Paradox of Liberty

January 27, 2012 – October 14, 2012

National Museum of American History
1300 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC

2nd Floor, East Wing, African American History and Culture Gallery Floor Plan

This exhibition explores slavery and enslaved people in America through the lens of Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence and called slavery an—abominable crime,” yet he was a lifelong slaveholder. In an age inspired by the Declaration of Independence, slavery was pervasive—28% of the American population was enslaved in 1790. The exhibition provides a glimpse into the lives of six slave families—the Hemings, the Gillettes, the Herns, the Fossetts, the Grangers and the Hubbard brothers—living at Monticello and reveals how the paradox of slavery in Jefferson’s world is relevant for generations beyond Jefferson’s lifetime.

Museum objects, works of art, documents, and artifacts found through archaeological excavations at Monticello provide a look at enslaved people as individuals—with names, deep family and marital connections, values, achievements, religious faith, a thirst for literacy and education, and tenacity in the pursuit of freedom. The family stories are brought to the present via Monticello’s Getting Word oral history project, which interviewed 170 descendants of those who lived in slavery on Jefferson’s plantation.

Highlights include the following objects:

  • The portable desk used by Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence
  • Ceramic tableware and wine bottles from Shadwell, the tobacco plantation of Jefferson’s parents, one of four farms (Monticello, Tufton, and Lego were the others) that were part of Jefferson’s agricultural enterprise
  • The headstone of Priscilla Hemmings (Sally’s sister-in-law and nursemaid to Jefferson’s grandchildren, ca. 1776–1830)
  • Bill of sale for a “negro girl slave named Clary,” for 50 pounds
  • Cast-iron cooking pot and kitchen utensils from Mulberry Row (the road encircling the Monticello house). Jefferson provided each family with weekly rations of cornmeal, pork or pickled beef and four salted fish, which had to be supplemented with the food that the enslaved families grew Personal items from slaves such as toothbrushes made with bone handles, combs, metal buttons and shoe and clothing buckles and jewelry

A related garden is on view on the southwest Mall terrace.

This exhibition is organized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and presented in partnership with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.

(image: Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1805)