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Raiding Monticello

“Balance” may not mean what the tour guides think it means


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In the closing months of the Revolutionary War, as British and American forces worked their way toward Yorktown, a cavalry troop composed of American Loyalists and led by Lt. Col. Bana­stre Tarleton set out to raid the home of Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson. A local patriot named Jack Jouett spotted them, guessed their destination, and rode 40 miles through the night to sound the alarm at Monticello. Jefferson hastily packed up some papers and fled—he was a thinker, not a fighter—leaving Tarleton nothing to raid but the governor’s famous wine cellar.

I visited Monticello in the 1970s, when tours were led by blue-haired Daughters of the American Revolution who set Jefferson on an alabaster pedestal. I visited again six years ago, when the program had expanded to separate tours of the house, the gardens, and the slave quarters. On the latter tour, our guide spoke frankly of the author of “all men are created equal” as a perpetuator of an unequal and unjust institution. He was a great man, our guide affirmed, though flawed. This struck me as a pretty good balance between worship and vilification, and largely fair to the man’s character.

But Monticello has apparently been raided again, this time by leftist ideologues who give Jefferson no credit even as a thinker. Instead, he was an exploiter and oppressor best remembered for keeping a slave mistress. The new theme is determined by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, founded in 1923 and now composed mostly of wealthy Democratic donors and officials who want to “balance” the history. According to at least some visitors, “balance” may not mean what the foundation thinks it means.

To make everything about one thing—whether racism, class warfare, democracy, or socialism—is to diminish all things.

Most reviews on Tripadvisor are positive, mentioning the beautiful, well-kept grounds and knowledgeable guides—also words like “complicated history.” A significant minority, however, register disappointment: “Very weighted to slavery now.” “The woke tour guide will leave you feeling like [Jefferson] started the KKK.” “I think I heard [alleged mistress] Sally Hemings’ name as much as Jefferson’s.” And this, quoting a 13-year-old boy: “Yeah, OK, I get they were trying to tell us Jefferson was not a good guy.”

Beginning with the New York Post, media took notice, and negative press led the foundation to publish an online statement called “Monticello and Honest History.” Complaints about wokeness are “disappointing and inaccurate, but not at all surprising,” they say. Educating the public is a risky venture, they say, bound to attract criticism from those who want to focus on Jefferson as slaveholder and those who’d rather praise him as statesman. (In 10 pages of Tripadvisor reviews, only one represented the former.) For its part, the foundation promises to remain true to Jefferson’s own vision of education, “bolstered by the exercise of reason and a free conscience,” as the path to human progress.

The guide one happens to draw can make or break a tour, and some guides may not be subtle about their ax-grinding. But there’s no denying the obsession with America’s slaveholding past jump-started by Ferguson and dialed to 11 after George Floyd. Visitors to Montpe­l­ier, home of Jefferson’s neighbor James Madison, also report dispiriting tours. “I was kinda thinking we’d be hearing more about the Constitution,” wrote one reviewer (recalling Madison as that document’s chief architect). “But everything here is really about slavery.” Forget “We the People” and “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—everything is about slavery.

To make everything about one thing—whether racism, class warfare, democracy, or socialism—is to diminish all things. Only one idea is big enough to be about everything, and we worship Him so we don’t have to worship earthly heroes. Thankfully, we’ve moved beyond the hero-worship stage. Yet some have overshot even the “Jefferson was a slaveholder, but—” stage to land on “Jefferson was a slaveholder, period.”

How about, “Jefferson was a slaveholder, and, paradoxically, a visionary who expressed the ideal of human equality (endowed by their Creator) in such vivid terms it changed the world.”

Fair enough?


Janie B. Cheaney Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD's annual Children's Book of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.

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