The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
Substitute “Jefferson” for “Caesar” in Marc Anthony’s funeral speech, and you have a tidy summation of the guided “woke” tours at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.
On July 5th—the day after our nation once again celebrated the Declaration of Independence, that key document in America’s history which was largely authored by Jefferson—my daughter, her husband, and their children traveled south from my home to Charlottesville, VA to visit Monticello. All of them thoroughly enjoyed seeing the house and the gardens, but the adults and the three teens in this crew all returned home complaining about the tour. Their guide, whom they described as “woke,” spent more time discussing Monticello’s slaves and Jefferson’s shame as their owner than he did the man himself.
Less than a week later, as if to confirm their impressions, two articles appeared online describing this same scenario.
The disappointment of visiting tourists is described by Mary Kay Linge and Jon Levine in the New York Post. The tours are conducted by guides who constantly drop disparaging remarks about Jefferson, while the paintings and signs added to the house and gift shop condemn Jefferson as a slave owner. Some of this emphasis amounts to nothing more than propaganda. A placard on a part of the outside tour, for example, reads, “Is ‘all men are created equal’ being lived up to in our country today?” and then explains that it is not, going on to ask, “When will we know when it is?”
Robert Spencer references the Post article in a PJ Media article, but adds this interesting impression left by a Monticello visitor on Facebook:
Visited a few years ago and had a great experience and got to learn a lot about Thomas Jefferson. This time every video slandered his name and the entire focus was on his mistress. Very disappointing and shocking to see how they are trying to rewrite history to make it seem like the founding fathers were terrible immoral creatures that happened to start a country.
At a 1962 gathering at the White House to honor Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere, President John F. Kennedy famously remarked:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.
In light of these remarks and the massive impact of Jefferson on the history of the United States, these guides and their supervisors with their videos and signboards deserve the contempt of every tourist to Monticello for their unbalanced narratives. Visitors come to Jefferson’s house to marvel at its design, to honor the man who wrote the Declaration, and to learn more about his story: governor of Virginia during several years of the Revolution, America’s first Secretary of State, vice president during the John Adams’ administration, and third president of the United States.
Do these tour guides mention that Jefferson was tormented all his life by slavery, torn by the knowledge that it was wrong yet unable to give up the lifestyle it afforded him? Jefferson himself documented this struggle in writing. Do they mention that in the initial draft of the Declaration Jefferson condemned the international slave trade, a section that aroused fierce debate and was then discarded? Do they tell their listeners that during his presidency he campaigned successfully to have the Congress abolish this trade?
Do the guides tell the story of Martin Hemmings, one of Jefferson’s slaves? After Jefferson fled Monticello in June, 1781, just minutes ahead of British cavalry eager to capture him, an officer pointed a gun at Hemmings and threatened to shoot him if he refused to reveal the whereabouts of his master. “Fire away, then,” said Hemmings. He was left unharmed, but surely his loyal response underlines a more complicated relationship between master and slave than the one presented as valid history at Monticello.
These guides make a sad spectacle of themselves when they deliver their spiels with neither nuance nor respect. The great majority of their audience knows that Jefferson owned slaves. They also know him as one of the great figures of our history. They’re able to hold both these ideas in mind at the same time.
Apparently, those who now control the tours at Monticello lack that ability. Like so many others spouting off lopsided views of the past, these so-called guides strike many visitors at best as ill-informed bigots, at worst as ignorant blockheads.
Image Credit: Flickr-Arthur T. Labar, CC BY-NC 2.08 comments