Jefferson's hidden slave legacy told on radio

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[Allan Little's programme on Thomas Jefferson, America's First Principles,will be broadcast on BBC World Service radio from Sunday 26 October.]

Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello is a place of pilgrimage for Americans of every political stripe.

Thousands come every day.

They stand on the terrace and look down on the forested green plains of Virginia.

They gaze in awe at Jefferson's little chess set, where he sat, 200 years ago, with his friend and apostle James Madison.

Between them, these two men in effect dreamed a new nation into existence.

Jefferson designed Monticello himself.

It is true to the man - the elegant proportions, the white domed roof above pillared porticoes, the bricks so brown they are almost ebony - the colour of the Virginia soil from which they were hewn and baked.

Huge sash windows bring light flooding in. This is the aesthetic of the rational eighteenth century mind - the Enlightenment in architectural form.

But slave hands baked those bricks and stacked them, and throughout his life time more than two hundred slaves - Jefferson's personal property - worked the fields of his estate.

Slavery and equality

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

The words of the American Declaration of Independence are Jefferson's own.

All men, he goes on, "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" and among these are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

How did the author of that ringing declaration of universal human rights reconcile himself to the ownership of slaves?

It is one of the great contradictions of Jefferson's life, of his age, and of the America that he and the founding generations conjured into being.

Jefferson's wife, Martha, died in the 10th year of their marriage.

Present in the room at the moment of her death, with Jefferson himself, was Martha's half-sister, a young slave girl called Sally Hemings. She was the daughter of Martha's own father and a slave called Elizabeth.

Slave Mistress

Years later, in Paris, Jefferson began a relationship with Sally. Together, they had six children.

Jefferson's enemies accused him of misconduct and tried to use the scandal against him when he ran for president. It didn't work. Jefferson said nothing, neither confirming nor denying it.

For 200 years, Jefferson scholars for the most part dismissed what came to be known as the "Sally Question" as implausible.

The Jefferson that Americans had written into their national mythology - the Jefferson who is carved into Mount Rushmore - could not have had such a relationship.

It could not be allowed to stand.

New evidence

Recently, Professor Annette Gordon-Reed rescued Sally and the entire slave population of Monticello from the shadows and gave them flesh and blood, names, characters, personalities and life stories.

DNA evidence establishes beyond doubt that Jefferson fathered Sally's children.

Her remarkable research challenges a certain conception of America, an idea of the Republic that has prevailed for 200 years.

Why, I asked her, do so many Americans continue to resist the idea that Sally was so intimately involved in the life of the greatest of all the founding fathers?

"I think it points to contemporary racial attitudes," she told me.

"They are very much like past racial attitudes. Jefferson is seen as the embodiment of the American spirit. It is absolutely about ownership of the story of the Republic, of the Republic itself.

"If you founded something, you own it. And the founding story is of a group of white men who come together with high ideals and found this new nation."..

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