On November 3, 2022, in response to an invitation of group of Thomas Jefferson mavens, I went to Jefferson’s get-away residence at Poplar Forest. I was asked to join their tour, to begin at 12:30 p.m., and to field questions after the tour. I was asked also to bring any books on Jefferson that I wished to sign and to sell. I happily agreed to do both. It is to me ever a delight to talk about Thomas Jefferson and it never hurts to sell a few books in the process.

I was wondering how I would be received at Poplar Forest, as I was told repeatedly by a friend who is a docent there that for some reason or other I had been “banned.” “What did you do?” said my friend, who always asks to be anonymous. “What have I done? I have published books.” I have published two books that questioned the received view vis-à-vis Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings: Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and Did Thomas Jefferson Really Father Slave Sally Hemings’ Black Children: A Scholarly Analysis. In the first, I focused on the skimble-scamble arguments for Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children. In the second, I marshaled all the available, relevant evidence both pro and con Jefferson’s paternity—pro being Jefferson fathered all of SH’s children; con being Jefferson did not father all of SH’s children—and showed quite easily the uncogency of the pro-paternity thesis, while arguing that the evidence favors the thesis that Jefferson fathered none of Hemings’ children.

And so, to answer the simple question, I can only say that I dared to express in published works a conclusion in contradiction to the received view at Poplar Forest, exported there by Monticello’s network of prominent anti-Jeffersonians: Leslie Greene Bowman, Andrew O’Shaughnessy (who once told me, “You don’t dig in the say garden as the rest of us”), Peter Onuf, and Fraser Neiman, inter alii.

The hypothesis that Jefferson fathered not only Hemings’ last child, Eston, but also all of Sally Hemings’ children had formally been proclaimed factual in June 2018 by President Leslie Greene Bowman of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. That was an outrageous proclamation, discreditably so, given that DNA from one descendent of Hemings’ last child, Eston, had only been tested in 1998 and that there are no first-hand accounts testifying on behalf of a relationship (see my talk at Abbeville), but it was the logical denouement, the capstone, of a series of outrageous proclamations over the years by the anti-Jeffersonians at Monticello.

There was prior to the 2018 proclamation the “discovery” of Sally Hemings’ room in the South Dependency—a disclosure that was said by the various media to be so temptingly near Jefferson’s own bedroom (though that was not the case) that sleep for Jefferson was not an option![1]

Why, I asked, was it so important to locate Hemings’ room?

That would make material Hemings’ existence—there cannot be P’s room without there being P—and it would also denigrate even more Thomas Jefferson, who dined, worked, and slept in luxury—so goes the denigrative narrative—while the woman he ravaged at his discretion lived in squalor. Bashing Thomas Jefferson has been in vogue at least since the arrival at University of Virginia of Pete Onuf, who became the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Scholar at UVa in 1989. Onuf, the soi-disant “Dude” of UVa, was never shy of his detestation of Jefferson. As Dr. White Mackenzie Wallenborn, a very kindly and soft-spoken man (very Jefferson-like!), noted, Onuf once said, “We are going to have to knock Jefferson off his pedestal.” Wallenborn in a 2001 essay offers a graphic illustration of the circus-like atmosphere at Monticello during the many months when Jefferson’s paternity was being “analyzed.”[2]

These days, it is commonplace to knock down statues and remove paintings of Jefferson, because he was a racist, rapist, and hypocrite. The city that he mostly created, Charlottesville, refuses today to celebrate his birthday and celebrates instead on that day, as if to mock Jefferson, “Liberation and Freedom Day”—the day that Charlottesville officially surrendered to Union troops during the Civil War. Says former city councilor Wes Bellamy: “It’s very hard to expect us to celebrate an individual who … raped Sally Hemings and other slaves, and was just a treacherous slave owner. It’s difficult to celebrate his birthday and at the same time celebrate the day in which enslaved Africans were set free. It doesn’t go hand in hand with the city and the representation of what we’re trying to do to move forward.”[3] The “we” here is likely not representative of the majority view of all citizens of Charlottesville.

I am not a denigrator of Jefferson, but I am also not an apologist. I have too much respect for academic integrity and truthfulness. Yet though I have published 22 books on Thomas Jefferson, I am seldom taken seriously by most Jeffersonian scholars, given that I am a loud and unwavering critic of the Jeffersonian revisionists, a sworn enemy of presentist history, and an execrator of Progressive historiography. I admit to being a dinosaur in the discipline, for I maintain that that political posturing has no place in history, that figures ought to be studied within the “confines” of the mores of their day, not ours, and that history ought to be veridical and fact-based. I acknowledge that historians’ narratives always contain much fiction—it is impossible to craft a flowing narrative without fiction—but historians ought never to sacrifice truth for flow and there is an obligation of historians to preface surmise with caveats such as, “In what follows, I merely speculate on the most likely course of events, given paucity of evidence.”

Such things noted, Progressive revisionism predominates in Jeffersonian scholarship, as it does today in much of American history. Historians who write ever through the lens of race or gender dysphoria are amply rewarded. For instance, Professor Irene Cheng has immensely aided us by teaching us that Jefferson’s use of grids and octagons in his architecture is evidence of his racism.

Jefferson’s belief that geometric forms could literally help shape a future society—similar to how a written constitution directs a future polity—was predicated on an Enlightenment faith in the possibility of remaking the world in a more orderly and reasoned image. This image, while ostensibly universal, was in fact deeply imbued with racial particularity and hierarchy. The grid both materially facilitated and rationalized a system of land tenure that enabled white Americans’ expropriation of land from Native Americans. Concomitantly, the octagon manifested an aesthetic ideal of the private, rational liberal subject able to exercise visual sovereignty over his surrounding domain. The ideal geometries of Jefferson’s utopian vision supported forms of sovereignty that entailed freedom and equality for some, enslavement and dispossession for others.[4]

Yet that is the historical climate in which we today live. One either accepts the vogue, joins the clan of Progressive revisionists, and shares in the spoils in and rewards of the amaranthine war against Thomas Jefferson: publications, tenured slots, etc.

So much for my prefatory remarks.

When I arrived at Poplar Forest, I was greeted cordially by Debbie *****, who had invited me. I went through the gift shop and emptied the bag of some 22 books that I had brought with me on one of several benches beneath some trees. Those books included Thomas Jefferson in Paris: The Ministry of a Virginian “Looker on” (2022);  The Scholars’ Thomas Jefferson: Vital Writings of a Vital American, Cambridge Scholars (2021); Did Thomas Jefferson Really Father Sally Hemings’ Black Children? A Scholarly Analysis of the Historical and Genetic Evidence (2021):  American Messiah: The Surprisingly Simple Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson (2020); Thirty-Six More Essays, Plus another, on the Probing Mind of Thomas Jefferson (2020); Jefferson’s Bible: Text with Introduction and Critical Commentary (2018); Thomas Jefferson, Moralist (2017); Jefferson’s Political Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Utopia (2017); Thomas Jefferson’s Philosophy of Education: A Utopian Dream (2014); and Dutiful Correspondent: Philosophical Essays on Thomas Jefferson (2013). I sold one—Thomas Jefferson, Moralist—and then went on the tour when the time was right.

Our docent, part of the group, was very knowledgeable apropos of Jefferson, and thus I merely added to some of her comments throughout the tour and readied myself to field questions, and hopefully to sell a few more books.

It soon became apparent during the tour that we were being watched—more accurately, I was being watched, in the event, I presume, that I might tell the group that Jefferson was not racist or that he very likely did not have any interest in Sally Hemings. The docent toward the end of the tour became sheepish and essayed to hurry the group through the remainder of the tour. At tour’s end, she stated that it was best that I leave, or at least be very guarded, or quiet, in parceling any views on Thomas Jefferson that might differ from the official Poplar Forest narrative.

As I returned to the gift shop, I noticed that my books were gone—they had been confiscated—and they were in a large bag in one of the rear rooms of the gift shop. I retrieved them. A friend later told me that that was graspable, for it was like one going to a movie theater and bringing one’s own popcorn. That was not the case, however. There was large tension when I reentered the gift shop and I felt the hot breath of animosity. I really was not welcome at Poplar Forest. I left with my books.

When I got home, I thought about Jefferson’s Brobdingnagian contributions to the liberties we are today supposed to enjoy: freedom of religion, freedom of action, and freedom of speech. There was no freedom of speech that day at Poplar Forest. There never is freedom of speech at Monticello. And so, the American lion, who campaigned like no other American in his day for our liberties, can only be turning face-down in his casket.

****************

[1] M. Andrew Holowchak, “A Monticellian ‘Useful Fiction’? Sally Hemings’ Bedroom at Monticello” (with Vivienne Kelly), The Journal of Thomas Jefferson’s Life and Times, Vol. 2, Ed. 1, ****.

[2] White Mackenzie Wallenborn, “A Committee Insider’s Viewpoint,” The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty (Charlottesville: Jefferson Editions, 2001), 55–67.

[3] M. Andrew Holowchak, “When Civil Rights Activism Runs Afoul: A Critical Response to Charlottesville’s Refusal to Celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s Birthday,” Essays, Short, on the Mind Thomas Jefferson, essay 21 (forthcoming).

[4] Irene Cheng, “The Racial Geometry of the Nation: Thomas Jefferson’s Grids and Octagons,” Race and Vision in the Nineteenth Century of the United Sates, ed. Shirley Samuels Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2019), 17–18.


M. Andrew Holowchak

M. Andrew Holowchak, Ph.D., is a retired professor of philosophy and history, who taught at institutions such as University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan, Rutgers University, Camden, Ohio University. He is editor of Journal of Thomas Jefferson and His Time and author/editor of over 50 books and over 200 published essays on topics such as ethics, ancient philosophy, science, psychoanalysis, and critical thinking. His current research is on Thomas Jefferson—he is acknowledged by many scholars to be the world’s foremost authority and over 100 essays on Jefferson. Like Jefferson, he has a passion for “putting up and pulling down,” but his putting up and pulling down is not architectural, but done on a landscape or in a garden. He also enjoys lifting weights, bike riding, conferencing, and talking about Thomas Jefferson.

3 Comments

  • Paul Yarbrough says:

    Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.
    Mark Twain

  • Valerie Protopapas says:

    By now, anyone with an IQ of over .6 should know that anything correct that doesn’t fit the “current orthodoxy (narrative)” is disallowed, period. I am not apologist for Voltaire, but he put it best when he said, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend TO THE DEATH your right to say it!” When people can be silenced because what they have to say is not “permitted,” we are slaves.

  • Dagnabbit! I grew up in a Republican rural area. I came to college in 1960 and I really liked the humanities professor in my humanities course. The old South “Liberal Arts” teacher. Later, I increasingly embrace the liberal ideas of the 70s and 80s. I liked the idea of being a college professor.

    Trump scares me. Too radical right for me. Too much “greed” is accepted as part of being rich and/or powerful.

    However, whenever I read an article like this, my political meter swings to a hard Right of center!

    I wonder?
    Seems to me that one reason the old guard is being canceled is that they were better than you are! This, to the liberals, is not accepted, as anyone not as good feels invalidated. Everyone has to be equal. period. no one can rise above anyone else in any way whatsoever.
    Socialism.

    my respect for Professors is at an all-time low!

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