J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Lucia Stanton, Thomas Jefferson, and George Granger

Common-place shares an interview with Lucia Stanton, a self-effacing historian at Monticello, on the publication of her collection Those Who Labor for My Happiness: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

As “Cinder” Stanton describes her career, she started out helping to annotate Thomas Jefferson’s detailed account books and was pulled into writing about the man’s many enslaved workers:
As we developed the content of the new outdoor tour, we tried to prevent his voice from drowning out the voices of the almost four hundred men, women, and children who lived in slavery on the 5,000-acre Monticello plantation during his lifetime. His nearly 20,000 surviving letters swamp their baker’s dozen.

Furthermore, in his writings Jefferson inflated his own agency, sometimes with the breezy use of the personal pronoun (“I work myself upwards of 100 spindles,” he said in connection with his textile shop). And the accounts of Monticello visitors obscured the enslaved with the passive voice (“toddy was brought” and “fires were lighted”). Jefferson’s Farm Book and letters provide names, ages, locations, and occupations but are virtually silent on emotions, values, and even talents, since most of the references to enslaved people deal with negative events like unsatisfactory work, punishment, illness, or death. The slaves’ labor, not their lives, is invariably the issue. The human dimension is almost entirely missing from the Jefferson archive. . . .

Jefferson is the organizing spirit of a web of connections that endlessly entice the researcher and lead to continual illumination as well as further uncertainty. Although he never wrote any kind of tribute to George Granger, phrases such as “George says” or “George knows” or “concluded with George to” help to reveal the remarkable knowledge and character of the only enslaved man to serve him as overseer. Fragmentary references assembled in chronological order bring a towering figure out of the mist, as well as the contours of a story of life at Monticello that George Granger himself might have told.

The casual remark of Jefferson’s son-in-law that tobacco was Granger’s “favorite crop” evokes a man anxiously scanning the western sky for portents of the rain needed for transplanting or stretching a tobacco leaf over his knuckles to determine if the crop was ready for stripping. In Jefferson’s request for seed of the Canada lily that “George found for me in the woods” we can see a man walking the slopes of Monticello with an observant eye and an appreciation of the natural world.

Late in life, Granger was given the challenging twin commissions of making a productive crop for his master and disciplining his own community and family members. Entries in several different records show that on the first day of November 1799, Jefferson consulted his overseer about the expected cider yield of a bushel of apples, and on the second day Granger was dead at the age of sixty-nine.
Stanton’s primary purpose in such research wasn’t publication, like many academic historians, but helping to improve how the staff of Monticello interpreted the site to the public:
All the visitors came armed with preconceptions. Many white people wanted to hear that Jefferson was a “good master” who would have freed his slaves if he could have. Some black visitors viewed slavery through a lens dominated by whips and rape. Many of both races said they would have run away or rebelled if they had been a slave.

And the same story could elicit totally different interpretations. When a guide spoke of the garden plots where Monticello’s enslaved families raised an assortment of produce, some saw them as a sign of a kind and indulgent Jefferson allowing his slaves the time and place to supplement their diet. To others they reflected his severity in depriving them of enough food to sustain health.

Both missed the point by seeing the situation in terms of Jefferson rather than of the enslaved people themselves. Over centuries, slaves throughout the South struggled to maintain one of their few customary rights, the right to cultivate their “own” garden plots in their “own” time. These provided not just a better diet but access to money, for Monticello’s families sold their surplus produce to the Jefferson household and elsewhere. Without minimizing the harshness of the institution of slavery, we wanted to tell a story not just of oppression, but of creative responses to oppression.
For her book, Stanton collected her major behind-the-scenes essays on slavery at Monticello over the years rather than rewriting them into a single study. Those Who Labor for My Happiness thus preserves the site’s shifting interpretations as Stanton and her colleagues brought forward new evidence or looked at older evidence from a new angle.

1 comment:

Chaucerian said...

I was recently at an architectural conference where it was noted how much effort Jefferson had put into designing his dining room in a particular way. He had planned things so that instead of saying (or thinking), "Thank you, Joseph, for cooking the meal in a hot cabin, carrying it many yards along a concealed dark tunnel running under the main house, climbing a steep spiral staircase with the tray, placing it into the back of a certain clever cabinet, and turning the cabinet shelves around a half a revolution, without disturbing me or my guests," he could step to the cabinet, pull open the door, and say, "Voila! The dinner is here!" This fits right in with Ms. Stanton's remarks on agency and who Jefferson thought did what. (And, now that I think of it, he wouldn't have stepped to the cabinet himself. Silly me.)