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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Friday, May 26, 2017

Looking through Jefferson’s Eyes

Another provocative recent article about the eighteenth century is Maurizio Valsania’s “French Hovels, Slave Cabins, and the Limits of Jefferson’s Eyes” on the Oxford University Press blog.

Valsania, a professor of American history at the University of Torino, writes of Thomas Jefferson:
Jefferson’s powerful eyes constantly dissected and analyzed: especially for scientific reasons, Jefferson spied on people’s lives. He always wanted to see, and to see firsthand. During his famous tour of southern France and northern Italy in the spring of 1787, he saw examples of misery and wretchedness—especially where lower classes were concerned. He had entered the shacks of French peasants incognito. To peep into people’s dwellings was for Jefferson the best method to assess their identity and evaluate their circumstances. “You must ferret the people out of their hovels as I have done,” Jefferson wrote to his friend Lafayette, “look into their kettles, eat their bread, loll on their beds under pretence of resting yourself, but in fact to find if they are soft.”

Most likely, this Jeffersonian method of spying did more than just provide reliable sociological data: it enhanced his empathy. Reading this letter to Lafayette, the reader gets the impression that Jefferson drew himself closer to these hapless human beings, pitying them and caring for their conditions, seeing them for who they actually were. But in other ways, Jefferson’s eyes were blind: did he ever actually see his slaves’ cabins? Did he ever ferret slaves out of their shackles to observe and meditate about their condition?

Most of Jefferson’s slaves were confined in cramped living quarters, leading lives undoubtedly worse than those led by French peasants. But there is no clear trace of empathy on the part of Jefferson for his slaves. His correspondence, his memorandum books, and especially his farm book show us how Jefferson consistently saw his slaves—at least the huge majority of them. Black bodies are usually crouched to perform vile doings; they are dirty, their faces often bear a hideous grin, and their countenance is disfigured by hard labor. By and large, Jefferson covered black bodies in “negro cloth,” rough osnaburgs, coarse duffels, or bristly mixtures of hemp and cotton.

In respect to African-American slaves, Jefferson’s eyes were myopic at best. Perhaps this was a personal fault, or perhaps this eighteenth-century man was simply hindered by the peculiar institution in which he was reared. But some slaves at Monticello led deliberate lives and exerted a lot of effort to appear different. In the slave cabins on Mulberry Row, especially those occupied by the large Hemings family, we catch a glimpse of what kind of differentiated selves Jefferson’s luckier “servants” were trying to preserve.
Valsano then quotes Jefferson’s youngest great-grandchild describing one Hemings family she had visited as a little child, recalling their “white counterpane and ruffled pillow cases,” their “little table with it’s [sic] clean white cloth, and a shelf over it, on which stood an old fashioned band box with wall paper covering, representing dogs running.”

I checked those reminiscences, set down in 1889, to see if that descendant might be seeking to mitigate how Jefferson and his immediate family treated their slaves. But they show no sign of that; that great-granddaughter was simply preserving a vibrant memory she had seen with her young, unclouded eyes.

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