How do you reconcile that a significant number of the men who founded our country owned people? Just as Chris Jackson and Daveed Diggs who played Washington and Jefferson in Hamilton had to struggle with this question, I wanted my students to wrestle with the challenge as well.
I started with a “Human Likert Scale,” which I had encountered recently. Indicating one end of the white board as a “10- Jefferson was a really good man” and the other end as “1- Jefferson was a terrible person,” I asked the students to stand near the approximate location of their response. I was pleased that we have built enough trust that the students didn’t hesitate to stand up and participate. The entire class was clumped together between 2 and 4.
After everyone sat down again and we started discussing Jefferson, it became obvious that the Declaration of Independence and the Louisiana Purchase made little difference to the group, who are almost entirely non-White. They felt the pain of slavery acutely and personally and were unimpressed by Jefferson’s accomplishments in the face of his ownership of slaves.
One student who is White, ventured that the slave owners at the time didn’t know that slavery was bad. This suggestion met with civility but a complete lack of sympathy from the group at large. With the intention of pointing out that the living conditions and beatings had to be hard to miss as inhuman treatment, I asked what it was like to be a slave. The first comment I got was that lighter-skinned slaves tended to have more privileged positions inside the house whereas darker-skinned slaves had the back-breaking work of tending to the fields. This insight came from a student who has the deepest skin tone in our class, and I wondered just how much the dark color of her skin had affected the life she has had and the messages she has been taught.
Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, which began when Hemings was about 14, may have been the ultimate in unforgivable acts for the class. Jefferson started sleeping with Hemings when he was Ambassador to France, and she eventually had six children by him. To play devil’s advocate, because no one else was going to do it, I pointed out that although Hemings was free when she in France since there were no slavery laws, she voluntarily returned with Jefferson to Virginia where she would be a slave again. The students vociferously shot down any implication that Hemings was a willing participant since with Jefferson in such a position of power, Hemings really didn’t have the ability to tell him no. They pointed out that in an abusive relationship, although the victim technically has the ability to leave, there is intense pressure to stay. One courageous student confessed that she had actually pressured her own mother to stay in an abusive relationship because she, herself, had been manipulated by the abuser into believing that if it all fell apart, it was her fault as the daughter. Yes, Jefferson didn’t have a chance with this group.
Although we largely focused on Jefferson, I added that Washington was his own bundle of contradictions. He hated slavery, but since he couldn’t figure out how to make a plantation profitable without slaves, he didn’t free his own slaves until his death. Since Martha Curtis Washington had a large number of slaves from her first marriage, Washington actually freed less than half of his slaves. The rest of the slaves would be freed after Martha’s death, which made for an uncomfortable end of life for her since she constantly wondered if she was going to be hastened to her end.
The Washingtons treated their house slaves extremely well as part of the family, making sure that they were well-clothed and could read and write. Ironically, these qualities made it more likely that these slaves could escape and stay free as several of the slaves did. The Washingtons were both bewildered and hurt at what they saw as betrayals; they didn’t understand that even a well-treated slave is still a slave and souls in bondage thirst for freedom.
I think my students would have given them an earful.