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I recently returned from visits to Scranton, Williamsport, and Wellsboro, PA, and from 4th of July at Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota and opened up the internet to see the following headline and article from the Washington Post writer, Britni Danielle
Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.
After portraying Mr. Jefferson to these various audiences, then reading Ms. Danielle’s expression of outrage towards historians and commentators who did not share her anger on behalf of “the enslaved woman who, historians believe, gave birth to six of Jefferson’s children,” I felt sorry for the younger generation.
I do not criticize Ms. Danielle’s perspective. Mr. Jefferson’s historic persona has been justly modified to highlight his failure to personally back up his lofty rhetoric with action, a process that has been going on since 1802, and intensifying over the last twenty five years. Jefferson’s image, more than any other figure in American history, constantly changes, being reshaped by the particular needs and desires as dictated by the events of the day.
No, her comments were not what saddened me. What does is the fear that because of our focus on his personal failures we fail to grasp the enormity of what he and his fellow “Founding Fathers” did accomplish in the face of odds that exceed modern understanding.
The audiences that I spoke to, as Mr. Jefferson, were not unsparing of his hypocrisy, and he “had to get out of the scrape” as he could, to use his words. Nevertheless, they did not “disavow” the gifts that he did bequeath to this country, foremost them, the ideal of a government based upon the equality of people.
But perhaps I am being too pessimistic about the Internet headline generation. Perhaps Ms. Hemings has done us all a great service. Scandal always sells, keeping Jefferson in the headlines, and her timeless story is particularly appealing to those who feel mistreated. Maybe there will be some among the younger generation who do get curious as to why this slaveholder continues to command so much attention. His failures and successes have contributed to the American character, and if we are to follow the old adage, “know thyself,” digging beyond the headlines will be more useful than simply enjoying the passing thrill of scandal.
I have the privilege of reenacting Mr. Jefferson both individually and with an outstanding group called the League of Most Interesting Gentlemen. As a group we have performed from Plattsburg, NY to Fort Defiance, NC, with most of our work conducted from Charlottesville, VA, to Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, PA. We meet people young and old at historical sites, art centers, wineries, museums, and banquet halls, transporting everyone back two hundred or more years. Often the reactions that we get during our performances confirm what we all have come to understand; history touches our emotions as much as our thoughts, even for those who view history as something taught in a boring history class or read from a dry academic essay.
“How’s Sally doing?” people often ask Mr. Jefferson. They are referring to Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s slave who is believed to be the mother of six of his children. That controversy has been publicly boiling since 1802, so that historical information is not new or shocking to anyone. Mr. Jefferson’s reaction, however, does startle everyone. Textbooks can quote, historians can tell, but saying this to a historical figure, as interpreted by someone portraying him in the first person, is equivalent to verbally attacking someone in front of a group. History brought life leaves a completely different impression than hearing lecture notes or reading it from a book.
Thankfully, Mr. Jefferson, Dr. Franklin, Mr. Madison, Mr. Gallatin, and the “Natural Philosopher,” who constitute the League of Most Interesting Gentlemen, have a fascinating assortment of stories, opinions, commentary, and experiences to offer those who are willing to “suspend their disbelief” for an hour or so, combining “fleckless mirth” with historical scholarship into an experience not found in any museum.
Shocking History at Sweethearts and Patriot Ball, Washington, D.C.
Art Depuy, a guest at the Fox Meadow Winery, said it best when he wrote this to the League,
I never cared for history but as I reflect, I didn’t care for most classes plus I don’t like to read. Over time I have discovered I do like history but I am a very visual person. At Fox Meadow and Hiddencroft [Wineries] I found myself totally engaged listening in on four men enjoying a pleasant afternoon sharing old stories, historical events, laughing and joking while talking about their past. And I realized that this is something I probably do when I have the opportunity to spend an afternoon with several of my old friends. But you men were our founding fathers of this great country called America and I felt transported back in time.