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French hovels, slave cabins, and the limits of Jefferson’s eyes

Thomas Jefferson was a deliberate man and nothing escaped his attention. Jefferson‘s eyes were powerful, lively, and penetrating. Testimonies swore that his eyes were nothing short of “the eye of an eagle.” He wore spectacles occasionally, especially for reading, but his eyes stood the test of time despite physiological decline. “My own health is quite broken down,” he wrote on 3 March 1826 to Robert Mills, the architect who designed the obelisk for the Bunker Hill monument. Mostly confined in the house, Jefferson proclaimed, “my faculties, sight excepted are very much impaired.”

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?

Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. with excerpts from the Declaration of Independence in background by Rudulph Evans, photo by Prisonblues. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Jefferson’s last great-grandchild, Martha Jefferson Trist Burke, was impressed by just that kind of self-making when she visited John and Priscilla Hemings‘s cabin. Little Martha was less than three years old when she saw what her great-grandfather’s eyes had probably never noticed—that African-American slaves obviously liked cleanness, tidiness, and little comforts. Amid the oppression and relative material deprivation of their situation, many slaves succeeded in performances of dignity. Whenever possible, they stepped outside of spaces in which they were forced to perform utilitarian functions, such as kitchens, laundries, and privies, and moved on a private stage of their own choice, with character, decorum, and full-fledged humanity. “I remember the appearance of the interior of that cabin,” Martha wrote in her journal, “the position of the bed with it’s [sic] white counterpane and ruffled pillow cases and of the 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, this box excited my admiration and probably fixed the whole scene in my mind.”

Did Jefferson ever see such intimate details of the lives of his slaves? Realizing the immense symbolic and existential power represented by the decorative objects and cleanliness Martha saw would have emotionally devastated him. Peeping into the coziness and dignity of the Hemings’ cabin might have provided Jefferson with extra reason to amend his racial hierarchies. Some black bodies, within Jefferson’s own plantation, created their own backgrounds of white clean cloth and improvised petit bourgeois coziness, delicacy, and “femininity.” It’s doubtful that Jefferson ever enlarged his observations of these ill-fated persons, discovering the wider dimensions of African-American corporeal and spiritual identity.

Again, we have no conclusive evidence of Thomas Jefferson using his keen eyes to empathize with the oppressed people who immediately surrounded him. A big chapter on the “negro” fashion, their style and taste, seems to be missing from Jefferson’s records. We will never know if Jefferson’s eyes ever grasped the liberating, creative power couched in simple pillows, white counterpanes, clean white tablecloths, and boxes covered with paper on which decorative dogs ran.

 Featured image credit: Monticello from the west lawn by YF12s. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

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