The Revolving Bookstand: Christa Dierksheide Reviews “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”
Slavery’s definition is also its crime – it is the ultimate denial of personhood. For decades, historians have worked to restore the humanity denied to the millions of Africans who were forcibly brought to the Americas in the holds of slave ships and then made to endure the violence and coercion of a slave system that rendered them mere property. But few have executed this important task with the same insight and empathy as has Lucia Stanton, Monticello’s Shannon Senior Historian Emeritus. She has devoted a career that spanned more than three decades to naming, understanding, and describing the 607 enslaved people that Thomas Jefferson held in bondage during his lifetime. Her new collection of essays, “’Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” depicts slaves in a way that scholars often do not: as individuals and as members of families.
Published in conjunction with the 2012 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty,” Stanton’s book of essays explores slavery through three main perspectives. In the first section, Stanton shows us the world of Jefferson the patriarch and slaveholder; she describes the man who possessed about 10,000 acres of land across Virginia, owned hundreds of human beings, sometimes separated slave families, and was, as most historians now believe, the father of all of Sally Hemings’s children. Although the portrait that emerges of Jefferson the slaveholder seems a far cry from Jefferson the author of the Declaration of Independence, Stanton shows that Jefferson’s apparently oppositional “selves” are actually reconcilable; Jefferson remained committed to his lofty ideals even if his actions ironically undermined them, often devastating the lives of his slaves in the process.
In the second part of the book, Stanton shifts her focus to the enslaved community at Monticello. In highlighting the central role of the African American family, Stanton emphasizes that even within the constraints of bondage, the Hemingses, Herns, Gillettes, Grangers, Hubbards, and other families were able to carve out lives independent of Jefferson. In tracing these families, Stanton recovers the individuality, agency, domestic economy, and day-to-day interactions that defined the lives of the men, women, and children who labored for the “happiness” of their owner. Yet she does not let us forget that the African American family was never safe from the horrors of the slave system – during Jefferson’s lifetime, over 400 of the 607 people that he owned were separated from home and family by sale or gift.
In the third and final part of the book, Stanton moves beyond the Jefferson era to consider the stories and perspectives of the descendants of the Monticello enslaved community. The essays in this section, two of them published for the first time, are an outgrowth of the Getting Word oral history project, Monticello’s effort to record those memories of slavery passed down through generations of descendants. The most striking feature of these essays is how descendants of Monticello slaves fought tirelessly to “fulfill the Declaration” – to gain full equality and freedom in American society and to realize the words written by a man who had owned their ancestors.
Stanton’s work brings to life a man, his slaves, and a world that had previously been depicted as two dimensional or made invisible. Ultimately, these essays emphasize the humanity of Jefferson, the people he owned, and their descendants. Stanton conveys to us for the first time the hopes, fears, flaws, and triumphs of the people who lived and worked on the 5,000-acre plantation. Her approach in this book mirrors that of the writer James Agee, who chronicled the lives of Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Agee, like Stanton, sought to capture the life in each one of his subjects, to show “who is he and where from, that he is now here; what is it his life has been and has done to him: what of his wife and of their children, each, for all these each is a life, a full universe.” Stanton’s real triumph has been to restore the people to the Monticello plantation, and to depict each of their lives as a “full universe.”
Christa Dierksheide specializes in the history of plantations in Age of Revolutions, with a special focus on Jefferson. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Virginia in 2008. Her forthcoming book, “Improving Slavery or Ending Slavery in Jeffersonian America, 1770-1840″ (University of Virginia Press) interrogates planters’ visions of progressive slave societies in Virginia, South Carolina, and the British Caribbean. Since 2006, she has conceptualized and written exhibitions for Monticello, including “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty” and “The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello.” She is also co-author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Worlds,” the introductory film at Monticello. Currently, she teaches in the U.Va. history department and works at Monticello’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.