The South in American History is the second course I've taken as part of the Gilder Lehrman Masters in American History program. The first course was called, "Amazing Grace: How Writers Helped End Slavery." While we read works from multiple authors across all genres of antislavery literature, the slave narrative was one particular facet that helped me gain better perspective upon the subject matter. Olaudah Equiano's narrative was particularly engaging, yet much like my essay on the inconsistency of the character of Thomas Jefferson, I was troubled by the falsehood of the former slave's telling of his capture in Africa and transport on a slave ship bound for the West Indies. Equiano was in fact born in South Carolina, not Africa, which makes the early portion of the narrative somewhat disingenuous. This is not to say his narrative does not strike a chord with me or the students I teach, but there are other such narratives in my mind that eliminate the rather cumbersome falsehood as in Equiano's circumstance. A comparable, albeit more "authentic" narrative would be that of Boston King's Memoirs of the Life of Boston King, a Black Preacher, or Lunsford Lane's The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. In terms of the language arts department at my school, Equaino's narrative is chiefly taught as it is most often included in texts used by the department. However, for my own history teachings, I tend to steer away from Equiano and gear my students toward these lesser known, but equally powerful narratives.
I thought it was really interesting to learn that Jefferson himself thought that the only way that slaves could be freed was if they were exiled out of the United States, according to the Morgan reading. Because of their character described by Jefferson in the Notes on the State of Virginia source, their freedom and inevitable laziness and poor character, would be a threat to the prosperity of the white population. It’s a good point you make about the terror felt by whites over the potential of insurrection. The whole slave system was feed on terror. Whites were scared in losing control, but they used that same terror and fear to keep control. Just another contraction pointed of in these reading this week.
Thank you very much!
I'm glad I chose your essay to read. As my favorite president I also struggle on how to paint him for the sake of my students. Clearly, the heroism of fighting for a new nation is in the forefront of my instruction but the slavery issue is one my students struggle with as there are few issues with gradients of gray. It is just black and white for them. I struggle with showing the students the Thomas Jefferson piece because of the topics you mentioned such as odor being a result of skin tone. On the other hand, I loved his statement that "comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason and imaginations, it appears to me that in memory they are equal to the whites" which I think is progressive for his time, but then he finishes the sentence with "in reason much inferior..." I am nervous about showing this to students as I am concerned about how students would process that kind of statement by one of our most influential thinkers. What is your experience tackling this sensitive issue?
I really enjoyed reading your essay about the three cultural groups that had an impact on the South. It is interesting to point out that the South is a land of so many hierarchies, the Native Americans got by for so many years without help, the Europeans depended on the Native Americans, the Africans were forced to come to the South for work, becoming, as you said "a permanent fixture in the landscape." Even though the Native Americans were crucial to the European settlers' survival, the settlers in turn fought and killed Indians to stay "in control" of the land.
I would love to see, and hope we perhaps get the chance, for you to expand this topic in the future! The way the Europeans forced themselves to the top of the totem pole, I think, is a fascinating social study that you really started to get into here!
Please disregard. This is the incomplete draft
The title of your essay caught my attention; in addition to teaching AP US History, I also teach AP Psychology, so cognitive dissonance is a term with which I'm familiar, and a flaw of human reasoning I find fascinating. However, I'm not sure I agree with your assessment that Jefferson et. al., experienced it. I like to start my US students' analysis of the Declaration with the prompt: "Equality is not the same as equal," to which they must generate their own questions that will eventually fuel a discussion. I'm not sure Jefferson believed in "equality." He saw all men as equal only to the extent that they started off the same, with certain natural rights. But, their success in fulfilling those rights depended on individual traits and circumstance. It's my understanding that Jefferson was a true believer in a "natural aristocracy," a minority of individuals who were also endowed with special gifts and who were destined to lead (of course he considered himself among this elite group). He was also convinced that blacks and American Indians were racially inferior. I think more than dissonant with his beliefs and practice as a slave-holder, Jefferson's Lockean-based republican ideals were consistent. I wonder if Jefferson and his cohorts ever considered "equality" as an ideal, at least in the way we think of it today.
It's a nebulous distinction, and my students struggle with it, especially as we compare the first and final drafts of the Declaration. In the end, we're mostly still left scratching our heads. Even now, I'm just not sure what to make of it.
Thanks for giving me something to think about!
I enjoyed reading your post. I think that when we are thinking about high school students that it is often hard for them to understand why slavery was able to exist - especially once people knew that it was wrong. In my own writing, I discussed the economic drive of the south that was embedded in its foundation and I think that your thoughts about "ignoring" the moral dilemma are right on. It made me think about a possible lesson where students explore a variety of times in American history where morals are ignored for the sake of ___________.
I like how you chose to highlight the contradictions in the assigned readings. By contrasting different narratives of early american settlements, you bring out the complexity of the story.
Too often, we are exposed to a simplified version of history. For me it's like reading Jack London retold for children. Or even worse: Anna Karenina via cliff notes.
History is complicated, and that's why it's fun to study.
While reading for a class, I've stumbled upon a beautiful quote:
"Humans are inherently complicated, contradictory, and conflicted, untroubled by logical inconsistencies and amazingly capable of compartmentalization." (Memory and Reconciliation by Caroline Janney)
Jefferson is a confusing individual and it's gratifying to know I am not alone in thinking so. In reading the Declaration of Independence drafts, you catch glimpses of a very modern man who was restrained by his time period. Especially in the later drafts as whole sentences and chunks are cut out that would have given more rights to all people and not the lofty white citizen. The readings this week really took a step back for me in what he was like. It wasn't only his personal struggle that we saw, but his social struggle as well. The secondary readings helped place the Virginia landowners in a new context. Kathleen, thank you for helping me organize my thoughts on Jefferson and the readings we reviewed this week. -- M. Sara
Relative to Jefferson, I'm fascinated by this man's contradictions. As you point out, he extolled the simple small farmer, but owned nearly 200 slaves. He railed against debt and dependence, but he was up to his neck in debt to his creditors. He drafted schemes for emancipation of slaves, but freed only a handful of his own by manumission during his life. He wrote of the inferiority of African-Americans, but was the likely father of six children by Sally Hemmings, slave and half-sister of his late wife.
I don't know what these contradictions say about Jefferson, other than that he was both brilliant and flawed. And, the real irony is that, if Jefferson had been a yeoman farmer toiling on his 160 acres, he probably wouldn't have been philosopher-statesmen he was.
I do wish that sources had included an important follow-up to Jefferson's Notes: African-American mathematician Benjamin Banneker's letter to Jefferson about his views on African-American's potential and Jefferson's response. It's worth reading if you haven't seen it. I think it shows that Jefferson--unlike many of the pro-slavery apologists who emerged in the 19th century--was no ideologue. And that's probably why he was so frustratingly inconsistent.
What kind of greens and how are they cooked?
I really appreciate your point about the West Indies as a stopping off point for some slaves and a destination for others. It struck me as I read both selections, but didn’t pursue it. I really wonder what Equiano felt like to not be chosen at the first stop and amidst the horrific experiences he was enduring if there was a little element similar to when we used to number off in PE class and I was chosen last. I don’t think that anyone wants to be the first picked slave, but when one’s world is turned upside down, to not be purchased meant that he moved on to a place where he knew absolutely no one. I just wonder if not being chosen added to his feelings of isolation.
The map works so much better in Chrome. On my old Mac using Safari, the map and legend are mushed together. I had two computers going to follow along which made the mapping and the live broadcast much easier to follow.
You are forgetting the rivers and waterways for shipping. One important factor is the lack of irrigation in much of the South so farming near a river may not be as important as in other parts of the world. The climate map can also show that necessity. Coming from California, I couldn't imagine enough rain to water crops.
Thomas Jefferson is a study in contrasts. A man who writes about these high ideals in the Declaration of Independence, like "all men are created equal" and also calling for the end to slavery in his original draft of the Declaration. On the other hand, owning slaves and being the typical Southern aristocrat even having children with one of his slaves. I also find it difficult to teach about Jefferson knowing all of his inherent contradictions. But like many other plantation owners he was not willing to suffer the economic consequences of emancipation even though some of his writings called for it. And I also agree he is not the only historical figure to have that dilemma.
Thanks, I will check it out!
I completely agree with your message of Jefferson's inconsistency. Author of the Constitution, owner of slaves. But given the era in which the Founding Fathers were forming this nation, it is a little more understandable, though no more palatable. The quotes that have drawn such admiration over the years - "all men are created equal", " give me liberty or give me death" - by Jefferson and Patrick Henry seem to be somewhat tarnished given the reality of pre and post Revolution in the South. The economic justification of slavery as spelled out by Jefferson would place him in a completely different light today as opposed to during his time. But the same can be said for many from our history books - Columbus comes to mind.
I wanted to read your blog post after you made the comment of duality in the readings on mine. As it turns out, that was my original thought for the theme of my post as well! I think you bring up some really interesting points, my favorite of which is the perfumer. I read that and just glossed over it, but you are completely right. Why would anyone in a colony that is on a razor's edge in terms of survival think that a perfumer is necessary! I also much preferred Morgan's take on the Jamestown colony as opposed to Kupperman's.
Jefferson is always a fascinating subject, because he seems to embody the term "duality". If you study him on a number of topics, this becomes evident. He simply cannot stay within one viewpoint. It is like two people are sharing the same incredible brain. I don't know how the other Founders did not tear their hair out, (Or maybe their wigs apart?) when they were working with him. I do think you are right in that he seems to see the results of slavery "bearing a terrible fruit", but he doesn't have a real solution to the problem, hence his "Wolf by the ears" comment about slavery on multiple occasions.
Vivian, I like your approach to these texts. I think that I use too few maps in my sophomore history class, but I agree that cartography and geography are important to any history lesson. I also believe that field trips are a valuable tool. It sounds like you might take your classes to Jamestown. Might I recommend that you check out Bartram's Gardens in Philadelphia? The home of the Bartram brothers is in great shape, and the docents do a great job of explaining the role of the Bartrams as scientists and businessmen!
I agree with your assessment that students’ understanding is deepened by the connections they make with the feelings of historic characters. The personal narrative of Olaudah Equiano and the details of Richard Randolph’s story similarly display their points of views regarding slavery. Both detest slavery, but approach the topic from different stances: one from personal experience and the other moral conviction. If students can relate on some level to Equiano’s and Randolph’s stories, the information becomes personal knowledge. That knowledge is a structure for greater understanding of deeper thought and critical thinking.
I like the way you highlight the defense of slavery as a reason for the Revolution. The Stamp Act and tea tax get a lot of ink in textbooks, but rarely is slavery raised in this context. At the time of the Declaration, slavery is legal just about everywhere so the Patriots must rationalize. And the rationalization continues through the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia where slavery is enshrined in the Constitution.
And even while many in the North deplore slavery, there are few White people talking about equality. In 1838, Pennsylvania specifically banned Black men from voting, And if you’ve seen Eric Foner’s new book on the Underground Railroad, Gateway to Freedom, the political and economic elite of NY did little to oppose slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War. And things did not improve much in the North until the New Deal and WW II.
I shared similar thoughts on the fear of economic dependence as part of Jefferson's philosophy in my post and found in your post clarity in the differentiation of thought processes. The contradictory nature of Jefferson’s personal and political life is something I find fascinating and you do an excellent job of analyzing the timeline from its economic roots. In conjunction with his views on slavery, I find Jefferson’s inconsistency in his trust of the people hard to justify. During his presidency and vice-presidency, he chastises men like Adams and Hamilton for not putting enough trust in the people. I find this ironic, as he never had to grow up in a Northern society such as Adams or Hamilton where they had exposure to a lower class of people who constantly threatened rebellion (at least in their eyes). It at least justifies Jefferson’s overextended idealism, but does not excuse his hypocrisy in my eyes.
I agree that the Bartram accounts seem too good to be true. The ease at which he travels through the mountain wilderness is doubtful, but it is true that the New World was rich in unspoiled resources as hinted by Morgan. Morgan states one of the reasons the Indians did not chase the English out of Jamestown, is because the English did not drain the vital resources of the Indians (Morgan p. 75). After some thoughts I concluded that Bartram's constant references to Greek mythology may be hinting at the fact that America was a new democracy (an idea that originated in Ancient Greece). Not only can one person thrive in this New World because of its resources; but a person’s ideas and beliefs can flourish in America as well.
I like Lindsay's response to your essay, Kate, and would like to add a couple things. Jefferson and Sally and the Enlightenment ideas of "life, liberty, ..." cause great confusion for my sophomores and for me. He is so good at recognizing the evils of slavery ("I tremble for my country ..."), yet he does nothing.
I use Howard Zinn's People's History as my text, so the choice of "comfort over integrity ..." is clear to my students. What I found particularly interesting, though, is Morgan's explanation of Virginia's, and ultimately the US's, "conversion" to slavery (297-315).
I agree with you that Jefferson is guilty of being a man born in his time. We often think he should have been better because of what he represented. But I think he was more progressive in that he was quoted as saying that his first memory was being carried on a pillow by his families slave, but think deep down he knew it was more wrong than most southerners. He represented children of slaves pro bono when they were attempting emancipation. He even tried to pass a bill that would eliminate slavery in any new state. Most of this is overlooked.
We tend to worship our American heroes without question. We overlook their flaws and accept pop culture poetic tales as reality, such as Paul Revere. With Jefferson his contributions to the nation were enormous. But his one glaring flaw is difficult for many to overlook. I feel we need to embrace all aspects of our historical figures. Their achievements and their flaws are both worth studying to aid us in historical analysis. I very much appreciated your take that Jefferson was very much a product of his time.
My post emphasized the same irony/disconnect/hypocrisy in the colonial South. One of the realizations that my students are always intrigued by are the Revolutionary cries of freedom and liberty in a country that practiced actual slavery, as opposed to the figurative slavery that many of the "Founding Fathers" espoused in the buildup toward war with Great Britain. Although Jefferson is far from alone in his attitudes toward slavery and liberty, the Equiano and Jefferson readings do offer a stark contrast of the colonial South.
I think that you make a good point that the society created was in many was a copy of English society at the time. While England did not have large plantations worked by slaves, they were not shy to use the labor of their tenants in a similar fashion. Especially those who held estates in Ireland and Scotland, where the enclosure movement during the 16th century had reduced the peasants to a dependent state, could easily adapt those practices to a new situation. Justifications of the system even echo one another, with some of the slave owners’ arguments of protection and care for “their people” echoing the rhetoric of noblesse oblige in England. The English measure of success was inherently unequal, so it is not surprising that their new system was as well.
Thank you for your post about Thomas Jefferson. The same thoughts ran through my head as I was reading these documents. Teaching middle school students, we are often driven towards using the school wide text. These texts are at the students reading levels so we are encouraged to use them by administrators. I have been implementing more and more primary documents into my curriculum recently. This is to get the students to dig deeper in their thinking as well as learning about history through a different lens. The documents have not been easy and a lot of annotations need to be made. But it has been worth it. These primary documents have allowed students to raise questions instead of just reading facts from the text. I know that when I teach U.S. History next year, I will sure be using Notes on the State of Virginia.
Dear Michael, Thank you for making the time and effort to read my post. I share your belief that the perpetual bondage and replacement labor from offspring hit a tipping point as the health of the colony improved, and from that point on there was no turning back. Again, thank you.
I too found the first assignment very intimidating! I spent days on it and still feel like I missed the mark. I would have liked to read everyone elses thoughts and ideas too...another opportunity to learn.
I wrote about the Thomas Jefferson we learn about in textbooks versus the man we discover in primary sources.
The issue of "doublethink" (your word) and ambiguity over slavery (in both Morgan and Taylor) is the key issue for colonial and revolutionary Virginia. As the colony depended on Natives at first for survival, they came to see slavery as a "necessary evil" that in fact produced a good, dealing the the problem of poverty. Taylor makes clear how republican ideals clashed when the Somerset case and then Dunmore pointed to a stark contrast between England and Virginia. This fear of central authority undercutting slavery described by Taylor, becomes a root of states' rights (as you point out). In his "Notes," Jefferson suggests that race was such a wedge that those freed ought to be removed from the country (hence the establishment later of the American Colonization Society and Liberia).
I think that your post is spot on. The reason for African enslavement was driven by economic pressures. As you say “mortality rates went down, however, and the colony turned to the production of tobacco, planters began to recognize the advantages of investing in African slave labor.” In addition to the decrease in mortality rates, one distinct advantage of slavery over indentured servants was that slavers were in perpetual bondage. Indentured servants would eventually earn their freedom while slaves could be owned forever. In addition, subsequent generations would supplement in the initial investment. Not only could you count on the labor of one generation of slaves but also future generations.
I agree with your analysis regarding the unfortunate and obvious hypocrisy of many of the Founding Fathers. I support the premise that, "the Founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry understood the contradictions of their actions, yet made no attempt to correct these moral wrongs because personal greed drove them more than any claimed morality." I came to a similar conclusion in my essay. Thomas Jefferson wrote about the evils of slavery throughout his life. However, he owned hundreds of slaves and only freed a hand full during his life and upon his death. This contradiction is the definition of hypocrisy. Thomas Jefferson once said that, "having slaves was like holding a wolf by the ears, you didn't like it but you couldn't let go." I guess that was Jefferson's way of rationalizing the practice of slavery. As horrific as slavery was it helped run the country and nobody in power had the courage to abolish it.
I am glad you brought in the additional push toward revolution in Somerset v. Stuart (1772.) I found a citation that explains it a little further from an abolitionist point of view and have added it to my materials to hand out about the revolutionary war next year in class. It adds a great deal to my thought process of why the deep south would have been ready to revolt, as they were generally more closely tied to old England. http://testaae.greenwood.com/doc_print.aspx?fileID=GR3144&chapterID=GR31...
Roxanne, every year this is always a very interesting line of research for my students: the acknowledgement from the founding fathers and their contemporaries of the private concerns about slavery but the public necessity of maintaining the slave system. Your observations on the public versus private debate over slavery and the concerns of “danger” are a good framing of this concern for students to grasp some of the beginning complexities around the relationship of slavery to the founding of our nation. Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” is a great example of this debate and the hypocritical ‘reasoning’ that Jefferson employed to justify slavery. Understanding the political and economic necessity for slavery in the colonies, as according to the privileged white upper class at first, helps students to trace the shift to violent chattel slavery that Jefferson and others worked to justify through racism and the social changes that occurred with this.
I liked reading that you are more aware of creating insightful teaching lessons for students to understand the plight of the Natives and enslaved Africans in Early Jamestown. I too think it is essential to avoid placing the Europeans who first settled in Virginia on a pedestal. Using the primary sources you mentioned, can be of great value when teaching students about Jamestown. I use the DBQproject.com resources as well as many primary sources I've had the pleasure of being introduced to through the Gilder Lehrman Institute. It is truly essential, as you elude to, to focus on all the aspects of our past in relation to America's beginning rather than focusing only on the greatness of the few who first came to America. I guess, "The Good the Bad and the Ugly," must be addressed.
Resilience! Yes, resilience is the word I emphasize whether I am teaching slavery, segregation, or Civil Rights movement. I learned last summer during a workshop on slavery that it is not uncommon for African American students to feel uncomfortable discussing it, as if somehow the topic makes them feel something less than proud. When I heard this from the presenter, I immediately had a flashback of a student two years back. She was the one of two African American student in class. She was hunched over with eyes down on her desk. I did not even realize that image was stored in my mind all that time. I don't know what she was feeling but it made me reflect about my teaching and how I should approach the topics. I think it is absolutely necessary for teachers to emphasize the strength, perseverance, and the resilience of African Americans when we discuss these topics.
Your essay could be a great way to introduce the hypocrisy of slavery in terms of religion. The quote from the Bible opens up a great discussion about slaves as property and the fact that most owners gave no thought about breaking up families. With the use of Equiano's words of never seeing one's relations again in combination with the view that many in the South had that slaves were commodities, these contradictory beliefs of the time can be examined. Since most slave owners claimed to be Christians, their role as slave owners is even more heartbreaking.
Your analysis captured the avarice and hypocrisy of Virginia planters. Jefferson is so complex because some of his words are ahead of his time and some perfectly reflect his time. We want Jefferson to be like Robert Carter, but he falls short. Your “founding father’s approached the concepts of slavery and liberty” statement reminded me of what historian Philip Morgan said in a GLI Seminar at Johns Hopkins. I am paraphrasing him here, but he said that as white looks brighter against black, the founders' view of liberty looked brighter against the backdrop of the institute of slavery.
Again, I love your analysis…Great essay Ian!!!
I am with you 100%! I managed to pare down the number of words for the essay and got it uploaded and was lost about what to do for the blog thinking it's a response to the essays. Your blog made me feel a little better. Although I'm not even sure I'm blogging (is blogging even a word?)in the right place! I guess we'll all figure it out soon enough.
Your comment about the South being more an "idea than a place" really got my wheels turning, especially with regards to Jefferson and his ilk and their justification for slavery. It seems that as slavery became more and more imbedded in the American economy, slaveholders' defense of it became based more on ideas, or beliefs, rather than fact. To openly admit that slavery, the denial of another human being's liberty, meant greater profits would expose their hypocrisy. However, by couching slavery in the ideas of racial superiority, paternalism, and states' rights made it much easier for the founding fathers to tolerate, rationalize and even promote.
You also mentioned the Kupperman essay, which I wanted to discuss more than space allowed in my own essay. While Kupperman claims that Jamestown becomes the model for subsequent colonies, she neglects to mention the most critical factor to success, slavery, which is evident in 1619 and definitely codified by the 1670s. She writes, "The ingredients for success--widespread ownership of land, control of taxation...through representative assembly, ...the inculcation of women, and development of a product that could...sustain the economy." (Never mind that Kupperman claims Jamestown accomplished this all in time to instruct the Pilgrims, when in fact, as I understand it, in 1620 Jamestown was still in a state of chaos, with an 80% death rate, higher than Europe during the plague years...).
Slavery was not incidental to the establishment of America. Rather, it was critical. Yet, as you point out, Jefferson willfully ignores slavery in his vision for the US as an agrarian democracy. Jefferson, at least early on, knew that slavery was potentially toxic to the new democracy he help found, but he could not bring himself to let it go. In fact, as time went on, he became more and more the quintessential slave holder. And so slavery is treated, for the most part, as something tangential that happened in American history, while great men's ideas, not the manual labor of slaves (bond and wage), are credited with building this country.
Jefferson has benefited form the Great Man Theory in the American history books. Just about any student can tell you how Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, his views on the yeoman farmer or how great a scientist he was. However, as pointed out in the article that appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine the “Darker Side of Jefferson” in October 2012 all men are more complex and flawed than history books often teach. He not only owned slaves and profited from their labor (his nail foundry was one of the most profitable aspects of his plantation), but he also profited from selling his slaves to other plantations and counseled others in the profitability of the slave trade. While there is no doubt he did great things he also maintained and benefited from the institution of slavery.
I read both Kupperman’s and Morgan’s accounts with interest. Morgan’s was the one I’m most familiar with, and I tend to give it some credence. Didn’t John Smith (who maybe wasn’t always as truthful and unbiased as he ought to have been) write about the trouble he had getting men to work? However, I can see Kupperman’s point, too: being the first, Jamestown was bound to have some failures before they had successes. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between them. Even with a blueprint, Plimoth struggled. There’s probably no way to get it right the first time. People bring their shortcomings, prejudices, and fears with them wherever they go. Stress and hardship bring out the worst in everyone regardless of their social status. Does time help? It’s been 407 years since Jamestown, and we still haven’t gotten race relations right. God help the Martians if we ever get there.
In your essay you identify a critical aspect of studying history, the untangling of myth from remembrance. You note that both Bartram and Jefferson engage in romantic interpretation of certain aspects of the southern region. I found, as you did, that Kupperman offers an excellent deconstruction of this type of remembrance by dispelling several myths in her introduction. I can see several commonly-held dichotomies emerge throughout these readings (such as the North-South dichotomy of Jefferson, and the Jamestown-Plymouth dichotomy in modern interpretations of the colonial era). I am looking forward to more readings similar to Kupperman that directly acknowledge and reexamine these myths.
I enjoyed your analysis on the science and morality of early Jamestown. Tobacco became a lucrative business for the early settlers of that region. The justification for the use of African slaves and your argument that slaves came to adjust to their surrounding, but had to give up their freedom in exchange for shelter is an interesting debate. These types of arguments would be valuable in a classroom discussion. One could also use this example when covering slavery and womens' rights along with the Declaration of Independence. Though women came to America with more freedoms than that of women in Europe, African slaves had to endure decades of racial discrimination. Thanks for your analysis.
Emily, I agree with you that the development of slavery in America is a challenging topic for students to grasp. I think one of your most important observations was that being torn from their homeland and away from their families resulted in many slaves giving up instead of fighting. The perceptions of a student living in the 21st century trying to comprehend the mindset of those who lived hundreds of years before is difficult. My students have so many labor saving devices and are so used to the ease with which we can acquire more food and sundries, the struggles and privations the Jamestown settlers endured is almost incomprehensible. Jefferson is one of the most morally complex American presidents to present. His soaring words promoting liberty stand in stark contrast to his casual racism and the profound inequity of his life and those of his slaves.
I enjoyed reading your response. I agree that in some writings racism is subtle, and in others it is overt. I had always known Jefferson as a figure who hoped slavery would end over time but was also himself racist. I had not, however, ever read the particular excerpt provided this week that portrays in such vivid detail his racial views. You accurately point out the irony in the fact that those who see themselves as superior are unable to provide for themselves without subjugating those who are able to do the manual labor. As Jefferson explains, he is one of God's chosen people, because he is an agrarian farmer. But indeed, he is not the one doing the farming at Monticello.
Michael, I like your phrase "authentic understanding of US history" in relation to the student's perception of the Founding Fathers. We have been guilty of mythologizing the men and women who helped start our country. As an elementary teacher, I have been occasionally guilty of that myself. I think your idea of presenting a more rounded perspective to students is valuable. People and events are more complex than our histories sometimes reveal. When I taught junior high school students, some of our best discussions revolved around the juxtaposition of America’s defenders of liberty who, nonetheless, also owned slaves. The justifications Jefferson offers as to why slavery exists and the purported differences in the intellectual capacities between whites and other races never ceases to amaze!