This is the second in a two-part series of conversations recorded at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello as History As It Happens goes on location, with special guests historian Alan Taylor and Brandon Dillard, Monticello’s director of historic interpretation and audience engagement. Part one dealt with Jefferson’s vision for the new republic.
In 1776, Thomas Jefferson articulated the most radical ideal of the 18th century: universal equality. The Enlightenment ideal that fundamental human equality must be the guiding principle of the new nation was, of course, not a description of reality. It was aspirational. It served as the ideological basis for the break with Great Britain.
The very radicalism of the American Revolution can be lost, however, in our pessimistic and bitterly divided politics. The lack of progress, real or perceived, in achieving political or social equality can make the past appear less inspiring. This presents institutions such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with a difficult challenge because some visitors to the historic site in rural Virginia are carrying emotional or ideological concerns about the past.
To some, Jefferson was a visionary leader. To others, his considerable accomplishments are tarnished by his lifelong ownership of enslaved Blacks and his relationship with Sally Hemings, with whom, most historians now agree, he had four children who lived to adulthood – all enslaved like their mother.
In this episode, Alan Taylor and Brandon Dillard talk about how the “history wars” affect the task of interpreting the past for Monticello’s visitors.
“The Thomas Jefferson Foundation that owns and operates Monticello doesn’t make these decisions on its own. We interpret history based on the advisement of academic scholars,” said Mr. Dillard, responding to accusations in a Heritage Foundation report that Monticello is pandering to political correctness.
SEE ALSO: History As It Happens: What Jefferson wanted
“It’s not just here but throughout our country, there’s a lot of anger. There are a lot of people who feel the country is changing in ways they have no control over, and it makes them very, very angry. And they often invest their vision of what America is or should be with a notion of history. So when they come to a place like here, they come prepared to be upset,” said Mr. Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation chair at the University of Virginia.
Listen to this episode to learn how Monticello’s exhibits portray Jefferson’s life and legacy to diverse audiences who bring their own biases or misconceptions to the former plantation. History As It Happens is available at washingtontimes.com or wherever you find your podcasts.
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