"Jefferson and His Legacies”: Colloquium with Smith Center Historian Dr. Christa Dierksheide


How, exactly, to tell the story of Thomas Jefferson is a question with which the nation has grappled for some time, while achieving little in the way of consensus. As Dr. Christa Dierksheide pointed out in the opening remarks for her January 20 talk at the Kinder Institute, this is due in large part to the fact that there is a certain zero sum divisiveness to contemporary discourse about Jefferson’s legacy, with one camp toeing the old line and championing him as an “apostle of American democracy” and the other characterizing him with equal forcefulness as a slaveholding hypocrite far more committed to oppression than liberty. Complicating matters even further, she noted, is Jefferson’s having told us on his tombstone how and for what he would like to be remembered: as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and as the father of the University of Virginia.

Engaging with Jefferson’s own belief that “every generation is an independent nation,” Dr. Dierksheide’s current book project veers from these conventional approaches to interpreting Jefferson’s legacy by examining how his visionary and often highly problematic ideas were embraced, revised, and at times even abandoned by his actual heirs, the many grandchildren who scattered to all reaches of the nation and globe in the decades after Jefferson’s death. Playing integral roles in the continuation and expansion of slavery, for example, were grandsons Nicholas Trist, appointed U.S. consul in Havana by Andrew Jackson, and Meriwether Lewis Randolph, Jackson’s Secretary of the Arkansas Territory. There were also Jeffersonian heirs on both sides of the Civil War, including John Wayles Hemings Jefferson, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Union Army, and Benjamin Franklin Randolph, an ardent secessionist and Confederate soldier. Finally, advancing the ideals articulated in the Declaration were granddaughters Ellen Wayles Hemings Roberts, who moved West and was an early voice in the movement to extend equal rights to African American citizens, and Mary and Cornelia Jefferson Randolph, founders of an independent boarding school in Virginia who were, at least for a very brief moment, responsible for paying off the significant posthumous debt with which Jefferson saddled his relatives.

Which brings us to the central figures of Dr. Dierksheide’s talk, Ellen Randolph Coolidge, Jefferson’s granddaughter and closest intellectual heir, and her husband Joseph Coolidge, Jr., whose experiences in China during the First Opium War can be used as a case study for examining the United States’ changing status in the global marketplace during the first half of the nineteenth century. For the Coolidges, as for many of the subjects of Dr. Dierksheide’s new book, the shifts in political and economic landscape that they observed and even helped initiate while overseas trace back at least in part to Monticello. In response to British mercantile monopolies’ practice of obstructing American commercial entry into West Indies markets—to, that is, the fact that the Declaration of Independence did not the United States an equal nation make—Jefferson had advocated for U.S. free trade with China as early as 1784.

These pursuits bore little fruit initially—for years, the U.S. bought far more in Canton than it sold—but this all began to change as a result of American neutrality, first, in the Napoleonic Wars, and later, during the First Opium War. Now called upon to serve as carriers of cotton, tea, and opium into, out of, and between markets from which the British were barred, the U.S. utilized its neutral status to build new alliances and accrue greater market knowledge, which, combined with the introduction of bills of exchange, decreased American economic dependence and began ushering the United States toward a seat at the table within the global free trade system. On one hand, the experience shipping for Britain during the Opium War raised fundamental questions regarding the basis for diplomatic relations for figures like the Coolidges—in this case, whether to support the hegemon with whom the United States shared certain customs and history or the underdog who, like the U.S. in the eighteenth century, was subject to British aggression. Ultimately, though, the appetite for scale and profit that came with increased market participation governed the United States’ approach to negotiating relationships in Canton. While Coolidge himself endorsed British aggression, the U.S., now fully converted to the gospel of free trade, sought to secure diplomatic stability with China in order to preserve and extend its burgeoning economic interests in the region. As Dr. Dierksheide noted in closing her talk, the 1844 Treaty of Wanghia—which, among other things, allowed the U.S. to buy land and erect churches in Chinese port cities, exempted U.S. citizens from Chinese law, and granted America “most favoured nation” status—embodied the United States’ rise from a second-rate economic player to a commercial equal of Great Britain, capable of applying its laws and extending its values far beyond its own borders and of wielding power in and over the global marketplace.

Christa Dierksheide completed her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and currently serves as a Historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. Her first book, Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in Plantation America, 1770-1840 (University of Virginia Press, 2014), examined how planters embraced the European Enlightenment idea of “improvement” on New World plantations. She has conceptualized and written exhibitions for Monticello, including “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty” and “The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello,” and she is also co-author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Worlds,” the introductory film. In addition, she has served as the Monticello faculty lead for teacher institutes and executive leadership seminars focused on Jefferson, and she is a lecturer in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, where she teaches undergraduate seminars on, among other things, public history and Jefferson and Monticello. Her current book project, The Sun Never Set on Jefferson’s Empire: Race, Family, and Fortune in America, 1820-1880, is forthcoming from Yale University Press.