RECAP: “Beyond Jefferson,” 12/1 Colloquium w/ KICD Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow Christa Dierksheide

The 1825 rendering of Monticello with which Kinder Institute Distinguished Research Fellow Christa Dierksheide began her December 1 Friday Colloquium Series presentation framed the talk both because of what it depicted and what it didn’t. A vision of pastoral 19th-century domesticity and whiteness, we see two of Jefferson’s granddaughters strolling the mansion’s front lawn while George Wythe Randolph, Jefferson’s grandson who would eventually become Secretary of War for the Confederacy, trundles a hoop with a stick in the painting’s foreground. Absent, of course, are Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings, one of the hundreds of men and women enslaved at Monticello during and after Jefferson’s life. As Prof. Dierksheide explained, the research that went into her current book project, soon to be published on Yale University Press, was geared toward addressing historical elisions such as this one by broadening and complicating the concept of Jefferson’s family so that our understanding of it might be more capacious, inclusive, and accurate. But telling the story of Jefferson’s children and grandchildren on both sides of the color line involves more than penning biography. The interweaving narratives of their lives provide us, Prof. Dierksheide showed throughout her talk, with a lens through which to view the rise of 19th-century America as a nation and as an empire.

A particular turn of phrase, present in the draft of the Declaration of Independence that Jefferson scratched out in a Philadelphia boarding house but ultimately edited out of the final document by Congress, is central to unpacking both the United States’ arc and the Randolphs’ and Hemingses’ place in it: “Equal & Independ[e]nt.” Repeated in Jefferson’s draft, the conjoined abstractions did double-work within the context of the coming revolution, inaugurating an independent state into the world, on par with the powers of Europe, and articulating the rights that would be shared by all citizens of the new nation. As significant as these terms were to the revolutionary project, we mustn’t forget to also attend, Prof. Dierksheide cautioned, to their inherent futurity. For Jefferson, fixing the meaning of “Equal & Independent” in time would have been tyrannical work. It was, he firmly believed, the job of subsequent generations to interpret and apply these principles to fit their own circumstances, experiences, and accrued wisdom, a task of redefinition and recontextualization that would fall on Jefferson’s own descendants.

For Thomas Jefferson Randolph (or Jeff), son of Martha Jefferson Randolph and grandson of Thomas Jefferson, negotiating these terms meant clawing out from under the $107,000 in debt that his grandfather posthumously saddled him with by naming Jeff executor of his estate. More specifically, in so far as debt was inseparable from dependence in antebellum America, Jeff’s capacity to establish his equal and independent standing within elite Virginia society required balancing the family books. He first turned to Monticello itself, selling off possessions, livestock, agricultural machinery, and the 130 men and women enslaved by Jefferson at the time of his death. After a failed attempt to generate revenue from the publication of his grandfather’s writings, Jeff set his sights on profiting off the industrialist’s dream of a railroad that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River. The Virginia Central Railroad had already begun this process, reaching from Richmond as far west as Gordonsville by the 1840s. Jeff owned land between Gordonsville and the Blue Ridge Mountains that would inch the railroad closer to its goal, and after partnering with Richard Omohundro, he received a contract to lay three miles of track on his property, the proceeds from which finally absolved him of the remaining $80,000 due to his grandfather’s creditors. It’s here, Prof. Dierksheide argued, that we can begin to see the way in which the stories of Jefferson’s descendants map onto the larger narrative of the changing nation. Jeff profited so handsomely from the contract because the years of labor required to transform his land into a rail thoroughfare was done entirely by men enslaved by him and Omohundro. Far from unique to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, such industrial slavery, entirely unpredicted by political economists, became a fixture in Virginia and the Upper South, as massive infrastructure projects—canals, tunnels, and turnpikes, along with railroads—lined the pockets of enslavers, and perpetuated the institution of slavery in a new form, in the lead up to the Civil War. Jeff’s comfort would be short-lived, though. He lost everything betting on Confederate War Bonds, and when Israel Gillette, formerly enslaved at Monticello, visited Jeff’s Edge Hill estate after the war, he found him alone, slumped in a chair on the portico, no property to his name, save for a blind mule.

Prof. Dierksheide’s research also led her to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the putatively free North, where Madison and Eston Hemings, sons of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, settled after their mother’s death in Charlottesville. Their lives, too, tell the story of a nation in flux or, perhaps better, a nation painfully slow to change. Though technically crossing through and into a space of freedom, the Hemingses found in Ohio a spate of race-based restrictions. Not only were they barred from voting, serving on juries, bearing arms, or having access to public resources and public schools; their legal residency also hung in the balance of securing two white guarantors willing to put up a $500 bond for them. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 brought with it the threat of kidnapping and re-enslavement, and Eston Hemings left with his wife and children for Madison, Wisconsin. Realizing the race-based inequity they would face wherever they went, the Hemings surname was dropped, the Jefferson surname adopted, and the family entered white society. John Wayles Jefferson, Eston’s son, would become a hotel owner and independent property holder equal in status to other white men in Madison, accruing an estate of $14,500. After a chance encounter with an old acquaintance from Chillicothe underscored just how precarious his self-fashioned identity was, John Wayles Jefferson decided to cement his whiteness by enlisting in the Union Army. He entered as a Major in the Western Theatre and rose to the rank of Colonel, criss-crossing the Southeast throughout 1862-63, fighting at Vicksburg and Shiloh. Of utmost importance to Prof. Dierksheide’s research, he also wrote volumes of letters while enlisted, many of which were sent to and published by newspaper editors, in a self-conscious effort to craft a public persona of a gallant, manly, white officer that couldn’t be refuted after the war’s end. To say that he was successful in this endeavor would be an understatement. While fighting in the corridor from Memphis to New Orleans, he became entranced with the wealth of the cotton empire there, and he returned to the South after the war, buying a cotton plantation near Memphis, co-founding the Memphis Cotton Exchange, and, his white identity secured, entering into elite society as one of the wealthiest Memphians of his time (and by far the wealthiest family member among the Hemingses).

Given his borderline ubiquitous place in discourse today, we often forget that, in the period between the Civil War and the New Deal, Jefferson sank into relative obscurity. His great-grandson, Frederick Jackson Roberts, was, in many respects, instrumental to his revival. Born in Chillicothe and raised in Los Angeles, Roberts was the first African American elected to the California State Assembly and an early member of the NAACP. It was in these capacities that he and other Black activists of the era took on the same task that Jefferson’s other descendants did, redefining the Declaration of Independence for their times. As Prof. Dierksheide noted in closing, it was during this era that the Declaration was transformed from a historical, exclusionary document rooted in the need to mobilize people in support of a war for independence into what we see it as today: a universal, timeless statement of the rights that must be irrevocably enjoyed by all.