Updated: Aug 14
The path to US citizenship is long. Justifiably, the Americans are very proud of their history and their achievements and want to do all they can to ensure that those joining their ranks have the same commitment and values, in our eyes a perfectly reasonable pre-condition. Before becoming citizens, a list of 100 historical and cultural facts had to be studied and learned, ready to be regurgitated through the nerves at our final interview.
It is no surprise that some of the most important questions are on the whole long saga of the country's freedom from their tax-hungry colonial masters, Great Britain. The 13 colonies (represented by the 13 stripes on the flag) had had enough of being exploited to pay for Britain's wars with France and were courageous enough to stand up united and shout 'no taxation without representation' after the Stamp Act was forced on them (which was later repealed but replaced by the Tea Act). It took a couple of years, but their resourcefulness and determination sent the Brits packing, with a bit of help from the French.
So when we came to Virginia, we felt we were coming to the very beginning and the very end of British colonialisation in America. It all started in 1607 when the British established their first permanent settlement in all the Americas in Jamestown, Virginia and ended with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Three of the first four Presidents came from Virginia and so we were excited to set off for the famous home of the third POTUS, Thomas Jefferson, the august man who was in only his early 30's when he wrote the almost sacred words of the Declaration. He was one of the lauded Founding Fathers who, along with George Washington (first President), John Adams (second) and James Madison (fourth), are still much revered for their enterprise, bravery and leadership in establishing this hugely successful new country.
Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States
Monticello, sitting on top of a Virginian hill
Monticello, Jefferson spiritual home
Jefferson's view of the world
His house is just outside Charlottesville, a friendly town lying in the valley of the Blue Ridge mountains in central Virginia. Jefferson had been left thousands of acres by his father and decided to build on the top of a hill enjoying appropriately majestic views over the surrounding verdant valley. He named it 'Monticello' (small mountain). He was a brilliant scholar, pretty good politician, polyglot (they say he commanded six languages including ancient greek and latin), an innovator and a prolific letter writer, combining the last two talents by using a 'polygraph' machine to duplicate every single letter of the thousands he wrote.
His polygraph machine sits on the table where he wrote his letters
His desk where he may have conjured up the words of the Declaration
But delving deeper, a dark, controversial side of his character emerges - and the more you learn, the more incredible the story gets. I shall try to be brief.
Thomas Jefferson, the man who ingrained unalienable rights to freedom into the American psyche, was born in 1743, and married Martha, the daughter of wealthy slave trader John Wayles, from Lancaster, England in 1772. She had been married before but was widowed young and had a son, James. When her father died, Martha inherited his 135 slaves (who were of course just possessions) including one Betty Hemings, to whom we shall return. The happy Jefferson produced 6 children, of whom sadly only two survived into adulthood, two girls. Tragically, Martha died several months after her last child was born in 1782 and Jefferson was devastated. He took no time in taking on a diplomatic post in France, taking with him his daughters and, to keep them company, the enslaved daughter of the aforementioned Betty Hemings, Sally.
Now, this is where it heats up. Mixed race Betty, who had been sired by 'a captain of an English trading vessel' had been much more than a slave to John Wayles, who took her as his concubine, siring no fewer than six children with her. The youngest was Sally. So Sally was actually Jefferson's wife's half sister. History then began to repeat itself. While in France, the 40 year old former President started paying a great deal of attention to 14 year old Sally, who was, as a result of the nocturnal shenanigans, three-quarters white European, but still a slave. Some of this attention, it is alleged, was unwanted. Bringing her back to Monticello, he produced four children with her. However, the kindly Jefferson kept them all enslaved, his own children and their mother, although he did give them slightly better housing in their hut and did eventually grant the kids their freedom when they came of age (and Sally was freed by the family when he died). Nice.
This is where we struggle. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, which included his creed that
'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness'.
These are totemic words which Americans and free people around the world encircle and embrace with commitment and pride. They represent the very essence of freedom.
However, the author meanwhile had a total of 400 slaves at his plantation estate all his life and they were even sold off after his death, when they could have been granted their freedom (Virginia was one of the Confederate states in the Civil War). Families were tragically broken up in a ruthless auction room. This incongruous, hypocritical lifestyle of someone who was clearly a great man leaves an uneasy feeling. As we toured Monticello, we questioned our guide on this glaring hypocrisy and she told us that he did not mean ALL men are created equal, but just his privileged peers. It reminded us of the famous Monty Python sketch in The Life Of Brian when the comic revolutionaries asked 'What have the Romans ever done for us?' Pause. Then someone whispers 'the Aqueduct'. 'Oh, and sanitation', adds another. 'And the roads' says another etc, etc. We could say that when Jefferson said 'All Men Are Created Equal', quiet retorts could include 'but not slaves, of course', 'and not American Indians', and 'not poor white folk', oh and of course 'not women'. By 'All Men', we think he meant "all men of his ilk and standing'. But, hell, never let historical facts get in the way of a good story.
So he had a lifetime of achievement and thoroughly deserves his place in history but this glance 'below stairs' at beautiful Monticello revealed a contradictory, complex lifestyle that makes the much heralded luminary look so much more human.
Another bizarre fact is that the second President, John Adams, died on the same day as Jefferson. The odds of that are incredible enough. But it was in 1826 - exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration. Amazing. But there's more ... they both died on July 4, the 50th anniversary of the signing of Jefferson's greatest oeuvre - to the very day. Spooky.