Three presidents and forks in the road: two steps forward and . . . .

On a sunny afternoon in November, I walked up to the Lincoln Memorial and felt a lump rise in my throat, as it has on this transcontinental trek in other places that represent human triumph and suffering: South Pass in Wyoming, where the Oregon Trail overlanders crossed the Rockies; Monroe Elementary in Topeka, from which sprang Brown v. Board; the plain below Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, site of Pickett’s Charge. Reading the Second Inaugural (for the hundredth time) and turning to look at the Washington Monument, my eyes welled. This is my sacred temple, my favorite public site in the world, one that leaves me awed in contemplation of the purpose of life, the wonder of creation and the demands of Shiva.

If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Three days later I stood at the Jefferson Memorial. It is a beautiful structure that makes me smile. Jefferson’s words are similarly inscribed on its walls. Among them:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as a civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.

Jefferson addresses my intellect, a step removed from experience. But Lincoln touches my heart because his words are imbued with suffering.

From these quotations, I began to form an essay on my visits to these two presidents’ homes. On my way east from Portland, I had spent a day walking around Springfield, Illinois. After Washington I was headed to the University of Virginia, where I had learned to write first drafts at The Cavalier Daily and craft second drafts through the history department. Following a newspaper staff reunion, I would spend a day at Monticello, and then think of a third president’s home.

Jefferson’s Monticello and ‘Academical Village

The morning after arriving in Charlottesville, I accompanied Sheryl, my college friend of more than four decades, on a walk around the Grounds. First stop was the Memorial to Enslaved People, the 4,000 or so who built and maintained Jefferson’s “Academical Village” from 1817 to 1865. After a decade of student agitation, research, planning and fundraising, the memorial was dedicated in April. It sits between the Rotunda and the Corner, the commercial strip adjacent to the Grounds, and so it is an unavoidable site for any student or visitor. Constructed in the shape of an open shackle, the memorial includes a timeline and the names of those enslaved.

Slave quarters under Pavilion III

When we walked into the Rotunda, a guide introduced herself and led us on a 90-minute tour of unearthed facts about the university’s embrace of slavery. (The tour is part of freshman orientation.) Ahana, a first-generation Indian-American born in Manhattan, took us to a garden behind one of the 10 pavilions that face the Lawn. A thousand times had I walked through the archways connecting the Lawn and the gardens and never imagined that slaves lived in the basements of the pavilions, the homes of the professors. In Jefferson’s majestic design, an observer on the Lawn is unaware the pavilions even have basements.

Jefferson similarly designed Monticello: A visitor would have to go looking for the slave quarters and workshops in subterranean wings off the mansion. Out of sight, out of mind.

Slavery was largely out of mind until my last tour of Monticello in 2005. It was completely out of mind when I was a student in the late 1970s. Fawn Brodie had published Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History in 1974, the first modern account of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. Around the history department, the vibe was still aligned with resident professor emeritus Dumas Malone’s largely hagiographic biography of Jefferson, the fifth volume of which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. White people would learn later that Jefferson’s rape of Hemings was common knowledge in the Charlottesville neighborhoods where their descendants lived.

The Monticello narrative has shifted so much since the Thomas Jefferson Foundation launched its oral history project in 1993 that I hardly recognized the place. From the get-go, tour guides provide a nuanced portrait of the slave-owning drafter of the self-evident truths that has long been available in written studies but not so much at his plantation. Guides on the house tour sketch the Hemings family, including the six children born into slavery fathered by Thomas Jefferson. Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife Martha Wayles; Martha’s father, John Wayles, fathered six children borne by Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings; Sally was her youngest.

Mulberry Row tour guide Justin

On the hour-long tour of Mulberry Row, the center of Big House life and industry for enslaved and paid labor, our guide Justin explained how the chattel system in America developed after 30 enslaved Africans were dropped off in Jamestown in 1619. I did not expect he would articulate the purposes of the slave code Virginia enacted in 1662. It designated slavery as hereditary through one’s mother—a break from England and the colonies, where one’s status was determined by the father. The system, Justin explained, was designed to drive a wedge between the interests of enslaved Blacks and White peasants for the benefit of the elite.

I almost blurted to my fellow tourists: And nothing has changed. The aristocracy is still using race to divide the working class.

Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

I advance it, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.

How else to square slavery with the self-evident truths?

As for White (men), Justin said, Jefferson proposed they were of one of five classes:

. . . . aristocrats (the great planters), half-breeds (yeomen who had married into aristocratic families), pretenders (men of wealth not belonging to established families), a solid independent yeomanry, looking askance at those above, yet not venturing to join them, and last and lowest, a seculum of beings, the overseers.

A final anecdote from Justin’s tour: When Jefferson’s paid White craftsmen wrote to warn him that the overseer of his nail factory was drinking his wine, stealing his stores and savagely beating his slaves, Jefferson conceded that the man was harsh, but that he could not imagine an overseer who could better serve his purposes.

Having experienced the Reeducation of Monticello, I thought: What of the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home near Nashville? I had never been there, but had it updated its presumably hagiographic narrative?

The Hermitage

Full disclosure: To me Jackson is a villain. He inherited Jefferson’s moribund faction and built it into the Democratic Party, which asserted White Supremacy until Franklin Roosevelt began the long peeling away. At a formative period of our development, he helped extinguish the Era of Good Feelings; displaced Indians and ignored the Supreme Court’s decision to stop doing so (“Let him enforce it”); solidified slavery as a proper relationship between Black and White after post-revolutionary ambivalence; and destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, which led to the Panic of 1837 (and propelled emigration over the Oregon Trail).

Lining the entrance to the Hermitage visitor center hang banners with handsome portraits of Jackson and underneath: “Statesman,” “Legend,” “Hero.” Uh oh. How about the museum present its narrative and leave the judgment to us? I was not encouraged by the stacks of books on a forward table: Jon Meacham’s biography, American Lion, and A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror. A few other biographies and texts on the Indians’ narrative lined the thinly stocked shelves in the rear, but Jackson as “the people’s president” is the museum’s message.

The 17-minute film was frustrating. Meacham, the journalist who writes popular narratives, and several historians offer assertions and place Jackson in his context, but no one articulates why he’s critical to our history. I wondered how I would compose an alternative.

The biographical presentation in the museum is cursory: highlights from birth through the Battle of New Orleans. There are prominent photographs and accompanying narratives of his most trusted enslaved people. The room about his presidency is closed because of Covid-related staffing shortages, perhaps because this is Tennessee, whose governor has followed the DeSantis model of prevention.

Things looked up when our “VIP” tour guide showed up. Tony, the staff preservationist, started as a tour guide; now 50, he’s had one employer in his adult life. Out on the front balcony an hour into our walk, Tony paused in describing the house and its artifacts to urge us to read. He observed that historiography changes over time, and he summarized 27-year-old Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Pulitzer-winning Age of Jackson (1946) in the context of the Cold War: Jackson as a democrat who took power from the elite that had presided over the government from its founding, and who thought the Second Bank of the United States put too much power in a central, corrupt authority. Jackson imbued the presidency with power to set policy that Madison had not contemplated. He vetoed more bills (12) than all his predecessors combined, and he drove Congress to his will by claiming an electoral mandate.

The two knocks against Jackson in our time, Tony said, were his advocacy of slavery and prosecution of various wars against Indians and their removal by civilian authorities throughout his administration. But the 1838 Trail of Tears—the military’s forced march of the Cherokees—occurred under “another administration.” That would be his second vice president and successor, Martin Van Buren, who in my view was the architect of Jackson’s divide-and-conquer control of Congress.

Part of the 1804 Hermitage, later slave quarters

Tony’s house tour and the grounds’ display panels were extensive in their interpretation of a slave plantation. Jackson followed the South’s boom-and-bust economic model: In flush years, buy more land and slaves; in downturns, accumulate debt. Jackson ultimately acquired about 1,000 acres and 150 slaves. The Hermitage website is clear-eyed: Jackson’s purpose was to make money from King Cotton, “which ruled the daily lives of the enslaved.”

Although a minor sector within larger southern society, this elite plantation aristocracy controlled the majority of wealth and power in a primarily agricultural-driven landscape. Their cash crop was cotton, and “King Cotton” ruled with a heavy hand throughout southern plantations.

The Andrew Jackson Foundation has undertaken terrific archeology, and it explains particulars of the Hermitage economy and Jackson’s slave management (unlike Jefferson, he broke up no families). The work has been smoother because the plantation passed from the family to the Ladies Hermitage Association, Nashville women dedicated to preserving it. By contrast, Monticello and its artifacts passed out of the Jefferson family (to pay off debts) before coming into institutional preservation. The furnishings in the Hermitage were there when Jackson died in 1845 or are exact reproductions.

Also unlike Monticello, the foundation lacks an endowment and Second Gilded Age sugar daddies. David Rubenstein, who funded Monticello’s visitor center among other patriotic philanthropies, has not similarly financed the Hermitage (Tony told me they’ve worked connections). It relies on visitor fees, modest gifts, and the occasional appropriation from the state legislature.

I come away less certain of Jackson’s legacy. I have long considered him a great president. He transformed the nation, furthering Jefferson’s Atlantic-to-Pacific vision and setting the course for Manifest Destiny: John Tyler’s annexation of Texas and James Polk’s conquest of the southwest and peaceful settling of the northwest border with Britain. He forged the political consensus among Whigs as well as Democrats that that the United States was a country for White people. From that consensus sprouted both the abolitionist movement and John Calhoun’s theory of nullification, though Jackson was a staunch Unionist and considered Calhoun (his first vice president) a traitor. At the end of our tête-à-tête, Tony admitted he didn’t like Jackson because he believes in republican government. So do I.

I move from our seventh president to our 16th and the context in which he saved the union from the inevitable clash over slavery his predecessors had set up.

Like Jefferson and Jackson, Lincoln was a product of his place and occupation. He was not a planter but a lawyer, and his travels on the judicial circuit put him in touch with ordinary concerns. Before he was 20, he had piloted a flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans, observing trade—and slavery—along the way. He came to maturity in a growing city, the new state capital. His emergence as an opponent of slavery fit a state whose concern was the threat posed to free White labor by the expansion of the Peculiar Institution on Illinois’ borders. His party, the Whigs, favored diversified economic development over territorial expansion, and Lincoln railed against Polk’s Mexican War.

Lincoln’s Springfield

Lincoln home on 8th Street

In the state capital, Lincoln’s image is everywhere: government buildings, park squares, commercial establishments. The National Park Service has restored a four-block area to the period Lincoln lived in it, from 1844 to 1861. The neighborhood sets a scene for people of means, and by the time Lincoln lived here, seven years after he’d moved from New Salem and received his law license, he had some. I took a tour of his house with two other tourists led by a volunteer named Ken, who noted that its kitchen was bigger than the log cabin Abe lived in as a boy. Several adjacent houses are open for exhibits. Among the vacant lots is that of Jameson Jenkins, a Black conductor of the Underground Railroad who gave the president-elect a ride to the train station for his journey to Washington.

Up the street is the old state capitol, restored to its appearance when Lincoln served in its House. I walked through the chamber in which he delivered the “house divided” speech as the Republican candidate for Senate in 1858. In it he argued that his opponent, Senator Stephen Douglas, architect of the Compromise of 1850, had conspired with Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger Taney (author of Dred Scott) to allow the expansion of slavery into free states. A capitol employee noted that Lincoln had rehearsed it with friends in the library; all urged him not to give it—too radical. Indeed, the legislature reelected Douglas. But the national response was electric, and it propelled the obscure, self-taught lawyer and former one-term representative to the presidency.

Two miles north of the Capitol is Oak Ridge Cemetery, site of Lincoln’s tomb. At the ground level of a stair-stepped pyramid, I pushed open an imposing, black steel door. A tour guide sat alone and answered my questions. Yes, his casket was opened in 1901 during a crypt renovation directed by Robert Todd Lincoln; a worker brought along his 14-year-old son; Fleetwood Lindley, the last person to see the body, recounted the experience shortly before his death in 1963. My guide said it was well preserved, Lincoln’s face colored bronze, like the statues that line the four corners and entry of the tomb. The body lies in a steel vault inside poured concrete, 10 feet below ground, behind a marble wall; those of Mary Todd and their four children are sealed in a wall toward the center of the tomb. In a thousand years, archeologists will surmise that this was an important pharaoh. I mull how he saved us from despotism by imposing it.

Lincoln rewrote the Constitution and our underlying compact: by refusing to accept secession, denying habeas corpus, suppressing free speech, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. He pushed Congress to replace the Three-Fifths Compromise with the Thirteenth Amendment, which set the stage for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth. (For more than two decades, the Rehnquist and Roberts Supreme Courts have been chipping away at the latter two.)

Another sculpture in town depicts the 1908 Springfield “Race Riot.” After the sheriff smuggled two Black men accused of high crimes out of town for their safety, a White mob lynched two innocent Black men and burned homes and businesses in violence that went on for days. Subsequently, Mabel Hallam, a White woman who had accused George Richardson of rape, confessed she’d sought to cover up an affair with a White man. Joe James, 17, the other Black suspect, was convicted of murder and executed. The violence, covered nationally, contributed to the founding of the NAACP the following year.

White men still lynch Black men; recently we saw one on a homemade video in Brunswick, Georgia. Police, acting on our behalf, kill Black people daily. Republican-controlled state legislatures spent 2021 trying to ban the teaching of The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” now a book, in public schools. This month in Virginia, a private-equity tycoon based his campaign for governor on denying race as a formative factor in our history and contemporary life. I had thought my former home state had turned the corner after rejecting the dog whistles of statewide Republican candidates for the last 12 years. But this fall, while the statue of Robert E. Lee finally was removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue, Glenn Youngkin campaigned, successfully, against “critical race theory.” Our politics as Newton’s third law:

We are still wearing the coat that fitted us as children, and the aristocracy is still using race to divide the working class.

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2 Responses to Three presidents and forks in the road: two steps forward and . . . .

  1. Sheryl Gay Stolberg says:

    A terrific history lesson, Bennett. Thank you.


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