By Richard Ammon
June 3, 2011
In the past week I have visited the mansions of three early presidents of America: Jefferson’s ‘Monticello’ (photo right), Monroe’s ‘Ashlawn’ and Andrew Jackson’s ‘Hermitage’, in Virginia and Tennessee. Viewing these stately properties a modern visitor can glimpse a past way of life both elegant as well as rustic.
The dark side of these these presidential estates, as well as most other estate owners, is that the landed gentry owned many black slaves who were indentured for life and considered as property to be treated according to the whim of their owners. Modern docent guides give sanitized lectures on the plantation life of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as visitors stroll along manicured garden pathways viewing the neatly restored gardens, kitchens, barnyards and rough-hewn slave cabins.
To make matters worse for the blacks, these former presidents, before and after their terms in office, accrued large debts which they could not easily resolve. After their deaths, their heirs were forced to liquidate the big estates to pay the debts including the cruel act of selling slaves which were more valuable than real estate. Heartless auctions forced black families to be torn apart.
Jefferson was somewhat kind in giving freedom to his closest slave assistants. Jackson was less kind. But all three lived in the ‘dark ages’ when the American economy was wholly dependent on cheap African labor, indeed they worked for nothing. Disobedience or attempting to escape captivity led to whippings or execution by their ‘owners’. Even Washington followed the common practice (rarely) of whipping and hanging of disobedient slaves even though he (and Jefferson and Monroe) disapproved of slavery.
There are many photos of slaves in the American presidential homes depicting slave life. The faces of the slaves dressed in servants clothing, tilling the fields, cooking or forging horseshoes are the faces of resigned, unfree people captured and contained within a cruel life, working 6 days a week from sun-up to sun-down.
Glorious as these mansions are with their silken bed linens, fine dinnerware and finely crafted furniture, ‘great’ America still lives in the shadow of this ugly tortured history of slavery as well as the brutal and deceitful treatment of Native Americans.