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Conference attracts Jefferson enthusiasts to the U.Va. Grounds

By Dan Heuchert

A detail from the cover of the booklet produced for the June 22-25 symposium on "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery" shows the U.Va. founder (left) and Isaac Jefferson, a slave who became a blacksmith and later overseer of Monticello in 1797. He was the only slave ever to hold this position there.

Thomas Jefferson still attracts a crowd at U.Va., 174 years after his death.

More than 60 Jefferson enthusiasts from across the country -- including a celebrated Stanford University student whose parents live at a certain prestigious Washington address -- gathered recently at the University for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies' annual Jefferson Symposium. The four-day program opened June 22 and featured some of the world's leading Jefferson experts lecturing on "Thomas Jefferson and Slavery."

The program resulted from a "harmonic convergence" of interest on the part of past participants, the availability of prominent scholars, and the publication of new scholarship on slavery, said Tom Dowd, who coordinated the program for the School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "The [Sally] Hemings discussion made the topic more open for discussion. In a way, it liberates Jefferson students. You don't have to tiptoe around slavery. "I think people left with a more nuanced view of Jefferson," he said.

Jefferson's views on slavery have long perplexed scholars. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he held that "all men are created equal" and that their natural rights include "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." He fretted that the institution of slavery threatened the health of the fledgling country. Yet he wrote pseudo-scientifically about the inferiority of the African race in his Notes on the State of Virginia, and continued to hold slaves until his death in 1826.

Leading off the conference, Peter Onuf, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at U.Va., postulated that Jefferson believed his views had a moral basis. While humans are born with the potential for moral development, Jefferson held that it had to be developed in the correct political and social environment, Onuf said. While the American Revolution created that environment, Jefferson argued that black and Native American society had not yet progressed to the point of being ready for self-governance -- demonstrated, in part, by thousands of Africans siding with the despotic British during the Revolutionary War.

There was also a question of national self-preservation, he said. Jefferson was unwilling to vigorously push emancipation -- which, in Jefferson's plans, would be followed by expatriating the former slaves to Africa -- because the division such a proposal would cause could threaten the fragile republic, Onuf said.

Other speakers included Jeremy Black of the University of Exeter, a leading British historian; Joseph Miller, the T. Cary Johnson Jr. Professor of History at U.Va. and an expert on the slave trade; Philip Morgan, history professor at William & Mary and a slave-culture expert; Joshua Rothman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama; and Annette Gordon-Reed, the New York University law professor whose book, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, shook the world of Jefferson scholarship.

Gordon-Reed's talk was "really powerful" in providing a balanced portrait of Jefferson, Dowd noted. "He was extraordinary in some areas, ordinary in some areas, and wrong in others," he said.

The program included a Rotunda dinner, a special after-hours tour of Monticello and its grounds, and plenty of late-night conversation on the Lawn, where many program participants stayed.

"It's one of the few times during the year that I sit up until midnight or 1 a.m. with some other people here and talk about ideas," said Donald Gehring, who teaches higher education administration at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. He has attended six Jefferson symposia and two of Continuing Education's annual programs on Jefferson held at Oxford University in England.

This was the third symposium that Alise Martinez, a registered nurse from Daly City, Calif., has been able to attend. Her interest in Jefferson was sparked by the novel Jefferson in Paris, and by C-SPAN's footage of President Clinton's 1992 Inauguration Day tour of Monticello.

"I just fell in love with Monticello. Ever since then I have been really interested in learning more about Jefferson," said Martinez, who hopes eventually to retire to the Charlottesville area.

The conference also drew America's most famous pre-med student, Chelsea Clinton, who arrived late for Gordon-Reed's June 24 talk (despite the aid of several Secret Service officers, she was delayed in traffic). She later had lunch with Onuf, Gordon-Reed, and her escort, Stanford University history professor Jack Rakove, before touring Monticello and Ash Lawn-Highland.

"She's a very impressive young person," Onuf said. "She's very interested in history, and she was a very intelligent member of the audience."

The School of Continuing and Professional Studies has announced two future Jefferson programs. "Thomas Jefferson in Paris" is scheduled for Oct. 22-27 at the Hotel Ambassador in Paris. The 2001 Jefferson Symposium, "Thomas Jefferson in Architecture," is scheduled for June 20-24, 2001 in Charlottesville.


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