Share This Article

How Could Jefferson Live With Himself?

Call if a founding flaw: a developing nation declares that all men are created equal, but allows slavery. That contradiction, personified by Thomas Jefferson, will be examined in a new exhibition opening January 27 at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” “I think there was a public Jefferson and a private Jefferson,” says Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of two institutions, with Monticello itself, that have mounted the show for the American History museum. “He was a very brilliant man who, I think, examined slavery more than most, but his moral character did not support him thinking about abolition in his lifetime.”

The exhibit shows how Jefferson treated his human property, but also reveals with nuance how the community functioned because of him and in spite of him. Some slaves, for example, raised poultry and grew vegetables on their own time and sold them to the whites on the plantation. These black entrepreneurs then bought such goods as Chinese porcelain plates and metal buttons, some of which will be on display. “The average American thinks of slavery as this monolithic system,” says Elizabeth Chew, a curator at Monticello, who put together the Smithsonian show with Ellis. “Because of the research we have done, we are able to bring slavery down to an individual level. It humanizes it.”

New Tapes of Rockefeller and Nixon on Attica

Forty years after New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller sent state police and National Guard troops into Attica Correctional Facility to end a hostage situation, phone conversations between Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon reveal how quickly the governor’s sense of triumph crumbled. Theresa Lynch, an adjunct history professor at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, found the recordings at the National Archives. On the day police stormed the prison, September 13, 1971, the governor tells the president, “It really was a beautiful operation.” The next day, however, Rockefeller realized that 10 of the hostages killed in the retaking of the prison, as well as 29 inmates, were mistakenly shot by sharpshooters (some of them in the back). Nixon pledged, “Down here I’m going to get a few people with some backbone to stand up on this thing.” Three days later, in a New York Times op-ed piece, Vice President Spiro Agnew wrote that Rockefeller had acted “courageously.”

What Mary Chesnut’s Friends Looked Like

Mary Chesnut’s account of aristocratic life in the South during the Civil War has long been a key text for understanding culture and attitudes. C. Vann Woodward won a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for an annotated version of the diary. But readers have not known what most of the people Chestnut described in her journals looked like. Chesnut’s photos were missing for nearly 70 years, but went back to the family four years ago at auction. Pelican Publishing has issued a two-volume set that reunites the 1905 edition of Chesnut’s work with nearly 200 images from her three photo albums as Mary Chesnut’s Illustrated Diary. “She was a very visual writer,” says Marty Daniels, the great-granddaughter of Chesnut’s sister. “She wrote about people’s eyes and faces, so you can imagine that she was turning the photos over as she wrote.”

Easing the Pain of the Truth at the 9/11 Memorial

Designers of the 9/11 Memorial Museum that opens next fall in New York face a difficult problem: How to be sensitive to the feelings of visitors yet accurately depict what took place. Alcoves off the main space will deal with the most disturbing events of that day. Museum director Alice Greenwald says, “As a viewer, I do not want to be confronted with something that is upsetting. I want to make that decision myself.” For example, people who jumped from the World Trade Center towers are dealt with in a separate area. A series of single still images—no video—will be shown at a slow pace. Signage outside the alcove indicates what is inside along with remarks by people who witnessed the jumps.

Hamilton’s House Gets a Makeover

In the world of historic restoration, the rebuilding of Alexander Hamilton’s 1802 country house goes far beyond a redo. Named the Grange after the home of his Scottish ancestors, the house was originally located in what is now the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Hamilton Heights. The house was moved about two blocks downtown in 1889, then its front porch was lopped off and its innards reworked. Then, it was moved again in 2008, a little farther downtown to St. Nicholas Park. Now it shows off its original form, in some cases with materials that had been adapted to other uses in the house. A few pieces of furniture—a fortepiano played by Hamilton’s daughter, some mirrored doors—date to 1802; other pieces are reproductions. Says Stephen Spaulding, chief of architectural preservation for the northeast region of the National Park Service: “When it was actually done, I was rather taken aback by how beautiful it was, especially compared to what it was before we started.”

Civil War Ship Gives Up Secrets

Ironclads were built to take a dinging and keep on flinging shells. That shows clearly as preservationists continue to work on the turret of the Civil War ironclad the USS Monitor at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. After keeping the turret in fresh water for nine years, preservationists recently hammered, chiseled and pried some of the sediment that had attached to the cylinder during its 140 years under the seas off Cape Hatteras, where it sank in a storm in 1862. Although the turret is still covered with crud that will require another 15 to 18 years of soaking, its battle damage has become clearer, including a shot fired from the CSS Virginia that caused all eight of its layers of armor to bulge inward. Now visible are the scars caused by nuts inside the turret that were knocked loose by enemy hits, then flew around like shrapnel. “This is not just an iron shell,” says conservation project manager David Krop. “It was a place where men were fighting and trying not to die.”


Originally published in the February 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.