To understand American history, Jon Lauck says you have to understand the Midwest's role in some critical events.
President Obama is taking France’s president to visit Monticello, the stately home built by President Thomas Jefferson, who also happened to be a great Francophile.
Monticello is on any list of America’s most important homes. Leslie Greene Bowman, the head of the Jefferson Foundation, which runs the place says, it “has a heavy French accent” because “Jefferson incorporated in his home the cultural and intellectual vibrancy of France.”
But Monticello was also in its time a working plantation with slaves.
“Jefferson and Monticello are the embodiment of the central paradox of American history,” historian Joseph Ellis told Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “Jefferson wrote the magic words of American history, the ones that begin with ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’ Lincoln will be inspired by these words to draft the Emancipation Proclamation; Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the ‘I have a dream’ speech, said that he was here to collect on the promissory note written by Jefferson. So one side of Jefferson is an expression of racial and human equality that is truly lyrical and universal … On the other hand, most of the residents on that mountaintop were African-Americans.”
This is President Obama’s first visit to the historic home, though the First Lady and daughters have been there, making him the first African-American president to visit Monticello.
“Jefferson himself, while an outspoken opponent of slavery, owned slaves all his life,” Ellis said. “And even worse, in the only book he ever published, ‘Notes on Virginia,’ he said that African-Americans were inherently inferior… So Obama, the first black President, who knows a lot about American history, knows that he is entering a world that is the most resonant example of the central paradox of American history.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And if you see pictures of the White House on TV today, you may notice that there are little French flags everywhere. They are there to welcome French President Francois Hollande, who is spending a couple of days with President Obama and will be honored at a state dinner tomorrow at the White House. But today, the two them will be taking a trip to Monticello, Virginia, home of the nation's third president and you could say Francophile-in-chief, Thomas Jefferson.
Joining us now is Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis. He is the author or "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson." Joseph Ellis, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.
JOSEPH ELLIS: Hey. Pleased to be with you.
HOBSON: And this is the first visit there to Monticello for President Obama, the first time a sitting U.S. president has gone there with a sitting foreign head of state. What is it, do you think, that the president - President Obama - is hoping to show President Hollande there today?
ELLIS: Well, as you said in your introduction, Jefferson is the most Francophile American president in all of American history. He served as America's minister plenipotentiary in Paris from 1784 to '89, succeeding Franklin. He fell in love with all things French. You might say French women, French food, French wine, French architecture.
And Monticello is itself architecturally a Palladian design. And while Palladian architecture comes from Tuscany, Jefferson first learned about it and saw it in Southern France. And so the very design of Monticello, in Jefferson's mind, is a tribute to the French eye.
HOBSON: Well, and as you say, he was there right after Benjamin Franklin. He was there for five years starting in 1784. Tell us more about his time in France and what he brought back to the U.S. that shaped this very young country.
ELLIS: Jefferson, as I said, you know, fell in love with France. There's - with Jefferson, there's always paradoxes and contradictions. While he had an enormous love affair with the culture of Paris and regarded it as the greatest city in the world, he would tell young men who wrote him to say they wanted to come visit Europe not to come to Paris. There were 52,000 registered prostitutes there, and the seductions of Parisian life were just as ignoble as noble.
He had a daughter with him, Patsy, whose real name was Martha. He put her in a convent, a Catholic convent because he was worried that she would be corrupted if she were to live with him in Paris. So - but when he came back in '89, he brought with him - gosh knows how many - boxes of things French; French art, French furniture, French books. And when the French president walks into the hallway of Monticello, some of them will be the first things he sees. And so Obama has chosen well.
He will see, the French president will see several tables from France, and he will see busts of the great French philosopher Voltaire and the French economists Turgot. And he will see all these artifacts from the Louisiana Purchase that were given to Jefferson: Indian bonnets, Buffalo hides. And so while it's indirect, it's still a symbol of the greatest land deal in the history of land deals.
We got Louisiana, all the land, the Midwest, really, of the United States - from the Rockies to the Mississippi and the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico - for $15 million, roughly $270 million now, and, what, four cents an acre, the greatest, most fertile land of that size in the planet. And Napoleon just basically sold it to us.
HOBSON: Well - and you mentioned fertile land. If they walk out on to the grounds in Monticello, they will also see Jefferson's vineyards there, which I wonder if they were inspired by the beautiful vineyards of France.
ELLIS: They were. They were, though he never was able to grow either grapes or tobacco or wheat in the way that he had hoped to. And while Monticello is an extraordinary architectural creation that sits atop a small mountain - that's what Monticello means. It means little mountain - the fact that it's on a mountain and is elevated means that the soil there is not very good.
It looks down on a valley that is extraordinarily fertile, but Jefferson was never able to grow the stuff he wanted, and he ended up bankrupt as a result. And - but it's the ideal - always the ideal with Jefferson that counts more than the reality.
HOBSON: Now, this is also, as we said, President Obama's first visit to Monticello. The first lady has been there with their daughters. But we should note that this is a place that had a lot of slaves. Jefferson did. What does it mean for the first African-American president to be visiting this place today?
ELLIS: Boy, let me tell you. That's a profound question. Jefferson is - and Monticello are the embodiment of the central paradox in American history. Jefferson wrote the magic words of American history, the ones that begin: we hold these truths to be self-evident and all men are created equal. Lincoln will be inspired by these words to draft the Emancipation Proclamation. Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the "I Have a Dream" speech, said he was coming to collect on a promissory note that was written by Jefferson. So one side of Jefferson is an expression of racial equality and human equality that is truly lyrical and universal.
On the other hand, as you say, most of the residents on that mountain top were African-Americans. Little over a hundred of them in any given time, yet another hundred in another plantation about 90 miles away in Bedford. While he freed a few of his slaves, all members of the Hemings family, he really couldn't afford to free the rest of them and - because they were actually owned by his creditors. And Jefferson himself, while an outspoken opponent of slavery, owned slaves all his life, and his whole livelihood and the building of Monticello itself was made possible by slave labor.
And even worse, in the only book he ever published, "Notes on Virginia," he had a couple of paragraphs that basically said that African-Americans, blacks, were inherently inferior, not inferior because they experienced slavery, which held them down. It was nature, not nurture. The blacks could never be integrated into American society, and if and when slavery ended, they would have to be transported elsewhere, to the West Indies or back to Africa.
So Obama, the first black president who knows a lot about American history - I would say he's more historically informed than any president since Woodrow Wilson - knows that he is entering a world that is the most resonant example of the central paradox in American history.
HOBSON: Joseph Ellis, author of the book on Thomas Jefferson, "American Sphinx," thanks so much.
ELLIS: My pleasure.
HOBSON: And, by the way, if you've never been to Monticello, take this opportunity to go because it's a remarkable place. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.