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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.”