As a graduate of the University of Virginia, I spent four years going to college in what was often called “Mr. Jefferson’s Academical Village.” The shadow of the third president was ever-present, although in my case it increased my fondness for Alexander Hamilton.
During my years at UVa historians debated with more heat than light the issue of Thomas Jefferson’s private life, specifically his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. That debate remains ongoing. But what’s different is how the folks up the little mountain at Monticello address that issue. When I first visited the site back in 1974, there was virtually no mention of slavery as an institution and a few mentions of “servants.” Sally Hemings was virtually invisible as a person or as part of a controversy. That’s no longer the case. Over the years the folks at Monticello have explored the world of Monticello as plantation and factory and as a place where many enslaved black people lived and worked. During my most recent tour several years ago the guide was quite explicit in discussing the current understanding of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship.
So it was with some surprise that I came across this item from Rob Baker concerning what appears on the monticello.org website concerning the Declaration of Independence:
America did not secede from the British Empire to be alone in the world.
Given that the word “secession” now has specific connotations, and that it is the word used by the site, not the quote of a contemporary, Rob believed it was only proper to say that a revolution for independence conducted by colonies against an imperial power wasn’t quite the same thing as a secession of member states from a larger union or confederation. After all, colonies are subordinate parts of an empire, right?
Apparently not at monticello.org. Here’s how someone replied to Rob Baker’s inquiry:
The justification of the word “secede” in the referenced essay is that the 18th century British Empire was a federal union. Derived from the Latin word foedus meaning “treaty,” a federal union was an alliance or confederation of political entities created for mutual interest or benefit. Thus, the British American colonies originally entered into this confederation as semi-sovereign polities who agreed to offer loyalty to the British crown in exchange for protection from the British king. During the Imperial Crisis of the 1760s and 1770s, revolutionary patriots argued that Britain was no longer upholding its end of the bargain—it was neither protecting nor serving the interests of the American colonies. Instead, British Americans believed that Parliament and King George were impinging on their “rights,” most specifically, property right. These points became the justification for the colonies’ legitimate secession from the federal union that constituted the British Empire in 1776. Patriots promptly created their own federal union by establishing and uniting the new American states—this union survived until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.
Really? The British Empire was a federated union created with the colonies and the empire treated as equal parties? Could we see that document, please? And that’s just the beginning of this travesty of historical explanation, one that betrays a total lack of understanding of the British Empire or English colonization. That the author of the comment has a Ph.D. from UVa makes this even more astonishing … although it reminds me of this.
It’s just as some people have always claimed: mere possession of a Ph.D. in itself does not guarantee sound historical practice. But then I never said it did.