Journalist and author Lucian K. Truscott IV, a great-great-great-grandson of Thomas Jefferson, rattled the powers-that-be when he was at West Point in 1968 by challenging the academy’s requirement that every cadet attend a church or synagogue, ultimately winning an 8-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that abolished the rule at all three U.S. military service academies.
He shook up the Jefferson family establishment 30 years later when he invited the descendants of Sally Hemings — a slave with whom Jefferson had six children after the death of his wife — to the annual meeting of the Monticello Association, which owns the family cemetery at Monticello, Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville, Virginia. His effort to win Hemings descendants the right to be buried there failed.
He made news once again last week by calling, in a New York Times opinion essay, for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., to be torn down. “The memorial is a shrine to a man who during his lifetime owned more than 600 slaves,” he wrote, “and had at least six children with one of them, Sally Hemings. It’s a shrine to a man who famously wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence that founded this nation — and yet never did much to make those words come true.”
The son of an Army colonel and the grandson of an Army general who took command in Europe in World War II, Mr. Truscott, 73, lives in Springs with the artist Tracy Harris. He talked about his relationship with Jefferson and Monticello, and his decision to call for the removal of Jefferson’s memorial, with former Southampton Press Editor Peter Boody, an amateur student of Jefferson history who wrote about the man’s perplexing complexities in a novel called “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”
Q: I wondered if you could talk to me a little bit about your boyhood memories of Monticello and your feelings growing up about Thomas Jefferson, and how they may have changed over the years as you learned more and more about him.
Well, I guess it’s complicated, like anything in life is. But I obviously come from a privileged background, in the fact of being a Jefferson descendant. Just that.
You know, it’s something I’ve always been proud of. When I was a kid, the way I was raised by my parents was, my mother … I can remember my mother always saying to me, “Don’t you go thinking you’re better than anybody else just because you’re related to Thomas Jefferson, because you’re not.”
The funny thing about that is, when I finally met my Hemings cousins, we learned that we were all raised exactly the same way. The Hemingses, of course, their parents would tell them that, but they would also tell them — and my mother used to tell me — “You keep your mouth shut about Thomas Jefferson.”
When I was in school, they said, “If you’re studying American history, you don’t raise your hand and say that’s my grandfather.” Well, the Hemingses were told the same way, the same thing. They were told by their parents, “Just because you’re related to Thomas Jefferson doesn’t make you better than the next little boy or little girl down the street. If they start teaching about Thomas Jefferson in school, don’t raise your hand.”
Well, the difference was, they were told that because they wouldn’t be believed.
… When I was a kid, I grew up in the Army, so we traveled a lot, from one Army post to another. Almost all the Army reassignments were in the summer. Every summer, I could remember going to Charlottesville. I can remember going to Washington, as I described in the Times piece, visit my grandmother and grandfather.
At a certain point, my brother and I, when we were 5 or 6 or 7 years old, this was back in the early 1950s. We would be put in the car and driven down to Charlottesville to visit my great-aunts and my great-grandmother.
… My parents would leave us off in this house that they had down there, called Wild Acres. It sounds much grander than it was. It used to be a … what they called “the roadhouse.” It was a … during Prohibition, it was a speakeasy, a gambling joint and a whorehouse, is what it was.
This is where Martha — I mean, Mary Walker Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s third great-granddaughter — ended up, living in what used to be a roadhouse in Charlottesville with her two daughters, who are my great-aunts. They were all born and raised at Edge Hill, which was a large plantation only a few miles from Monticello, in Charlottesville. The family had lost that place around 1910, I think, at the very, very tail end of Reconstruction. It could no longer be supported without slave labor, which it had until 1865.
After that, they ran it as a farm. And then after that, they ran it as a girls finishing school. And then, they lost the house. They scattered to the wind.
… At a certain point, my great-aunts would get tired of watching us and chasing us. They put us in this old Buick of theirs and drive us up the mountain to Monticello and dropped us off.
They quite literally would drive onto the lawn and park right in front of the house. I remember my great-aunt, Mary Walker, whose nickname was “Miss Moo,” that’s what we called her, getting out of the car. It was always July or something, and hot, and the windows were open, and no air conditioning. Everyone, all the old ladies were fanning themselves.
She would get out of the car and call to this groundskeeper, who lived near Monticello and worked at Monticello as a groundskeeper. I guess he had been an employee of their family at Edge Hill in the 1800s, or his family had. He probably was descended from slaves from either Monticello or Edge Hill.
… He would lean on the roof of the Buick, and he’d always say, “Well, how you doing, Miss Moo?” He called her by the same name that everyone in our family called her, so they were very familiar with each other.
… She’d say, “Well, I’m fine, Walker. Will you watch the boys for me, for us, this afternoon?”
“Oh, I’d be glad to.”
Open would be the Buick doors and out my brother and I would sprint — and we’d never see Walker again.
We had the run of the place. We did everything, including play on Thomas Jefferson’s bed. And we went up in the little closet up above it, which was like a hiding place. We could get up there and look out the window when tourists came through.
We used to go up on the second floor, where no one was allowed … and go out on the little parapets that Monticello has, little fenced parapets up there. With pockets full of pebbles and throw them down on tourists.
We would go and play in the dependencies, they called them. These rooms that were under the wings in the back lawn of Monticello. They were called the dependencies. Basically, at that time, in the ’50s, they were being used as storerooms, and stuff. We would just go in there and explore and play. One of those rooms turned out to be Sally Hemings’s bedroom.
Q: Wasn’t it a pretty casual set up, the tourism thing?
Oh, totally. Monticello is Disneyland, at this point. There’s a visitors center at the bottom of the hill. You take buses to the top, and it costs 20 bucks to go through the tour. It’s all completely organized, and everything.
At that point, when you drove up the mountain, you just drove your car up there. There was a little gatehouse. I mean a little … one of those little square houses with the window out, with a sliding thing, and an old guy in there, and you’d give them a quarter, and you were at Monticello.
Q: Did you have much sense at that age, that, hey, this is my great-great-great-grandfather’s house? Was that part of the fun of being there, or was it really just, hey, this is a cool house?
We were just kids. It was like a playground for us. You know? We knew whose house it was.
I have a picture right here on my computer of my brother and me laying a wreath on Jefferson’s grave in a family ceremony in 1953. We were in these prim little shorts, and little jackets, and little collared shirts, and leather shoes, and everything. We had gotten all dressed up for the occasion, and so forth. We knew who we were. Or, we knew where we were.
… We just had the run of the place. That was the way I grew up. I realized the privilege that I’ve come from, and that’s been part of the problem for the rest of the family, in fact, over the years. When I took the Sally Hemings descendants to the family reunion for the first time in 1999, it wasn’t just some cousin well down the line there from Thomas Jefferson. I was directly descended from Jefferson and his wife to his first grandson, who was Thomas Jefferson Randolph. Thomas Jefferson Randolph had another child, and that child had my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother lived at Edge Hill with Thomas Jefferson Randolph.
Thomas Jefferson Randolph was born in 1792, or something, and lived until 1879, or something. My grandmother, my great-grandmother, was born in 1866. When she had dinner every night with Thomas Jefferson Randolph, she was having dinner with the guy who ran the farm for Jefferson in the last nine years of his life before he died in 1826. He lived at Monticello and ran the farm for him.
The thing about … That’s how close we are to Thomas Jefferson. He was the only dead person between me and my grandmother and Jefferson himself. There’s only one dead guy there.
I grew up around these people, who knew people who not only knew Jefferson but lived at the place when Sally Hemings and Jefferson were living there. They knew the story.
They didn’t tell us the story. My great-grandmother, my great-aunts, they knew it, but they didn’t tell us the story. It was one of those Southern things, where they keep their mouth shut about the past and let sleeping dogs lie. They say stuff like that in the South. You know?
Nevertheless, they raised my father and mother, and my father and mother raised us. We were raised to be the people that took Sally Hemings’s descendants to Monticello.
Q: Was that a big turn in the family tradition, that you had that kind of thinking going on as an adult, that you said, “Hey, the Hemingses should be here”?
I was … To say I was the black sheep of the Jefferson descendants, my God, that doesn’t quite put it adequately. The thing that made them mad was, my great-grandmother Mary Walker Randolph founded the Monticello Association, the association that got control of the graveyard in 1921. In fact, she founded to take ownership of the deed to the graveyard. It was in 1921 that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation blocked Monticello from the Levy family.
At the same time, the graveyard was deeded to the Monticello Association, and that was for my great-grandmother and I think one of her brothers and sisters to own the graveyard.
It wasn’t like some distant cousin was inviting the black people into the graveyard. It was Mary Walker Randolph’s great-grandson.
Q: Did you have people really giving you a serious hard time? Just in a rage talking to you about this?
Oh, yeah. There are a few rednecks in the Jefferson family, in the white descendants, that just went completely crazy and hated me.
When I would be interviewed by television news crews and stuff, at the Monticello family reunions, they would walk into the camera, into the shot, and stand there and yell at me, so that the filming couldn’t go on.
It enraged them, number one, that I could write an op-ed for The New York Times in 1998 suggesting that the Sally Hemings descendants be allowed to be buried with us. And, number two, that I invited them to Monticello.
They did stuff over the next four years, like they passed laws, by-laws to the Monticello Association, that said that no member could bring more than two guests to the family reunion. Of course, I brought 30 or 40 guests, and they were all black.
Not all of them were black, though. Some of the Hemingses are white.
They were not happy with me at all. Eventually, in 2003, they had a vote. They voted 96-6, I think it was, against allowing the Hemingses into the family association.
Q: That’s the last word on that now? That’s the final decision?
So far, yeah.
… You know, I guess you could say I was a black sheep. But I’m not a black sheep if that’s the way the Randolph family and the Truscott family raised me. It isn’t like I got the flu one day and suddenly discovered I wasn’t racist, or something. You know? I was raised to be who I am. The person you’re looking at is the person who was raised to be the exact person you’re looking at.
Q: Do you think there’s any of that in Jefferson himself? Do you think there’s that complexity in Thomas Jefferson, himself? I wonder how much you think about him as a person and how he comes through the ages to you in your own mind, as a human being?
All the historians, No. 1, for 200 years, said he didn’t do anything with Sally Hemings. Finally, when the DNA evidence proved them wrong, they all ran, shifted into reverse, and went into reverse at 60 mph.
And they all changed their minds. They all … Once they had to accept that, then they started saying, “Well, he was a complex man.”
And blah, blah, blah. You know, all that stuff. I don’t think that there’s much complexity to it. There’s an obvious hypocrisy going on there, that the guy [who wrote] the Declaration of Independence also was a slave owner, No. 1. And the guy who wrote “Notes On The State of Virginia,” which is a family document of white supremacy. It’s the document that existed in the 1700s that defined the difference between black and white. It set the blood limit so that you had to be more than a sixteenth … less than a sixteenth black to be white. You know? He’s the one that coined the term “octoroon,” for God’s sake.
And the “Notes On The State of Virginia” went into great lengths saying that black people were slaves, were inherently inferior.
Okay? Then he met Sally Hemings. His wife died. He had six children with his wife. His wife died in childbirth with the sixth child. Only two of the children he had with his wife survived. The other ones died very, very early or in childbirth.
Think about that. You want to talk about complexity. What would you do if your wife kept having children die in childbirth? You’d find some way to exercise birth control, wouldn’t you? Well, not him.
When his wife died, he took up with Sally Hemings, and they had six children. And then, of course, they educated them.
This is … Sally’s brothers, John Hemings and Peter Hemings, Peter went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris. Jefferson sent him to Le Cordon Bleu, and paid for. And John Hemings, there are legions of letters and memos back and forth between John Hemings and Jefferson, arguing about the design of woodwork at Monticello and furniture that Jefferson had designed. … Jefferson would say, “No, no, no. I want it to be this way.” In letters that he’s writing back and forth to his slave. John Hemings was paid for the furniture, for crying out loud.
… Once you find that out, you have to see that Jefferson, by the time he died in 1826, he had to have changed his mind about the inferiority of black people. You know?
Number one, he had six black children. Under his definition of blackness and whiteness, six of his children were black.
Number two, he had educated, probably, Sally, but we know he educated Peter and John. He did educate his children, because we know from their family histories that they were educated. When they were freed in 1826, they went to Ohio and opened businesses, for crying out loud.
… I used to be asked all the time, “How do you account for this about Jefferson?” I used to jokingly say, “Well, the man was confused.”
And I think he was. There’s evidence of letters that he wrote to friends and so forth, where he said basic stuff like slavery is not going to last, and we can’t have this terrible scourge, and stuff like that. But he couldn’t figure out a way to basically … mainly, I guess, to maintain his own lifestyle at Monticello without slaves.
Q: They were an asset, too. Right? They were a financial … they were part of his wealth.
Yeah. Yeah, they were his wealth. He died in bankruptcy, and his slaves were sold off to pay off his debts. And then Monticello itself was sold.
Q: When did the idea start to take shape in your mind that the Jefferson Memorial shouldn’t be there? How did that evolve?
That came about in the last several months, with all this controversy about memorials. I started thinking, well, if we’re going to take down statues of Confederate generals because they fought for slavery, what about the slave owners? I’ve got a slave owner in my own family. He happens to have been a president, but I don’t think that makes any difference.
If they put up statues in, say, South Carolina or Virginia to individual slave owners, like in town squares where they owned most of the territory or something, those statues ought to come down. Why shouldn’t a statue of Thomas Jefferson come down?
The argument to keep the statue is that he was a president and he was the great thinker who wrote the Declaration. And part of his great thinking, along with Madison, was to demand that the Constitutional Convention include the Bill of Rights into the Constitution, or those two men wouldn’t sign it. Madison and Jefferson, of course, wrote the First Amendment, and Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and West Point.
There are great things that he did, that were forward-looking and amazing for their time, and amazing for all time. Right?
But still — he owned slaves. I came to the conclusion, I just don’t think we ought to be honoring people who owned slaves.
Q: You suggest in your piece that we rely on Monticello to be the memorial to Jefferson …
Q: The whole function of the man, as a founder of the country and the writer of the Declaration, disappears, doesn’t it?
No. No, because … Number one, the fact that he wrote the Declaration, he didn’t write it in the place on the Earth where the Jefferson Memorial stands. By the Tidal Basin — they had to fill swamp land to build that damn thing, right?
… I’m not sure, but he may not have written it at Monticello.
Q: He wrote in Philadelphia. I’m pretty sure, Philadelphia.
Yeah. They’re not memorializing where he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Why is the Declaration of Independence memorialized? It’s memorialized intellectually. It’s right here. The Declaration and its words were in his head, and now they’re in our heads. Right?
And they’re on a piece of paper somewhere. It’s in this firmament of the United States, that we’re supposed to live up to it. Right?
Q: Let me ask you this: What’s the blowback from your op-ed piece? You’re getting a lot of coverage and a lot of publicity, but are you starting to hear hostility, anger, resentment?
I’ve gotten several tweets, but not very many. Not anything like I thought. I thought my Twitter feed would just light up. With rednecks coming out the walls.
But it didn’t. Of course, I’ve gotten a few, what they call trolls, on Facebook and so forth, but nothing like it was when I took the Hemingses to Monticello. I got 100 death threats.
Nothing like that, but the Times is apparently getting a lot of angry letters.
Q: What about the other direction? Are you seeing any evidence or signs of some kind of traction on this idea of let’s think about getting rid of this memorial down there in the Tidal Basin?
I was absolutely astounded at the number of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers who agree with me. But, of course, they’re my Facebook friends and Twitter followers. They follow Lucian Truscott. They don’t follow John Bolton. You know what I’m saying?
I had friends say, “I don’t think that’s a good idea at all. I think we should keep the memorial and maybe put up some plaques that say slave owner, or something. I don’t know.” Everybody’s got a different idea.
To tell you the truth, I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon. I don’t expect it to happen in my lifetime.
But I do expect, at some point in the next 20 years or so, that more context will be involved in that memorial than is currently there. The memorial’s full of great sayings of Thomas Jefferson … You’re not going to find the word “octoroon” at the Jefferson Memorial. You’re not going to find a statement in there that blacks are inherently inferior to whites, which he wrote
I think that ought to be at the memorial. I think they ought to engrave it on a goddamn piece of marble and put it up. You know? Drape it in a piece of cloth and hang it over him, or something. I don’t know.
Q: At Monticello, they do a good job presenting the slavery side of life at Monticello, and making it clear …
Now they do.
Q: Yeah. It took a long time, right?
It took a long time. It took until the 1990s for them to begin it. And then, in the 2000s, they’ve really expanded the study of slave life, and the archeology, and everything else they’ve done. That’s how they discovered that the room at Monticello was shared by her and her brother, Peter, by finding artifacts there that clearly belonged to Sally and Peter.
They take the slave life seriously at Monticello now, and they take the role that slaves played in Jefferson’s life seriously. That’s the best thing that can happen, because that’s the part of history that you and I, when we were in high school and in college, they weren’t teaching us that slaves build the Capitol, or the White House, or Monticello. … That’s changing, and it’s good that’s changing, and it’s good that Monticello has done what it’s done.
But in 1999, when I took the Hemingses there for the first time, I had people who worked at Monticello, groundspeople and docents, educated people who lived in Charlottesville and worked at that place for the foundation, taking people on tours, come up to me and shake their finger at my face, and say, “You have betrayed your heritage and you are a race traitor. And you should be ashamed of yourself.” And all that stuff.
My favorite thing they used to say was, “Thomas Jefferson was not the kind of man who would have sex with a slave.”
I think my sister, on the Oprah show, answered that one better than I ever could when she said, “Well, I’m glad they knew him so well that they would know that about him.”
But I once confronted, at the Monticello Association meeting, the year that they voted the Hemingses out, they brought a historian, a hired historian, in to make this big argument to the family why Jefferson didn’t have sex with Sally Hemings, and why it was all a lie. One of the things that he said was, he wasn’t the kind of man who would have sex with a slave.
I stood up and asked him a question. I said, “You seem to have studied Jefferson a lot. Is that right? How many years?”
“Oh, 30 years. You know.”
I said, “You know quite a bit about him at this point, don’t you?”
I said, “Well, tell me, was he the kind of man who would own slaves? … It’s a simple question. You said he wasn’t the kind of man that would have sex with a slave. Was he the kind of man that would own slaves?”
He said, “Yes, he was the kind of man that would own slaves.”
I said, “Between the two of them, owning slaves or having sex with a slave, which do you think is worse?”
I said, “Oh yes, you can. And you just did.”
Q: Do you plan on being buried in the cemetery there at Monticello?
Yeah. My brother’s buried there. My mom and dad are buried there. My aunts and uncles, and my great-grandmother. My grandmother, who was Sara Randolph, she’s buried at Arlington with my grandfather, with General Truscott.
Everybody else in my family is buried there. One day, I’ll be buried there, and I guess my kids will, too, if they want to. It’s not mandatory.
… But I’ll be glad to be buried there. I hope that, at some point, the Hemings descendants will have the same right that I have to be buried there, because the only thing you have to be is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. That means a direct descendant. Not a cousin or a nephew. That means a grandson or granddaughter.
Those are the descendants we’re talking about.