Thoughts on Independence Day

By Rep. Vicky Doudera | Jul 06, 2020

Last summer I was in Charlottesville, Va., for a legislative leadership conference that included a visit to Thomas Jefferson’s stately home, Monticello. Like many Americans, I harbor conflicting feelings about Jefferson. On the one hand, he was our third president, founder of the University of Virginia, and the author of the Declaration of Independence, on the other; he was a slaveholder, who owned more than 600 people throughout his life. Four hundred men, women and children — some of them fathered by Jefferson, thanks to his “concubine” Sally Hemings — lived in bondage on his 5,000-acre plantation, working in the fields and gardens and cooking and cleaning in the mansion’s stately rooms.

I had been to Monticello once decades earlier, and over the intervening years, the plantation underwent a tremendous change. On my first visit, the details of the slave system that kept Monticello’s farms running were barely mentioned. I remember asking our guide about Sally Hemings, as the details of Jefferson’s “relationship”(if you can even call their unbalanced union that - after all, as a slave, she had no legal way to refuse unwanted sexual advances) were beginning to surface, and my question was quickly dismissed as an unfounded “rumor.” Now, however, the life of Sally Hemings and her role at Monticello is acknowledged as fact. A recreation of the plantation’s slave quarters is an integral part of the tour, and the lives of the many African Americans kept by Jefferson are as much a part of the Monticello experience as Jefferson’s narrow bed, ornate dining room, and geometric gardens.

One leaves Monticello feeling very conflicted about the man revered as our brilliant founding father, and that is exactly how I feel today as we mark this federal holiday commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s opus, the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson was a bundle of contradictions, calling slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” but continuing to hold human beings as property his whole life. Our country contains the same contradictions, purporting to treat all men as equal, even as we struggle with injustice and a history of systemic racism that many of us are beginning to realize is baked into virtually every corner of our democracy.

How do we celebrate in the midst of this angst? Do we still hum the patriotic songs, wave the flags and sparklers? Everyone will approach this weekend and what it represents in their own way, but I will be thinking about the ideals put forth in 1776 by a flawed man, and how I can work to make his aspirations a reality for all Americans.

Vicki Doudera is the Maine State Representative for District 94.

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