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Charlottesville and America’s Original Sin

Jefferson the morally upright sage; Jefferson the merciless slave-owner. Splendid Monticello; its sordid slave-quarters underground.

Monticello from the west lawn. (Wiki Commons/YF12s)

I vividly remember my first visit to Charlottesville, Virginia.  It was about twenty years ago, and I was on vacation with a good friend, who shared with me a passion for American history and for Thomas Jefferson in particular. We had toured a number of Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia and then had made our way to Jefferson’s University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Finally, we ventured outside the city to the little hilltop home that the great founder had designed and built for himself, Monticello. It was a glorious summer day, and the elegant manse shone in all of its Palladian splendor. We took in its classical lines, its distinctive red and white coloration, the understated beauty of its dome, its overall symmetry, balance, and harmony. On the inside, we saw all of Jefferson’s quirky genius on display: scientific instruments, inventions, books galore. Just outside the house was the simple, unpretentious grave of Jefferson, the tombstone naming him as the author of the Declaration of Independence. There was no question that the very best of the American spirit was on display in that place.

But then we noticed something else. Below the sight-lines of Monticello, literally underground, were the quarters of Jefferson’s slaves. These were hovels, really little more than caves, with bare earth floors and flimsy roofs, not even a hint of the elegance, comfort, and beauty of the great house. Jefferson had brought some of his slaves to France with him when he was the American ambassador to that country, and he had taught them the fine art of French cuisine. When he entertained at Monticello, these servants, dressed in the finery of courtiers at Versailles, would serve the savory meals that they had prepared. Afterwards, they would return for the night to their underground hovels. A woman, who had been invited to stay for a time at Monticello, recorded in her diary that she woke up one morning to the sounds of horrific screaming. When she looked with alarm and concern out her window, she saw the author of the Declaration of Independence savagely beating one of his slaves.

Jefferson the morally upright sage; Jefferson the merciless slave-owner. Splendid Monticello; its sordid slave-quarters underground. One could literally see at this great American house the divide, the original sin, that has bedeviled our nation from its inception to the present day. The framers of the Constitution fought over slavery and race; the issue preoccupied the politics of America for the first half of the nineteenth century and finally drove the country to a disastrous and murderous civil conflict; it perdured in somewhat mitigated form in the segregation, both sanctioned and unofficial, that reigned in America in the decades following the Civil War; it came to a head during the great civil rights struggle of the mid-twentieth century, culminating in landmark legislation and in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; it continued to assert itself in the Detroit riots of 1967, the Watts uprising, the unrest after the beating of Rodney King, the street violence in Ferguson, Missouri, and in many other events.

For me, it was weirdly fitting that its most recent manifestation would be in Charlottesville, Virginia, where, twenty years ago, I had so vividly seen the moral contradiction at the heart of American history. Thomas Jefferson’s principle that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights” came face to face, on the streets of Charlottesville, with representatives of the most nefarious ideology of hatred and racial superiority. God knows that, since Jefferson’s time, many, many battles have been won in this struggle, but the events of last week proved that the war is not yet over, that the original sin of America has not been thoroughly expunged.

I have been using the term “original sin” very much on purpose, for it is my conviction that both the problem and its solution are best articulated in theological categories. Finally, our awful tendency, up and down the ages and in every culture, to divide ourselves into opposing camps, to demonize the other, to scapegoat, to take away fundamental human rights is a function of the denial that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. It is, first and last, a sin. And finally, the answer cannot be a matter of political machination but only of grace. No one saw this more clearly than St. Paul, who was dealing with the very same issue within the cultural framework of the first century: Jews and non-Jews were at odds, Romans dominated and everyone else obeyed, slavery obtained throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, etc.

Paul came to understand that, strangely enough, a crucified victim of the tyrannical Roman authorities provided a way out: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It would require a lengthy theological tome fully to unpack the meaning of that phrase. Suffice it to say that the crucifixion of the Son of God disclosed the entire range and universality of human dysfunction: stupidity, violence, injustice, cruelty, victimizing, etc.: “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And the resurrection of Jesus revealed the entire range and universality of the divine mercy: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more.” In a word, we are all sinners upon whom an amazing grace has been poured out. So let us stop playing games of domination, us against them, racial superiority, masters and slaves. In Christ, all of that has been exposed as fraudulent and swept away.

This is the saving word that the Christian churches can and should bring to this age-old and still festering wound in the body politic of our nation.

Plaque at Monticello about slave labor (Wikipedia/Allspamme)
About Bishop Robert Barron 122 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

19 Comments

  1. This is nonsense. Despite the lies of the mainstream media, which Bishop Barron evidently swallows whole, the fact is that a tiny minority of the licensed protesters at Charlottesville held to the views that he rightly condemns. The great majority gathered to protest the deliberate erasure of the history and heritage of their country at the hands of leftist fanatics, whose ideology proudly stands on a vastly greater mountain of corpses than that of the Nazis.

    This is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect in action. Bishop Barron knows that when the media reports on the Catholic Church, it lies and misrepresents without scruple. But when it comes to matters of which he is ignorant, he blindly trusts that same media which would send him to the gulag without a second thought. Who can take such a man seriously?

    • Murray, Perfect.
      This same mob will come for the bishop’s head all in its own good time.
      He will be unable to smile his way out of it.
      Crisis magazine.com, John Horvat’s article lays it on the line correctly about Charlottesville.

  2. Thomas Jefferson believed each that generation could and should “begin again”. Former misunderstandings could be overwritten by new and more progressive understandings. His hubris took him beyond his rightful strengths; his God-given gifts. He edited the Scriptures.

    His soul apprehended beauty – architecture, landscape design, the fine arts. His love for their beauty inspired his soul. He reached for the heights, as human beings will do. But,all of this love of beauty notwithstanding, he was unable to avoid the sin of pride. This is the “original sin”. He fell to the depths and was capable of enslaving other men, women, and children. He, in effect, stole their lives, in order that he and his household might be served. The fatal flaw was his; only God is good. His life provides those of us living now with a warning; a serious, solemn warning. And on this basis we may still visit Monticello; now not to rejoice but to grieve for human folly.

    But Bishop Barron passes from the facts of Thomas Jefferson’s life, all that was good, all that was evil, to the present. He compares slavery to riots in Detroit and Watts; to trouble in Ferguson, Missouri; to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. He compares unalike things. He conflates a straightforward evil with events and complicated international movements not easily understood.

    This detracts from his explanation of our oneness in Christ. I fear that his analysis of history, at best incomplete, will obscure his primary, beautiful, priestly teaching.

  3. One additional thought:

    Human error does not negate our most cherished beliefs; rather it presents them in sharp relief. In human affairs, “… there is no effort without error …”. In Thomas Jefferson’s heartfelt, strenuous desire for greatness and goodness; his flawed effort, we see ourselves.

    The basic moral concepts that were true in the beginning remain the same in spite of our grievous failures. Our errors purify our understanding. We can return to those pure, original insights. We can “begin again”.

  4. It clearly doesn’t take any moral courage to stand up Nazi’s or the KKK today, just about everyone is disgusted by them. But it does take courage to stand up to leftist fanatics, and courage is sorely lacking in the American episcopate today. Having forfeited their voice on clear Church Teachings such as the sin of contraception (root of abortion), they forfeit their voice on all matters that require courage, and eagerly seek matters that don’t require any courage and worldly approval.

  5. Thomas Jefferson fathered children to slave women..George Washington had slaves…The Pilgrim Fathers appropriated native lands..The Dutch conned the Indians out of Manhattan Island for $24. Abraham Lincoln wanted freed slaves repatriated….get rid of General Lee and these are next on the list.

    Washington DC… Obamaville DC ?

  6. A splendid article by Bishop Barron, to be sure! His Lordship goes directly to the point, it is America’s “Original Sin”. This sin continues to be the cause of all of the racial unpleasantness in that country; Charlottesville being the most recent eruption of same. However, my question perdures: why does the Church continue to encourage ‘ethnic communities’, inclusive of African American Parishes, etc. Surely, ALL are Americans, regardless of race? But the historical context offered in this article casts a rather bright light on the ancient evil therein, an evil which is yet to be addressed ‘at source’.

    • What are you talking about? The Church neither encourages nor discourages “ethnic” identities. The Catechism – like the Gospel – speaks only of the family of Mankind.

    • Rubbish. It is secular society that is very late to the fight against oppression and racism. In fact, it has largely not shown up for this fight, but rather has exacerbated these vices.

      • The evidence is in the actual existence of Ethnic Parishes, regardless of their reason d’etre. There can be no unity when the Church allows, and encourages this nonsense. Don’t forget, as well, the Church is made up of people FROM the Society in which She finds Herself.

  7. Slavery was indeed a grave, original sin. But to equate the battle to eradicate slavery with the riots from the 1960s through today is utter nonsense. Blacks are killing blacks at horrific rates in our cities, and blaming racism and police officers for their own self-destruction. Whatever the protestors in Charlottesville were after – and I am not sure I understand what – they certainly did not initiate the violence. There is ample video evidence to prove that. If there was a Nazi flag in their midst, they should have taken responsibility for its removal. However, that does not alter the fact that violent leftist thugs like Antifa and BLM are the real source of street conflict today. Fr. Barron needs to get out more and stop with the pandering essays. It won’t make anyone love the Church more, especially not the leftists.

    • Yet again, another Catholic who cannot see beyond the nose on his face. Dear man, look deeper into the matter, this comment is as shallow as a pan of water left out in the noonday sun. (In addition to which, it is BISHOP Barron.)

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