The Face of a Nation Divided: Discrimination Immortalized Through the Monticello on the Jefferson Nickel, by Sara Cipolla

August 28, 2021
ARCH 355
Professor Ipek Türeli

Figure 1: The “Jefferson Nickel” (obverse), 1970.

Figure 2: The “Jefferson Nickel” (reverse), 1970.1

My grandparents immigrated to Canada in 1964. Along with them came a small, beaded pouch filled with coins dating back to as early as 1918. The coins ranged from Italian euros to a Canadian silver dollar, yes, silver. My fascination with these antiquated coins came and went throughout the years. It was not until recently as I was determining where to start my research that a genuine interest in the coins re-emerged. I stumbled across an American nickel depicting the United States of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson on the obverse, and Monticello on the reverse. (Fig. 1 an 2) The more I researched, the more tragedies around these two characters surfaced.

 

Architecture and currency similarly influence the beliefs of a nation at the time of inception, in form and function. Occasionally, currency in the form of coins and paper bills displays historical buildings alongside important historical figures to commemorate specific points in time. What designs qualify as worthy to circulate in the hands of an entire nation? What happens when the values conveyed are harmful towards a group of people? Whose story is truly being exchanged in the process? This essay proposes that the inclusion of the Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historical home that served as a slave plantation, on the American five-cent coin reinforced racism in America. Since currency serves as a token of national identity, this decision widely propagated these unjust values and immortalized them throughout the nation.

 

On January 25, 1938, Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the United States Department of Treasury, announced a national competition for a new five-cent coin. The winning design would be awarded a prize of $ 1000.2 The competition, open to all American sculptors, concluded in April of that same year. But what exactly graced or rather, disgraced, the sides of this competition coin that would be in circulation well into the twenty-first century? The exact competition rules stipulated:

“‘The subject matter,’ according to the invitation of the Section of Painting and Sculpture, ‘must contain on the obverse of the coin an authentic portrait of Thomas Jefferson. On the reverse side the subject matter will be a representation of Monticello, Jefferson’s historic home near Charlottesville. In addition to the words required by law to appear on the coin, the coin may contain the inscription ‘MONTICELLO,’ in order to identify the architecture.”3

Franklin D. Roosevelt of the Democratic party was president at the time of the coin’s design. It is commonly assumed that Thomas Jefferson was selected to appear on this coin due to Roosevelt’s admiration of Jefferson and his role as co-founder of the original Democratic Republican party of 1792.4 These criteria completely disregard the true history of Jefferson’s Monticello as a plantation housing slaves, placing sole emphasis on the architectural structure.

Additionally, discrimination was inherent in the makeup of the committee of judges for the “Jefferson Nickel,” as it was colloquially termed. It was comprised mostly of white men and two white women, one of whom owned a plantation herself. The committee members failed to acknowledge the enslaved community who tended to Thomas Jefferson and his home in the design. Instead, they insisted on enshrining Jefferson as an American symbol, circulating the misrepresentation of history throughout the nation.

 

Sculptor and German immigrant Felix Schlag won the competition for his accurate depiction of America’s Third President. Production of this competition-born American nickel started in October of 1938 and circulation of the piece began the following month. This coin inspired a series of reproductions of Thomas Jefferson and the Monticello on numerous American collectibles such as the 1956 United States postage stamp and the 1994 commemorative Thomas Jefferson 250th Anniversary Silver dollar. People purposely withheld circulating the Jefferson Nickel as it was likely to become a collector’s item and ignorant to its veneration of a dark era in American history.

 

The five-cent coin that preceded the Jefferson Nickel was the “Buffalo Nickel.” This 1913 design featured a Native American on the obverse and the United States’ national mammal, a bison, on the reverse. (Fig 3 and 4) According to the Fifty-first Congress of the United States, the 25-year Rule says that new designs will not be changed more than once in a twenty-five-year period.5 Winning sculptor, James Earle Fraser, specified that the obverse character was not an actual person but rather a combination of three Native American models. According to the September 10th issue of the Lawrence Kansas Daily Journal-World, the Native American community was allegedly unfazed by the discontinuing of the Buffalo Nickel because of this composite representation of a Native American.6

Figure 3: The “Buffalo Nickel” (reverse), 1913.

Figure 4: The “Buffalo Nickel” (reverse), 1913.7

To most, Monticello stood simply as the home to Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president. Jefferson has been memorialized across the United States despite his controversial behaviour. He famously advocated for the rights and freedom of his nation’s people in The Declaration of Independence. He also enacted the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in 1807 and founded the University of Virginia in 1819. None of his achievements change the fact that his historic home—the Monticello—was a plantation, built and maintained by a community of enslaved people. Monticello was home to the many injustices of slavery and yet continues to be praised in isolation for its architectural ingenuity. The same man who penned “all men are created equal” on The Declaration of Independence owned and enslaved those people.8 Jefferson was an influential public voice against slavery and yet owned approximately 600 slaves in his lifetime, some of which were inherited, as objects are termed to be, from his father. He died at Monticello nearly fifty years after signing the Declaration, only for those enslaved under his name to be sold as compensation for his debts.

 

The term Monticello in Italian refers to a mound. (Fig. 5) The building atop this mound in Albemarle Country, Virginia has been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Fig. 6) According to their “Statement of Significance,” Monticello displayed architectural ingenuity with neo-classical flare. 9 The committee noted that Jefferson’s architecture symbolized enlightenment and awareness of the site’s natural context.10 Yet again the cultural reverence of the design neglects the longsuffering injustices that occurred about its walls. Leslie Greene Bowman, President and CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, adds, “on the world’s stage, Monticello symbolizes how Jefferson took Enlightenment ideals about the rights of man and crafted them into a new nation introducing self-government, liberty and human equality.”11 The residents of Monticello could likely attest to a different character.

Figure 5: The Mound’s Site Plan12

Figure 6: Monticello, Main House13

The main house displayed on the Jefferson Nickel fails to recognize the people who kept this plantation functioning. In an effort to improve slavery, Jefferson seized the growth of tobacco, a crop that required exhaustive manual labour to maintain. He replaced tobacco crops with others that required less tending to, such as wheat. This change significantly reduced the labourers’ daily workloads. It was due to Jefferson’s newly acquired labourer surplus that many slaves transitioned from groundwork to specialized craftwork. Instead of toiling outside, the labourers kept in shops along Mulberry Row.

Mulberry Row was the main plantation street and industrial hub at Monticello. There, the enslaved workers tested out new trades—cooking, blacksmiths, nail-making, and carpentry—all the while remaining at the mercy of America’s president. The Row was populated by more than 20 dwellings, workshops and storehouses, and all kinds of people, enslaved and free, between 1770 and the selling of the Monticello in 1831.14

 

Jefferson died in 1826, leaving behind a debt of over $100,000. The inheritors of Monticello sold nearly everything from the house and plantation, along with 130 black bondservants to make up the costs. Despite Jefferson’s public reputation defending human rights, his hand-me-down labourers were traded away, carelessly tearing up families.

Monticello was many things, but to Jefferson, it was where his “family” resided.15 He used the term family to not only designate blood relatives, but also to denote all those under a head of household, or in his case, a plantation owner. He formed a census of the “number of souls in [his] family,”16 which amounted to 117 including 16 free men, their wives, and children and 83 slaves. Although they all fell within this family bracket, there was still a distinct spatial arrangement on site. The Jefferson family lived inside the Monticello house and the black men, women, and children, lived in cabins along Mulberry Row. This obvious segregation is likewise shown in the Jefferson Nickel, wherewith the depiction of Monticello does not also feature Mulberry Row or the workers who abided there, but only Jefferson and the main house.

 

Currency expresses a nation’s values and therefore can perpetuate ideas across generations. These ideas may prove harmful due to misrepresentation or rather, the underrepresentation of various cultures involved. As Benedict Anderson puts it in Imagined Communities, “The fellow members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion.”17 The same notion can apply to currency. One of the uniting factors of a nation is the underlying commonality of its shared currency. Much like   puts it, in the case of the Jefferson Nickel, the images of those depicted on the nation’s bills and coins lives in the minds of every American citizen.

 

The global discussion regarding fair and unbiased representation on currency is growing, but more must be done to ensure past errors are not repeated. Much like a coin, every debate has two sides. One British columnist for The Guardian, Afua Hirsch, presents both sides in the article “Do We Need Black People on Our Banknotes?” The author concludes the piece with these sentiments, “Including black figures on banknotes can’t resolve our real problems of racial injustice. But the refusal to include them is a powerful reminder of how little our institutions seem to care.”18 There is no denying that “racial distrust of American capitalism” is real. 19 Writer Afua Hirsch reframes the argument saying, “the question for me is not whether black people deserve to be on the money, but whether the money deserves us.”20

 

The problem is the one-sided view of history that is circulating on this currency, celebrating slavery under the guise of American history commemoration. The property of Monticello represents people as property. Selecting historical monuments and buildings is a longstanding process, as writer Ellen Feingold comments, “For the past century, U.S. banknotes have featured a static set of Founding Fathers and presidents, government buildings and national memorials.”21 The debate concerning who should be featured on the new American twenty-dollar bill has been ongoing since the Obama presidency. It is reported that the bill will feature Harriet Tubman, a Black, female American abolitionist and political activist. This bill is still in the works but would make for a step forward in the right direction. A nation’s currency should not only represent a country’s origins but how that country has improved and how it can continue to do so.

 

A token of national identity should tell the story of a country’s progress from all perspectives. A diverse committee should be involved in the decision of who and what affiliated items should circulate throughout a nation. The Jefferson Nickel failed to truly address the troublesome history of Monticello and all it stood for in the name of slavery. Additionally, it normalized a process that would require many years of retribution and undoing of damage in the years to come. There is no way to change what has been done, but there are lessons to be learned and hope for a more enlightened and inclusive approach going forward.

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Sara Cipolla is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 355.

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1 Sara Cipolla, “The Jefferson Nickel,” 1970. Canada: Personal Collection.

2 “The Jefferson Nickel Competition 1938,” 2019, http://www.felixschlag.com/nickel.html.

3 See note 2 above.

4 “Monticello,” Jefferson Nickel, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jefferson-nickel.

5 “Legislation to Allow for New Coin Designs,” United States Mint, n.d., https://www.usmint.gov/learn/history/historical-documents/legislation-to-allow-new-coin-designs.

6 “The Jefferson Nickel Competition 1938,” 2019, http://www.felixschlag.com/nickel.html.

7 “5 Cents, Pattern, United States, 1913,” National Museum of American History, n.d., https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1100265.

8 “Thomas Jefferson and Slavery,” Monticello, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/thomas- jefferson/jefferson-slavery/.

9 “Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” Monticello, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/thomas- jefferson-foundation/monticello-a-unesco-world-heritage- site/#:~:text=The%20World%20Heritage%20Sites%20were,the%20UNESCO%20World%20Heritage%20List.

10 See note 9 above.

11 See note 9 above.

12 “Monticello,” Reuniting Monticello’s Landscape of Slavery: Reconstructing Jefferson’s Roads, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/site/blog-and-community/posts/reuniting-monticello%E2%80%99s-landscape- slavery-reconstructing-jefferson%E2%80%99s.

13 Dr. Bryan Zygmont, “Thomas Jefferson, Monticello,” Khan Academy (Khan Academy, n.d.), http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/enlightenment- revolution/a/jefferson-monticello.

14 “Monticello,” Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello, n.d., https://www.monticello.org/mulberry-row.

15 Lucia Stanton, “‘Those Who Labor for My Happiness’: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello,” in “Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012), p. i-369, 4.

16 See note 15 above.

17 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism

(London: Verso, 2016), 6.

18 Afua Hirsch, “Do We Need Black People on Our Banknotes?,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, June 7, 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jun/07/black-people-banknotes-bank-of- england.

19 See note 18 above.

20 See Note 18 above.

21 Ellen Feingold, “Opinion: A Harriet Tubman $20? That’s Just the Beginning,” POLITICO (POLITICO, February 19, 2021), https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/02/15/tubman-america-history-redesigning- money-468839.

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