Jefferson and His Legacies: Opium and Empire, 1776-1844
Spring 2017 History Colloquium with Smith Center Historian Christa Dierksheide
Date: January 20, 2017
Time: 3:30 PM
Location: Jesse Hall 410
The Kinder Institute’s Spring 2017 History Colloquium Series will kick off on Friday, January 20, with Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies Historian and University of Virginia Lecturer Christa Dierksheide presenting a portion of her current research project, which examines Jefferson’s legacies through the eyes and narratives of his grandchildren (see below for a brief abstract for the talk as well as a description of Prof. Dierksheide’s project). The talk will be held at 3:30 PM in Jesse Hall 410, and it is free and open to the public.
What was the connection between the opium trade in China and Thomas Jefferson? Joseph Coolidge, Jr., who married Jefferson’s favorite granddaughter and intellectual heir, Ellen Wayles Randolph, traded in opium, as well as tea, silk, and porcelain, in China during the 1830s and 1840s. Imprisoned by the Chinese during the First Opium War (1839-42), Coolidge later reaped handsome profits from shipping opium on behalf of British merchants banned from trading in China during the war. The wartime experiences of the Coolidges in China prompted them—and many other antebellum Americans—to significantly revise Jefferson’s earlier conception of the U.S.’s commercial and diplomatic relationship to China and to the British Empire.
The contrast between Jefferson’s post-revolutionary understanding of the law of nations and free trade and the actual experience of the Coolidges in China during the First Opium War is one part of a larger project that examines Jefferson’s legacies in the long nineteenth century through the eyes of his grandchildren. Following members of the Randolph and Hemings clans as they leave Monticello to make their way in the wider world, I show how Jefferson’s family members attempted to find their places—and play their roles—in the “empire for liberty” that Jefferson had envisioned in the wake of the American Revolution. This project, the first to examine Jefferson’s mixed race and white grandchildren side by side, will chart and interrogate Jefferson’s complex racial and political influences in an effort to expand our understanding of the Founding Era. In a narrative that proceeds from Virginia to far-flung places like China, Cuba, Mexico, Britain, and the southwest cotton kingdom, the experiences of the grandchildren elucidate the unintended—and sometimes tragic—consequences of Jefferson’s racial, political, and global vision for a republican empire.
Christa Dierksheide is Historian at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. She completed her M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Virginia. Her first book, Amelioration and Empire: Progress and Slavery in Plantation America, 1770-1840 (University of Virginia Press, 2014), examined how planters embraced the European Enlightenment idea of “improvement” on New World plantations. She has conceptualized and written exhibitions for Monticello, including “The Boisterous Sea of Liberty” and “The Landscape of Slavery: Mulberry Row at Monticello” and is also co-author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Worlds,” the introductory film. In addition, she has served as the Monticello faculty lead for teacher institutes and executive leadership seminars focused on Jefferson. Dierksheide is a lecturer in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia, where she teaches undergraduate seminars on Jefferson and Monticello. Her current book project, The Sun Never Set on Jefferson’s Empire: Race, Family, and Fortune in America, 1820-1880, is forthcoming from Yale University Press.