Dr. George Goethals' Presidential Leadership class visited Thomas Jefferson's Monticello on April 7, 2023.

Presidential Leadership

April 28, 2023

Author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Third president of the United States. Founder of University of Virginia. Negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase. Slaveholder who held more than 600 African Americans in bondage during his lifetime.

Students in Dr. George Goethals’ Presidential Leadership class grappled with this—the complicated legacy of Thomas Jefferson—during a field trip to Monticello, the Founding Father’s 5,000-acre mountaintop plantation in Charlottesville, Virginia.

On a cool, rainy day in early April, a guide shared poignant, often tragic stories of what life was like for Jefferson’s enslaved workers during a tour of Mulberry Row, the plantation’s principal street and industrial hub. A second guide elaborated on Jefferson’s life and numerous accomplishments during a tour of the French Neoclassical home the former president designed.

The contradictions were lost on no one. The man who so eloquently penned the words “all men are created equal” and, therefore, entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” also participated in and perpetuated a system of human bondage. Among Monticello’s human chattel were at least six of his own children by enslaved woman Sally Hemings.

“Publically Jefferson held that slavery was immoral,” said Sarah Greenberg, ’24, “but he owned more slaves than any other president. It makes you question his true character. And yet, he did a lot of good for the country.”

Contradictions are not unique to Jefferson and make good fodder for discussions in his Presidential Leadership class, Goethals said.

“We try to understand how historians and the public think about presidents,” the leadership studies professor said. “As a class, we consider metrics developed by psychologists and political scientists to evaluate presidents. For example, we discuss political scientist Fred Greenstein’s six criteria for rating presidential effectiveness: public communication, organizational capacity, political skill, vision, cognitive style, and emotional intelligence.”

In a recent essay on presidential greatness, Goethals noted that the public’s perception of presidents evolves as values evolve. He also emphasized the importance of understanding presidents in the context in which they lived. The field trip to Monticello helped his students do just that.

“You’re standing there wondering what it was like 250 years ago,” said Sean Corbett, ’23, looking out over the deceptively idyllic-looking Mulberry Row vegetable garden once tended by enslaved people. “Jefferson struggled deeply with his convictions about equality for all men and the political and economic reality of America at the time.”

“The trip to Monticello provided a lot of nuance,” Goethals said. “Things are not as simple as we remember them. Presidents are complex human beings who do some things well and some things not well.”