Notes on the Virginia Statehouse: Race, Slavery, and Jefferson’s America

It is critical, I want to suggest, that we study how the labor of enslaved black bodies, legally defined as property that lacked the proper political subjectivity to be literally (and legally) self-possessed, built several important America’s civic buildings designed by white architects—The Virginia Capitol, The White House, and U.S. Capitol—to stand as monuments to the Enlightenment’s great virtues of reason and freedom. 

Lecture Description

The decades after the American Revolution form a critical moment during which the nation’s civic architecture developed its particular stylistic character and symbolic significance. It was also in this period that notions of citizenship and the formation of the racial paradigm of human difference merged with myths of a bountiful continent that would nurture an American civilization, whose cultural values its new civic architecture was designed to symbolize. Paradoxically, enslaved blacks, defined solely as “property” lacking the faculties to be self-aware and self-possessed, built a significant number of the civic buildings designed by the nation’s first architects: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and William Thornton. The land—as property—on which the new nation’s civic buildings were erected had been taken from Native Americans by centuries of white settler colonialism and deadly forced removals. Wilson’s lecture explores how how race informed the discourses on slavery, nationalism, aesthetics, technology and architecture during this formative period.


Jefferson Race

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