This last weekend, I had the pleasure of traveling to Washington, DC to celebrate my birthday with some dear friends. The trip was part-birthday celebration, part-reunion, and part-US history expedition. On Saturday, we ventured down to Thomas Jefferson’s historic home, Monticello, in Charlottesville, VA. To celebrate this journey, we listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. After our epic return, we bought pizza and watched Gone with the Wind.
Anytime you watch Gone With The Wind with a group of women, there is bound to be discussion surrounding the infamous love quadrangle of Rhett Butler, Scarlett O’Hara, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton. My friends swooned over Rhett, but I initially found myself drawn to Ashley. I reflected over why I, like Scarlett, could have liked Ashley so much.
It occurred to me on the relatively quick flight back to Atlanta that Ashley was similar to another, yet even more infamous Southern Gentlemen, our dear President Thomas Jefferson. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, wrote laws in support of religious freedom in Virginia, was a diplomat to France, the 3rd President of the United States, and great arbiter of the Louisiana Purchase. Many attribute this status to Jefferson’s ideals. Jefferson believed very much in the educated, self-made farmer, existing out of a small and limited government.
While it is tempting to lift up Jefferson’s model as it celebrates the dignity of the individual, we must remember his deals came with a stark caveat: compulsory labor. Lin Manuel, who both wrote and played Alexander Hamilton puts this contradiction best with this lyric:
A civics lesson from a slavery, hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
"we plants seeds in the South we create"
Yeah keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting
Indeed, there are many similarities between Thomas Jefferson and Ashley Wilkes. Both are southern gentlemen who grew up on a plantation, destined to run plantations. Like Jefferson, Ashley is educated. Like Jefferson, he is deeply introverted and loves reading. Like Jefferson, he is an influencer in his community. Ashley is, arguably, a picture perfect example of Jefferson’s agrarian farmer.
Gone with the Wind is a long meditation of loss, survival, and change. After the Civil War, the characters and the South are forever changed. Ashley becomes a relic of the tradition of the Old South: genteel and honorable. In contrast, Scarlett’s long-suffering husband, Rhett Butler represents the New South, charming, industrious, but inglourious in reputation.
The leading heroine, Scarlett O’Hara, is torn between these two Souths as well as her love for these two men. Scarlett believes she loves Ashley and desperately holds onto to him even after they both go on to marry other people. Rhett loves Scarlett and is better suited for her, but she fails time and time again to give him a chance as she pines over Ashley and the idyllic past. Ashley, for his part, is drawn to Scarlett’s sensuality and industry, but cannot bring himself to give in to his desires. Nor can he bring himself be truly loyal to his devoted and lovely wife, Melanie.
He even succumbs time to time to Scarlett with kisses, protesting that he would run off with her if not for his “honor.” It is Rhett Butler who describes Ashley’s conundrum best:
Of course, the comic figure in all this is the long-suffering Mr. Wilkes! Mr. Wilkes, who can't be mentally faithful to his wife — and won't be unfaithful to her technically. Why doesn't he make up his mind?
Ashley was a man torn between his desires and his reputation, and in this way, he is also continuing out the legacy of his cultural forefather Thomas Jefferson.
After Thomas Jefferson’s wife died, he took on his house slave Sally Hemings to be his lover. While this was not uncommon for men to do in his day, what makes Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemming’s relationship unique is both the depth of their relationship and their disparity of power.
It is Jefferson’s inability to reconcile these two that leaves a profound cultural legacy not just on the fictional Ashley Wilkes, but also the Confederate South. The scope of their relationship spanned several decades. Jefferson took Sally Hemings to France, where she was his lover. In France, they would move about together in public. Yet, when they returned to Virginia such a relationship was frowned upon; Jefferson hid the relationship while keeping Sally as his slave. His dedication to the relationship and his secrecy is embedded in the plans of Monticello. Above his alcove bed is a hidden passage from Sally’s room that leads to his closet. He fathered at least one child with Sally, and it is believed that he loved her, but chose not to free her, not even in his will.
It is said by many historians and every Monticello tour guide alike that Jefferson felt conflicted by his feelings over slavery. After all, the man who wrote “All Men are Created Equal” campaigned heavily for 1/5 of the US population to undergo brutal subjugation. Similar to his relationship with Sally Hemings, he was unable to reconcile this stark difference. And it is Jefferson’s inability to reconcile these two that leaves a profound cultural legacy not just on the fictional Ashley Wilkes, but also the Confederate South.
Like many of his plantation-owning counterparts, Ashley Wilkes is unable to cope with changes brought on by the Civil War. Raised to be a plantation owner and not a seed-planter, he fails to be a farmer. Not raised to be a soldier, but a thinker, he flees when the war gets hard. Ashley is the representative of the gilded South, individuals raised on quixotic rhetoric failing to rise to the challenge of self-made agriculture or real war. Yet, Ashley’s and Jefferson’s Southern man is still popular in American politics.
On August 13, 2017, just under two months ago, the Alt-right, KKK members, and Neo-Nazis marched on Thomas Jefferson’s hometown of Charlottesville, VA to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate hero Robert E Lee. They accompanied their symbolism with semi-automatic weapons and tiki torches. A rather grand gesture for a statue of a man who fought in battles over a hundred years ago. Robert E. Lee, like Ashley Wilkes, is another one of those “noble agrarian farmers.” Educated, brilliant, honorable, rich, cultural, conflicted about slavery but in his own words said that slaves were “better off.”
These members of the Alt-right cling to the image of Robert E. Lee and the time he represents. They imagine themselves to be nostalgic for the grand houses and days where Southern culture was synonymous with elegance. This was a time when men like Jefferson uttered beautiful musings of freedom in elegant drawing rooms while women and minorities knew their place.
We need to look, not back, but to the future.
Gone with the Wind takes place in the city of Atlanta, where the FEE offices are located. Before the Civil War, Atlanta was considered for many the crown jewel of the South, and after Sherman’s March to the Sea, many of its once glorious plantations became subjects of paintings and dust. Unlike its counterpart cities, Atlanta was forced to let go of the trappings of the past. It became the New South.
There is a lesson for all of us in the unscrupulous figure of Scarlett O'Hara. Men like Ashley do not hold up in the cold morning-after of war. Even if it took her most of her life, Scarlett O’Hara saw through Ashley’s torn nobility and gilded façade. In other words, she moved on, and we should too.
There are many who would hold onto a gilded past through the Confederate symbolism that permeates many state flags. The current president frets over what would it mean to remove these men from the spotlight. But we are living in the better and freer time now.
We need to look, not back, but to the future. The New South is a world of Rhett Butlers, people of ingenuity who rebuilt a great city with creativity, ingenuity, and forward thinking. Atlanta rose to be the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, an international technology hub, and a center for business and trade. The New South, like Rhett Butler, is the much better man.