A visit to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello

 Detail of Thomas Jefferson statue at Monticello

Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States.  His brilliance and great writing skills are well known.  He authored one of the greatest statements of liberty in human history, the Declaration of Independence (if you've never read it before, give it a look). Jefferson served in many political offices but he was also a scientist, avid gardener and landscape designer, plantation (and yes, slave) owner, fanatical reader and book collector, and also a self-educated architect and building designer of unusual ability. Not only did he build a magnificent home – Monticello — on the hills near Charlottesville, he also founded, designed and supervised the building of its world famous University of Virginia.  These two structures are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Monticello the only home in the United States so honored. 

 Back yard view of Monticello

 (Monticello)

 

One of the highlights of any visit to Virginia is a stop in Monticello, something I’d recommend without reservation to anyone.  Monticello is located on the outskirts of Charlottesville and is built on a hilltop Jefferson selected for this purpose as a young man. The building of Monticello took place in several phases over a 40 year period and it was Jefferson’s home from 1770 until he died in 1826 (of interest, both he and his colleague John Adams died on that July 4th, exactly 50 years after they had signed the Declaration of Independence). The building of Monticello was always done using architectural plans drafted by Jefferson and usually under his direct supervision. Jefferson was heavily influenced by the architecture of Europe which he studied in detail during his ambassadorship to France, and was especially fond of Roman architecture.  Monticello reflects these interests.

 Visitor Center at Monticello

 (Monticello Visitor Center)

 

Your visit to Monticello begins at its lavish Visitor Center, recently built at a cost of over $50,000,000. The Center features a short film of Jefferson’s life that’s worth viewing and the Smith Education Center, a museum filled with artifacts from Jefferson’s life and the microcosm of Monticello, which is worth an hour’s visit.  From the visitor center you have the option of walking uphill to the home site or taking a shuttle. Most people take the bus uphill, which drops you off close to the front door of the estate. You will need a timed ticket for a specific home tour and during peak holiday periods it’s good to make reservations well in advance on the Monticello website.

 

Sundial at Monticello

(Sundial at Monticello)

 

As you enter Jefferson’s home for your guided tour you will be impressed by the spaciousness of the place, by the use of windows and daylight, and by its excellent views of the property, surrounding foothills and distant Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson loved to learn and collect and his home reflects these passions. For example, in the entrance hall are artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition (which he commissioned) as well as assorted fossils (rumor has it that one of Jefferson’s motives in sending Lewis and Clark out west to see if they could find any surviving mastodons), maps, paintings, statues and many books. The tour will walk you through Jefferson’s library, study, bedroom, parlor/living room, dining room and tea room. While genuinely an impressive place, to me Monticello still felt like a home and not a museum. I think you’ll be impressed at the ingenuity and pragmatism exhibited by Jefferson in so many aspects of the design of his home. For example, his clever designs for food and wine dumbwaiters, innovative use of double pane windows, etc. etc. Unfortunately there is no photography allowed inside the mansion so I can't share this with you.

 

Crocuses coming up in Monticello's back lawn

(Crocuses in Monticello's lawn) 

 

After the house tour you’re allowed to independently visit the basement and North and South terraces, which housed the stables, kitchens, food, beer and wine storage, cook and some slave quarters, etc.  And you can spend all the time you want visiting the beautiful lawn, flower beds, vineyards, vegetable garden and orchards. During peak periods tours of the gardens are available. We visited in March and Virginia was recovering from a harsh winter, so only rare (but beautiful) crocuses and daffodils were in bloom. We explored the grounds, including Mulberry Row (where slaves and workmen lived near the mansion) and then walked back to the visitor center. If you’re able, this walk is worth doing because it takes you past the family burial plot, including President Jefferson’s grave, which is still controlled by Jefferson’s descendants. 

 

Thomas Jefferson's grave marker

 

President Jefferson’s tombstone is large but the epitaph on it, which he wrote, indicates that he wanted to be remembered for three things – writing the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and being the father of the University of Virginia.  Notably absent from his personal list of accomplishments was being President of the United States.  Admittedly the United States was a much smaller and less powerful country when he was President, but still he was its chief executive!  So I find this omission amazing and speaks legion of Jefferson’s character and to me makes him all the more interesting.

 

Go discover more about this brilliant man and where he lived for yourself!

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Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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Jefferson has always been a fascinating and difficult character, with many sides to his life and work. Aside from the Monticello and other designs, he was also a pioneer agriculturalist, importing many varieties of flowers and vegetables, and improving them by breeding.

 

But for me, the hardest task, mentally and emotionally, is to reconcile the brilliant political and philosophical words with an absolute refusal to even question the institution of slavery, when many others of his time in Virginia, including both George Mason and George Washington were. (Mason refused to sign the Constitution because it allowed slavery to continue). I suppose, if nothing else, it reminds us not to allow blind admiration to cloud our vision.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

PHeymont, I never try to judge historic figures through the prism of modern values.  Remember in the 18th century slavery was a global institution -- absolutely every country in the world had slaves.  And being from Virginia, he knew the southern states wouldn't join northern colonies in forming a new country without slavery being allowed, so I don't think he thought it was time to fight that fight.  I think he valued the formation of the new country above all else -- risking his life to do so (as he surely would have been hung had the Revolution failed).  What I find a little more perplexing is that he did not free his slaves after he'd died, but then again he was completely broke at the time.

 

Jefferson once described the institution of slavery as "holding a wolf by the ears".  He knew some day the slavery would break the grasp of those holding it, and he was right.  

So I don't mean to defend slavery.  I can think of nothing more reprehensible than "owning" another human being.  But those were different times and in his actions, Jefferson and others created a country were one day all men would be free.  Sadly, a bloody Civil War was required to resolve the issue.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

I would agree that presentism is a real danger for historians...but without wanting to veer this discussion too far off course, you'll note that I cited two of his close colleagues and acquaintances in Virginia alone, not to mention Lafayette and many others IN HIS TIME AND ACQUAINTANCE who had already concluded that it was time, and many others were acting on it.

 

It was an active debate in his time and place, he was aware of it, and sadly...he took the wrong side.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

I agree his side was not the right one, PHeymont, but I also believe of greatest importance for him was forming the new country.  I don't think we'll ever know his personal feelings about slavery because he didn't write about them.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

I believe you can tell a great deal about someone from what they leave behind.  On a visit to Monticello I was struck by the design of the house and the distinct sensibility it indicated regarding the creative mind of it's designer.  I bought a sundial in the gift shop and am reminded of the man every time I look at it.

Regarding his feeling about slavery, I have no doubt, because of the nature of the man as shown by the things he did write, he was conflicted.  And while he seems never to have come to a personal solution I don't believe, either, that his lack of action was de facto support for the institution.  Sometimes there just isn't time to resolve one's own conflicts and be a father of a new nation too.  We may be asking too much of human beings if we expect tidy packages and complete resolutions in 1 lifetime.

I visited Monticello as a kid and enjoyed the views.  I need to go back now and look at the architecture here and especially at the U of V in more detail.

 

My favorite John Kennedy quote (to his staff at a dinner in the White HOuse)

I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House - with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quo...#G4wQ5S4SazWSs0dq.99
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