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Published: June 24th 2014
Ever since I was in grade school and first studied Thomas Jefferson I have been a student of the sage of Charlottesville, Virginia. We all know of his contributions to our fledgling country: author of the Declaration of Independence, member of the Continental Congress, minister to France, President and driving force behind the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson was a man of enormous talents and an expansive intellect. He was a philosopher, politician, violinist, horticulturalist, bee-keeper, inventor, bibliophile and architect, to name just a few of his myriad talents.
But Jefferson was also a complex man of contradictions. He was, of course, a slave holder who fathered six children after the death of his beloved wife Martha with one of his slaves—Sally Hemings--who just happened to be the half-sister of his late wife (they shared the same father). This travel essay, however, focuses on the two facets of Jefferson that most intrigue me—his love of books and his genius as an architect.
During spring break 2014, my wife Jacqueline, our 11-year-old son Jackson and I traveled to Washington, DC and then to Monticello to learn more about Mr. Jefferson and his “essay in architecture” as he called it: Monticello (Italian for “little mountain”). Our Jeffersonian pilgrimage began as it rightly should have by visiting the Library of Congress, to which Jefferson was a grand contributor. During the War of 1812, the British stormed into the Washington and torched most of it to the ground, including the president’s house (as it was simply known then) and the capitol, which housed the Library of Congress. In 1815, Jefferson--always in financial debt--offered to sell his collection of 6,847 books (an enormous personal collection in that era) to Congress to re-establish the library. A payment of $23,000 (several hundred thousand dollars in today’s currency) was agreed to. Although Jefferson thought he was underpaid, he needed the money, took the payment and emptied Monticello of his personal library. But soon after the sales, he wrote to John Adams that he “could not live without books.” So he began to restock his personal library. Tragically, in 1851, a fire at the Library of Congress destroyed about two-thirds of Jefferson’s original donation. But the good news is that today the Library of Congress is recreating Jefferson’s donation by purchasing rare books from other libraries and book collectors to duplicate his personal library. A special room in the magnificent library houses Jefferson’s books.
From Washington, we drove two hours southwest to Charlottesville, which rests at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Upon our arrival, we had lunch at a family-owned restaurant. A woman who works there noticed our Vermont license plates and volunteered that she had grown up in Woodstock. A Jefferson devotee herself, she noted that she had named her two pet fish “Thomas” and “Jefferson.”
Before going on our tour of Monticello, we walked around the central campus of the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed what he called his “academical village” in 1819 and fortunately lived to see most of it completed before his death of 1826. Along with composing the Declaration of Independence and a Virginia state law establishing religious freedom, Jefferson believed that founding the university was one of his three greatest achievements. (These three are the only legacies mentioned on his grave stone.) Jefferson’s classical design of classrooms and residences floats down a beautiful three-tiered lawn in a U-shape which emanates from a Roman-style rotunda. Jefferson would be proud that his university has endured and would even, I believe, be intrigued by the fact that current students are texting, tweeting and reading books on iPads and Kindles in the rooms he designed. Jefferson loved new technology.
The following day we headed to Monticello, where Jefferson retired after enduring what he called the “splendid misery” of being president. We had booked a tour of the house called “Behind the Scenes,” in which a well-informed guide literally took us from the basement of Monticello to its attic. Monticello is simply magnificent; there is no other way to describe it. Perched on a mountain with stunning 360-degree views of the Blue Ridge peaks and valleys beyond and surrounded by lovely gardens, Monticello’s design was influenced by the architectural principles of the Roman designer Andrea Palladio. Jefferson enlarged, added and modified the house over a forty-year period to what visitors see today—a huge home with twenty-three rooms.
Our guide ushered us into the entrance hall, in which Jefferson displayed his many unique possessions, especially souvenirs from various Native American tribes. To the left of the entrance hall was a small room in which Jefferson’s daughter Martha—who lived at Monticello--tutored her eleven children. Then we marched into Jefferson’s sanctuary—a three-room suite that included his library, his study (which he referred to as his “cabinet”) and his bedroom. His sanctuary—like all rooms of the house—was flooded with natural light by the use of floor-to ceiling windows. We even were given a peek into Jefferson’s personal “privy” (toilet)! Next to Jefferson’s suite of rooms was the domed parlor. Monticello was the first residence in America that featured a dome. In the parlor, Jefferson played his violin while his daughter played the harpsichord. Next to the parlor was the dining room. Since Jefferson did not like to have dinner conversations interrupted by servants, he installed dumb waiters that brought wine up from the cellar and a revolving pantry in which food was placed; diners simply spun the door and filled their plates with their next course. Our guide then showed us the numerous bedrooms where everyone from family members to famous personages such as Dolly and James Madison slept.
But, of course, such a grand house could not function without slaves, many of which lived in Monticello’s basement. As you walk the grounds, you cannot escape the fact that Monticello was indeed a working plantation that ran on slave labor. That ever-present stain on American history aside, we loved our day at Monticello. Touring the rooms in which Jefferson once trod, I truly felt that history had come alive. I had waited nearly forty years to visit Monticello; the visit exceeded my expectations.
To learn more about Monticello and to book a tour, visit www.monticello.org
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