Location: Charlottesville, Virginia
We got up early and hit the breakfast buffet. From the English Inn it was a beautiful and easy drive to Monticello, where we parked our car in a large parking lot and then took a shuttle bus to the top of Mr. Jefferson’s mountain.
Because we knew we would want to spend most of the day here, we had signed up in advance for an 8:30 a.m. tour of the house. I had been to Monticello as a young person and remembered being fascinated, but this time was different. This time we were going back after having immersed ourselves for years in the history of the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark. It all originated in the complicated, brilliant, sometimes infuriating mind of Thomas Jefferson. Monticello is truly where the Lewis & Clark Expedition began.
We began our tour at the front parlor of the home. Fittingly enough, the the first thing you see is Mr. Jefferson’s Indian Hall. This recreation of Jefferson’s private natural history museum includes, among other things, antlers brought back from the West by Lewis and Clark and mastodon teeth and jawbones sent to Jefferson by George Rogers Clark, William Clark’s heroic older brother and a respected naturalist in his own right.
I have visited many historic homes, but Monticello is like no other. Yes, it is grand. It must have been nice to live in such luxury, where slaves attended to your every whim. Yet the home is also intimate in a way that most plantations are not, because every room so strongly bears the personal touch of its owner. The tour took us through the cozy family room, where Jefferson’s grandchildren took their lessons; Jefferson’s beautiful private apartment, which included his fabulous library, his study, and his bedchamber with an alcove bed; and the lovely tea room and dining room (with a dumbwaiter to bring up the food and wine). It is really no wonder that Jefferson never liked to leave this place. He had everything he could dream of right here.
The presence of Mr. Jefferson is always felt in our two books about Lewis and Clark, but in all those pages there is only one scene that actually takes place at Monticello. So I especially enjoyed seeing the rooms we described this way in To the Ends of the Earth:
Clark nodded and swallowed. Mr. Jefferson had been out riding when he’d arrived this afternoon with the journals, and his French butler, Etienne, had shown him in here. Etienne had lost no time informing him that this was the bedroom usually reserved for President and Mrs. Madison, when they sought to escape the confines of the Federal City and seek the counsel of the Old Sage of Albemarle. Clark guessed he was supposed to be flattered by the news, but instead, he found it unnerving. The small miniature of Madison that graced the dressing table looked uncannily like the picture that hung on the wall at Mom Murrell’s tavern. And it didn’t help any that the bedroom was shaped like a damn hatbox, with eight walls instead of four. Sometimes, a man needed corners.
Jefferson led him into the parlor, the parquet floor creaking under their feet. Like the entrance hall, this room was also cluttered with things; furniture and artwork filled every available space. Clark’s eye was drawn to a large painting above the fireplace of a young woman carrying the head of John the Baptist on a platter. He found her smile unnerving. In the hearth underneath the painting, a roaring fire blazed away.
After our tour, we commenced our plan to really “do” this place today, beginning with a tour of the garden. Beautiful heirloom flowers have been planted along a serpentine walk that leads through the different areas in which Jefferson experimented with flowers and trees, fruits and vegetables, a fish pond, and even a European-style deer park. Jefferson was nothing if not an aesthete, and he carefully considered the effect of each element to harmonize with the fantastic views of Montalto hill and the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was interested to learn that the wide grassy lawn itself, which we take for granted, would have been considered quite the luxury in the 18th century.
Next we explored the “dependencies,” which are the buildings in which the house slaves worked. In many ways, a plantation house was more like a hotel than like a private home of today. Jefferson had about 150 slaves (in the course of his lifetime he owned more than 600 people), doing everything from raising crops and animals to manufacturing nails to whipping up French cuisine and other tasks necessary to support Mr. Jefferson’s lavish lifestyle.
On another organized tour, we learned about Mulberry Row, the slave quarters of Monticello. It was sobering to learn how the slaves worked 14-16 hours a day while Jefferson wrote of ways to economize on their food rations. In other words, in spite of being owned by one of the greatest architects of human liberty who ever lived, the slaves at Monticello didn’t have it any better than anywhere else, if as good. Jefferson even carefully observed the productivity of the young boys who started off working in the nail factory on site. If they didn’t work hard, they were sold away.
The interpreter was blunt about Jefferson’s thirty-year relationship with Sally Hemings and the children that resulted. Obviously, this was no passing fling, but almost nothing is known about the nature of their relationship. Sally left no account, and Jefferson never wrote or spoke a single word about it. What is known and acknowledged today is that they had six children — three of whom were born during the White House years. These young people were the only slaves that Jefferson ever freed. In fact, three of them were so light-skinned that they went North and lived as whites. But he never freed Sally.
It is worth noting here that the house tour, the garden tour, and the plantation tour were all geared to adults. It was clear to me that the folks who run Monticello had made the decision that Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s great intellectuals, had lived a life of ideas and contradictions that could not be reduced to the level of a child. There are some special activities for families with children, but they also encourage adults to take the regular tour(s) alone while the other parent plays with the kids.
HERE WAS BURIED
AUTHOR OF THE
OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
STATUTE OF VIRGINIA
AND FATHER OF THE
UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826
Note that he doesn’t list “President of the United States.” The official Monticello website says that Jefferson wanted his epitaph to reflect that which he had given to the people, rather than that which the people had given to him. Maybe. Personally, I think it was a stroke of genius to get people talking about him even after he was dead!
Monticello is a great place. For all of his staggering faults and failures, Thomas Jefferson’s life truly represents the highest aspirations of mankind. His beautiful and harmonious home is inseparable from the man himself, and is one of the most special American places, a must-see. As for me, I look forward to returning. Since our visit, a new visitor center has opened that is getting rave reviews, and new signature tours are available where you get to see even more of the house. I can’t wait.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a dip in the pool, which we had all to ourselves, then had a nice supper at a Brazilian restaurant called Copacabana, where we got awesome salads, seafood dishes, and banana flan. A great day.