Archive for the ‘Virginia’ Category

Location: Orange, Virginia, 28 miles north of Charlottesville

James Madison's Montpelier, near Orange, Virginia

The first time we visited Monticello on a Lewis & Clark research trip, we wanted to pay a visit as well to Montpelier, the equally grand home of James Madison and his fabulous wife Dolley. At that time, the home was closed for an extremely extensive renovation. But on our most recent trip to Virginia, the home had reopened, providing a fascinating, multi-faceted look at the “Father of the Constitution” and a terrific example of historical restoration.

James Madison’s career is inexorably intertwined with that of his mentor, Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, Madison, who was eight years younger than Jefferson, became much more than a protege to the “Sage of Monticello.” He became a close personal friend and a political alter ego, often using his calm insight and deep understanding of government to save Jefferson from his own more radical tendencies.

When he became president in 1801, Jefferson named Madison as his Secretary of State, with a standing if secret order to be on the lookout for additional territory into which the new nation could expand. Jefferson already foresaw that the United States would dominate the North American continent, though he believed the expansion would take several centuries rather than mere decades. Nonetheless he was ready to get started, with his top priority being the purchase of New Orleans from the French, which would give Americans much better access to the world’s sea lanes.

James and Dolley Madison by Ivan Schwartz (2009)

As detailed in our earlier post on James Monroe (Lewis & Clark road trip: Ashlawn-Highland), what began as a negotiation with Napoleon’s government for New Orleans turned into the fire sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15 million — over one million square miles of land. The Louisiana Purchase gave Jefferson legal cover to fulfill a dream he had harbored for decades: to send explorers west on a scientific and diplomatic mission to discover and map the western part of the continent and negotiate alliances with the Indians that would give America entree into the world fur trade and access to the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, whatever Jefferson’s critics then and now might care to say about him, you certainly couldn’t accuse him of thinking small.

As Jefferson personally oversaw the preparations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for the Expedition, Madison had little involvement with the launch of the historic exploration. In fact, his wife Dolley took a more active role. As her niece Mary E.E. Cutts later recalled, Dolley had a huge heart, and believed that Lewis & Clark “could never could return from that land of savages.” Determined to supplement the miserly congressional appropriation of $2500 for equipment, she organized the ladies of Washington and conducted a fundraiser to provide the Expedition with sack cloth, candle wax, lamps and lamp oil, cooking spices, canned goods, dried goods, writing materials, clothing, and silver cooking utensils.

It would be interesting to know whether Meriwether Lewis remembered Dolley’s kindness on July 28, 1805. In what is still one of the more remote and beautiful spots in Montana, the Missouri River divides into three mighty streams, and Lewis named one of them after the Secretary of State, writing:

In pursuance of this resolution we called the S. W. fork, that which we meant to ascend, Jefferson’s River in honor of 〈that illustrious personage〉 Thomas Jefferson. the Middle fork we called Madison’s River in honor of James Madison, and the S. E. Fork we called Gallitin’s River in honor of Albert Gallitin [Albert Gallatin, the Secretary of the Treasury].

the two first are 90 yards wide and the last is 70 yards.    all of them run with great valocity and thow out large bodies of water. Gallitin’s River is reather more rapid than either of the others, is not quite as deep but from all appearances may be navigated to a considerable distance. Capt. C. who came down Madison’s river yesterday and has also seen Jefferson’s some distance thinks Madison’s reather the most rapid, but it is not as much so by any means as Gallitan’s.

The Madison River in Montana. Courtesy Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

According to Dolley’s niece, when Lewis returned to Washington in December 1806, he returned the surviving silver service to Dolley and regaled the ladies with tales of “hair breath escapes and marvelous adventures,” along with “as many specimens as they could bring from so far off in the wilderness!” Lewis’s memos to Dolley’s husband also give a flavor of the expenses the Expedition had incurred (the final cost of the Lewis & Clark Expedition ended up being about $39,000):

“One Uniform laced Coat, one silver Epaulet, one Dirk, and belt, one hanger and belt, one pistol and one fowling piece, all private property in exchange for Canoe, Horses and c. for public service during the expedition – $135.”— Meriwether Lewis to James Madison, March, 1806

In spite of Dolley’s excitement about the Expedition, it appears that her husband was not nearly as enamored with Lewis as she or his mentor Jefferson. When Madison became president in 1809, he was less than supportive of Lewis’s efforts in his new and difficult political job, that of governing the huge territory he had heroically explored. The essential conflict is articulated in our novel To the Ends of the Earth by none other than our old friend James Wilkinson:

“Well, if you are not angry about it, then I am, sir!” Wilkinson smacked the table with his hand. “President Madison cares nothing for your fame. To him, your entire expedition—what do you call it, you’re so clever with names—the Corps of Volunteers for Northwestern Discovery? Only the greatest feat of exploration ever attempted on this continent—” He paused in mid-sentence and fixed Lewis with a disconcerting look. “Well, in Madison’s petty mind, it was a colossal waste of money.”

“That’s because he doesn’t understand what we discovered. When the expedition journals are published, he’ll see that it wasn’t a waste—”

“But that’s not the point!” Wilkinson cut him off. “The point is, Madison has no vision for what this country could be! But you do, Lewis, and so do I.”

The most fascinating part for me of visiting Montpelier was learning about the home’s incredible restoration. The Madisons lived an opulent and genteel lifestyle with over 100 slaves, but following James’ death in 1836, Dolley fell on hard times. Her only son, Payne Todd, was an alcoholic wastrel who had spent time in debtor’s prison. Dolley had already put up the mansion as collateral to pay Payne’s debts. She lost everything, and was forced to depend on friends for their kindness until her death in 1849 at the age of 81.

The Annie Dupont Formal Garden at Montpelier

After going through several owners, the house was acquired in 1901 by the duPont family, which remodeled it beyond recognition and used the property for their competitive equestrian pursuits. When Marion duPont Scott died in 1983, she donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation along with the money to restore it to the Madison era. After a protracted court battle with several heirs, the work began in 2003. The architects were surprised and delighted to find that some 80% of the original Madison home was intact beneath the duPont renovations. The structural renovation was completed in 2008 and work is underway to restore the interior to the appearance it would have had in Madison’s day.

We had a wonderful time in the home and gardens, along with a great lunch in the cafe. Montpelier is a very enjoyable stop for any history buff and illuminates a very human side of one of the Founding Fathers and his unforgettable wife.

More great reading: James Madison’s Montpelier (blog)

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Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully

Thomas Jefferson by Thomas Sully, 1821

The last years of Thomas Jefferson’s life were plagued by terrible financial problems. Perpetually in debt because of his loose spending habits and the never-ending construction at Monticello, Jefferson also suffered from lower-than-expected income from the crops he produced on his various plantations. But the ultimate ruinous blow came from an unexpected source: Jefferson’s friend Wilson Cary Nicholas, a former senator and governor of Virginia and president of the Richmond branch of the Bank of the United States.  Jefferson’s involvement with Nicholas would lead to the loss of everything.

In the fall of 1817, Jefferson asked to borrow $6000 from the Bank of the United States, and Nicholas gladly co-signed two separate notes of $3000 each. Six months later, Nicholas asked Jefferson to return the favor and be co-signer on a loan for him – this time two notes of $10,000 each, for the total sum of $20,000. He assured Jefferson that he was worth at least $350,000 and would easily be able to repay the notes, to come due in the fall of 1819.

Nicholas had been a close friend and political supporter of Jefferson’s for years. Jefferson’s beloved grandson Jeff Randolph was married to Nicholas’s daughter. With no reason to doubt Nicholas’s solvency, Jefferson signed the papers “in utter confidence” and the loans were approved.  He seems not to have given the matter much thought.

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Wilson Cary Nicholas by Gilbert Stuart

Fast-forward to August 1819, when Jefferson received a letter in the mail from Nicholas. Something had gone terribly wrong. Despite his earlier assurances, Nicholas confessed to Jefferson that he had been not been able to keep up with his loan payments. The bank had investigated and found that Nicholas was far from solvent – in fact, rash speculation in western lands had put Nicholas $200,000 in debt. They were calling in the loan.

Jefferson realized immediately that if Nicholas went bankrupt, as co-signer of the loan, he was now on the hook to pay back the money. “He said very little,” Jefferson’s granddaughter wrote, “but his countenance expressed a great deal.” Unfortunately, Jefferson’s next action made a bad situation worse. He asked the bank to extend the term of the loan for a full year, and offered to bring in another co-signer—to whom he would deed land worth $20,000—to help guarantee the loan. The second co-signer was Nicholas’s son-in-law and Jefferson’s grandson, Jeff Randolph.

Wilson Cary Nicholas’s unexpected death  on October 10, 1820, plunged the Jefferson family into an unfathomable financial disaster. In the days before Chapter 11 and other bankruptcy protection laws, the family stood to lose everything. There was no way Jefferson could pay back $20,000 plus interest – about the equivalent of four years of earnings on his farms. But if he defaulted or died – he was then 77 years old – the debt would pass to his grandson, saddling him with a crushing liability.

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Thomas Jefferson Randolph by Charles Willson Peale

Desperate, Jefferson conceived of a plan for the family’s salvation that came to him “like an inspiration the realms of bliss,” according to his daughter Martha Randolph. The family could sponsor its own public lottery, selling tickets and offering as a prize some of Jefferson’s farmland that his obligations to the bank left him unable to sell. Jefferson hoped to raise $60,000 from the public raffle, enough to pay off the debts, secure the family’s immediate future, and live comfortably for the remainder of his life. Jefferson even had secret hopes that the Virginia state government would buy all the tickets and burn them in a great patriotic bonfire, allowing him to keep both the land and the money. All he needed was approval from the Virginia legislature.

Unfortunately, that approval was not easily forthcoming. Then as now, “family values” were an important part of political rhetoric, and the lottery Jefferson proposed was considered gambling – and gambling fostered immorality.  Jefferson was crushed by the legislature’s chilly reception. “I see in the failure of this hope a deadly blast to all my peace of mind during my remaining days,” he wrote disconsolately. “I am overwhelmed at the prospect of the situation in which I may leave my family.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

In February 1826, the Virginia legislature relented and approved the lottery bill—but with important and chilling alterations. The farmland being offered as a prize would have to be independently appraised to make sure the $60,000 raised did not exceed the value of the prize – which it most certainly did. Therefore, the land prize would not be enough to get the lottery approved. A more attractive prize must be offered – Monticello itself. As a generous concession, the bill would allow Jefferson and Martha to remain in the house for the rest of their lives.

The thought of losing the home was unbearable. Due to the family’s dire financial straits, Monticello was already suffering from lack of upkeep. When the public learned of Jefferson’s plight, many people began to raise money outright and donate it to the Jefferson family. Though touched by these patriotic gestures, Jefferson tried to discourage them because he feared it would divert attention and money from the lottery.

Jefferson did not live to see the outcome. He passed away on July 4, 1826, surrounded by his family, and was buried in the family graveyard. Months later, his family held a public auction in a last-ditch attempt to raise much-needed cash. Over five days in January 1827, they watched forlornly while eager buyers picked through Monticello and carted off everything from Parisian furniture, prints and maps, and stemware to hogs, horses, saddles and ordinary household items. The auction of Jefferson’s slaves was an awful  ordeal, as families that had lived on Monticello and served the Jeffersons for years were sold off and dispersed. It was, Jefferson’s grandson wrote, “a perfect hell of trouble.”

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Monticello in ruins, late 19th century

Unfortunately, interest in the lottery quickly waned after Jefferson’s death,  and the idea was abandoned. In July 1828, after laboring heroically for years to save the family from his grandfather’s debts, Jeff Randolph put Monticello up for sale. By the time he finally found a buyer three years later, the mansion was decrepit, dilapidated and a shadow of its former self. The new owner was a druggist from Charlottesville, who purchased the mansion and grounds for $7000, about half of the asking price.

Adding insult to injury, he had poor taste. Proving that blood will tell, Jefferson’s granddaughter Cornelia wrote sadly: “[I] have some fear that he may disfigure that beautiful & sacred spot by some of that ‘gingerbread work’ which grandpapa used to hold in such contempt.”

More great reading: Marc Leepson’s Saving Monticello

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Meriwether Lewis by John Lanzalotti (2000). This bust was placed in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond in 2008.

You might think that after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from the West to great acclaim as national heroes, that every city and town associated with the Expedition would have wanted to erect a monument to their achievement. But in fact, outdoor public sculpture was unheard of in the United States until about the 1830s, many years after the Corps of Discovery had faded from memory. The real golden age of public monuments began in America after the Civil War, when almost every community wished to build a memorial to the dead.

The pace of building monuments reached its zenith around the turn of the 20th century. Since then, a number of very interesting Lewis & Clark monuments have been erected all along the trail, with a fresh wave coming recently for the Bicentennial commemoration.

In this series, we’ll take a look at some of the Lewis & Clark sculptures. Today I’ll begin with several monuments in the “Eastern Legacy” states where Captain Lewis prepared for the Expedition and William Clark recruited early members of the Corps, as  well as the way the Expedition is remembered along the first segment of the Lewis & Clark Trail in Missouri.

As many historians like to say, the Lewis & Clark Expedition actually began in the mind of Thomas Jefferson, so what better place to begin our sculptural journey than Charlottesville, Virginia, the home town of Jefferson and of Lewis himself.

Statue in Charlottesville, Virginia of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea (kneeling), by Charles Keck (1919)

The Charlottesville monument seems to have been the first permanent memorial to Lewis & Clark in the United States. Here, Charles Keck captured the manly beauty and virility of Lewis and Clark in this statue that shows them very much as frontier soldiers, perhaps not so different from the American doughboys who had recently returned from World War I. From the awkward pose, it is difficult not to think that Sacagawea was a last-minute addition to Keck’s commission, and indeed her posture has been interpreted as subservient or cowering, drawing student protests in recent years. In 2009, a plaque was added to the statue recognizing Sacagawea’s contribution to the Expedition’s success.

"When They Shook Hands," by Carol Grende (2003). Statue located at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Indiana.

This bronze was commissioned by the Southern Indiana Visitors’ Bureau and several local boosters to commemorate Clarksville’s role as the home of William Clark in 1803 and the place where the two captains met that fall and began the planning of the Expedition and recruitment of members of the Corps of Discovery. Interestingly enough, sculptor Carol Grende of Montana accepted the commission in spite of an extremely tight seven-month deadline to complete the project before the bicentennial event in Clarksville, and the statue arrived in town just 30 hours before the ceremony began.

"Captain's Return," by Harry Weber (2006). This St. Louis statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their dog Seaman stands in the waters of the Mississippi near the Gateway Arch.

This bronze by St. Louis sculptor Harry Weber was commissioned for the final “signature event” of the Bicentennial, which commemorated the September day in 1806 when the Corps of Discovery returned, about a year later than expected and after most people had given them up for dead. It has become iconic as a gauge of how high the river’s waters flow every spring and summer in flood stage:

The Lewis & Clark statue on the St. Louis riverfront in flood stage. I have seen photos in which only Clark's hat is still visible.

Lewis and Clark monument on the waterfront in St. Charles, Missouri, by Pat Kennedy (2003)

Lewis, Clark, and Seaman were a common trio in Bicentennial commemorations. It is interesting to compare how bulked-up Lewis and Clark are here compared with their 1919 portrayal in the Charlottesville statue.

This grouping on the grounds of the Missouri state capitol in Jefferson City includes York, Lewis, Seaman, Clark, and George Drouillard. Bronze by Sabra Tull Meyer, 2008.

A day in the life early in the Lewis & Clark Expedition is depicted in this grouping. The artist who made this arrangement, Sabra Tull Meyer, has a fascinating website that tells the story of the monument’s creation along with great photographs of how the statues were created. Check out The Making of a Monument.

The Corps of Discovery by Eugene Daub (2000). This statue stands in Case Park on the Kansas City waterfront, and depicts Lewis, Clark, York, and Sacagawea with her baby Jean-Baptiste on her back.

The Kansas City monument was the centerpiece of the renovation of Case Park, a showpiece of urban renewal in downtown Kansas City. The monument is 18 feet high and is believed to be the largest Lewis & Clark memorial in existence.

Are there any outdoor sculptures of Lewis and Clark in the eastern states or in Missouri that I have missed? If so, let me know. In the next installment of this series, we’ll trek onward and see how Lewis and Clark are remembered on the Great Plains.

More reading: William Clark’s grave

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The fall of 1807 marked one year since Meriwether Lewis returned from the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Appointed by Jefferson to the post of Governor of Upper Louisiana, Lewis had yet to leave for St. Louis to take up his duties. He lingered in the east, romance among the many things crowding his mind. Although he had been entranced by several “bewitching gypsies” in that city, Lewis had yet to find that special someone.

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

Portrait of a Young Woman, by Jean-Marc Nattier

“I am now a perfect widower with rispect to love,” Lewis complained to his friend Mahlon Dickerson of Philadelphia. “I feel all that restlessness, that inquietude, that certain indiscribable something common to old bachelors, which I cannot avoid thinking my dear fellow, proceeds, from that void in our hearts, which might, or ought to be better filled. Whence it comes I know not, but certain it is, that I never felt less like a heroe than at the present moment. What may be my next adventure god knows, but on this I am determined, to get a wife.”

That November, Lewis thought he had found the ideal candidate. While visiting the Fincastle, Virginia home of George Hancock (the father of William Clark’s intended, Julia Hancock), Lewis made the acquaintance of lovely 16 year-old Letitia Breckinridge and her sister, Elizabeth. Letitia and Elizabeth were the daughters of prominent Fincastle lawyer and Revolutionary War veteran James Breckenridge, a member of the Virginia legislature and a future Congressman and brigadier general.

Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was smitten with Letitia. His brother Reuben Lewis wrote home that the “accomplished and beautiful” girl was “one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features … I should like to have her as a sister.”

James Breckinridge

James Breckinridge, Letitia's father

Hoping to win the young lady’s affections, Lewis expressed his intention of making a formal call on Letitia with the object of courting her. Unfortunately for Lewis, the girl reacted negatively. She was not interested and seemed to want to flee from Lewis’s “challenge.” Shortly after her meeting with Lewis, Letitia decamped to Richmond with her father. Reuben wrote glumly, “unfortunately for his Excellency [Lewis], she left the neighborhood 2 days after our arrival so that he was disappointed in his design of addressing her.”

Of all Lewis’s abortive affairs of the heart, this one seems particularly to have stung. It is not known why Letitia fled from Lewis’s affections. Undaunted Courage author Stephen Ambrose suggests that perhaps Lewis simply came on too strong, or maybe Letitia was put off by his heavy drinking – though Lewis would hardly have been unique among Virginia gentry in that respect. It may have been all too obvious that Lewis was still struggling with the problems of re-entry into “normal” life following the high adventure and independent command of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Or perhaps Letitia simply had someone else already in mind.

Following his attendance at his co-captain William Clark’s wedding in January 1808, Lewis left for St. Louis to take up his governor’s post. That summer, he heard from another friend, William Preston, that Letitia had married a rich young fellow named Robert Gamble of Richmond. “So be it,” Lewis replied, resigned. “May God be with her and her’s, and the favored angels of heaven guard her bliss both here and hereafter, is the sincere prayer of her very sincere friend, to whom she has left the noble concentration of scratching his head and biting his nails, with ample leasure to reuminate on the chapter of accidents in matters of love and the folly of castle-building.”

Lewis tried to be generous to the winning suitor, Robert Gamble. “Gamble is a good tempered, easy honest fellow,” Lewis conceded wistfully. “I have known him from a boy; both his means and his disposition well fit him for sluming away life with his fair one in the fassionable rounds of a large City. Such is the life she has celected and in it’s pursuit I wish she may meet all the pleasures of which it is susceptable.”

There is no further real mention of romance or courting in Lewis’s letters and papers. The press of business and increasing financial woes may have made courting impractical. Or maybe Lewis simply never found the right person. He was destined to die in 1809, aged 35, a “musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor” to the end.

As for Letitia, her marriage to Robert Gamble appears to have been a successful one. She bore Gamble nine children. Eventually they moved to Tallahassee, Florida. During the Civil War, several of Letitia and Robert Gamble’s sons served as officers in the Confederate Army. Letitia survived the war, dying in Tallahassee in March 1866, aged 75.

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

John C. Breckinridge in Confederate uniform

If Letitia’s maiden name, Breckinridge, rings a bell, it should. Letitia’s uncle, John Breckinridge, was the progenitor of the famous Breckinridge dynasty of Kentucky, which produced generations of illustrious politicians, military officers, social activists, and diplomats. The most famous member of the Breckinridge clan was John C. Breckinridge, who served as Vice President under James Buchanan and ran unsuccessfully for President in 1860, coming in third to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Although Kentucky decided to remain with the Union upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Breckinridge broke ranks with his state and sided with the Confederacy, serving as a general in many of the major battles in both the western and the eastern theater.

Named Confederate Secretary of War in early 1865, Breckinridge did his best to broker an honorable peace for the Confederacy. Historians owe him a debt, as he was instrumental in saving the Confederate government archives from destruction during the fall of Richmond in April 1865. Fearing he would be put on trial, Breckinridge fled the country after the Confederate surrender, but was granted amnesty and returned to Lexington, Kentucky, in 1869. He died there of cirrhosis in 1875.

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

John "Bunny" Breckinridge in Plan 9 from Outer Space

If John C. Breckinridge was the most famous member of the Breckinridge clan, the  most infamous member was his great grandson, John Cabell “Bunny” Breckinridge, who appeared as the alien leader  in Ed Wood’s notorious cult film Plan 9 from Outer Space. A flamboyant homosexual and sometime drag queen, Bunny Breckinridge worked as a burlesque performer and actor in Europe before settling in San Francisco in the 1920’s. Openly gay in an era when it was unheard of, Breckinridge later attracted the attention of pulp movie director Ed Wood, who cast him in Plan 9, which would affectionately come to be called “the worst movie ever made.”

Although Breckinridge was convicted of “sex perversion” and briefly committed to a criminal hospital following the release of the movie in 1959, he continued to live his life openly and unrepentantly, becoming a favorite of other celebrities and young hippies for his unique lifestyle and flamboyant ways. He lived long enough to see Plan 9 become a cult favorite and to see himself portrayed in Tim Burton’s 1994 movie, Ed Wood.  When he passed away in 1996 at age 93, the following quote in his obituary summed up his life: “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.”

More great reading: The Two Wives of William Clark

Postscript: My frequent commenter Shannon Kelly found this portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble in the inventory files of the Smithsonian. It was painted by Cephas Thompson (1775-1856).  Excellent sleuthing, Shannon! Thanks!

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

Portrait of Letitia Breckinridge Gamble, by Cephas Thompson

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Just for fun today.

Osama Bin Laden died, and George Washington met him at the Pearly Gates. He slapped him across the face and yelled, “How dare you try to destroy the nation I helped conceive!”

Patrick Henry approached, punched him in the nose and shouted, “You wanted to end our liberties but you failed!”

James Madison followed, kicked him in the groin and said, “This is why I allowed our government to provide for  the common defense!”

Thomas Jefferson was next, beat Bin Laden with a long cane and snarled, “It was evil men like you who  inspired me to write the Declaration of Independence.”

The  beatings and thrashings continued as George Mason, James Monroe and 66 other early Americans unleashed their anger on the terrorist leader.

As Bin Laden lay bleeding and in pain, an angel appeared. Osama Bin Laden wept and said, “This is not what you  promised me.”

The angel replied, “I told you there would be 72 Virginians waiting for you in Heaven. What did you think I  said?”

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Flight from Monticello, by Michael Kranish

I’ve been on a Thomas Jefferson kick lately. There’s so much to learn and try to understand about this fascinating, enigmatic, and contradictory man. I just finished reading Flight from Monticello by Michael Kranish and really, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kranish tells a story that was almost entirely unknown to me: the story of Jefferson as the wartime governor of Virginia. In 1781, the British, led by the traitor Benedict Arnold, mounted a major invasion of the state, and one objective was clear: Get Thomas Jefferson. How Jefferson escaped, how and why the British overran the state, and how they were stopped at Yorktown make for truly delightful reading.

 This is a book worth savoring for its many untold stories. One of the most astonishing concerned the aftermath of the stunning American victory at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. As a result of the victory, the Americans had taken prisoner over 5000 British and Hessian (German mercenary) troops. In those days, it was generally a tradition to “parole” prisoners of war on the condition that they promise never to take up arms in the conflict again. But after about 1000 prisoners were released to Canada, Congress realized that the chances of the British honoring such a ban were practically nil.

Congressional representatives from Virginia made an audacious proposal. They suggested that Virginia would build a sprawling prisoner-of-war camp near Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson and others believed that housing thousands of enemy soldiers would result in a bonanza of federal money into the area. In addition, the soldiers would buy local goods, and craftsmen among the prisoners could be put to work on local plantations. Jefferson, a fine violinist who was ever restless about the lack of cultural peers in Virginia, also voiced the hope that some fine musicians among the Hessian officers might be willing to play with him.

Hessian Prisoners of War (Courtesy National Archives)

The prisoners reached Charlottesville in January 1779 after a grueling winter march from their previous barracks in Boston. As one Hessian officer wrote, “Never have I seen men so discouraged and in such despair as ours, when, tired and worn out from the long trip and the hardships, they had to seek shelter in the woods like wild animals.” But before long, the crude, leaking shelters known as “Albemarle Barracks” became home to some 4000 men — making the encampment the largest “city” in Virginia, nearly twice as large as the capital at Williamsburg.

Jefferson was worried about the scandalous conditions, which soon prompted calls to move the barracks away from Charlottesville. He estimated that the POW camp was pumping about $30,000 a week into the local economy (well over $300,000 a week in current dollars). As spring arrived, conditions improved, mostly due to the efforts of the prisoners themselves, who fixed up the barracks, planted gardens, began to raise livestock, and constructed their own store, coffeehouse, church, tavern complete with a billiard table, and a theater with a sign reading “Who would have expected all this here?” A number of the German prisoners simply walked away from the prison to intermarry with local girls or move out west to begin new lives.

William Phillips (1731-1781). Phillips died during the invasion of Virginia and is buried in Petersburg, Virginia. Jefferson called him "the proudest man of the proudest nation on earth."

Meanwhile, thanks in part to Jefferson’s lobbying, the officers were permitted to rent some of the best homes in Charlottesville for their lodging. Jefferson soon became close with Brigadier General William Phillips, a stout and ruthless artillerist, and Baron Frederick von Riedesel, the Hessian commander. Riedesel was even joined at the mountainside estate of Colle by his three daughters and his statuesesque wife, who shocked Charlottesville society by riding her horse astride.

Music formed the foundation of friendship between Jefferson and the Hessians. Before long, just as Jefferson had dreamed, he was playing duets with a Hessian violinist, while Mrs. Jefferson played the pianoforte and the Baroness led dances. Apparently, Jefferson saw nothing disturbing in forming close friendships with officers who had led brutal charges against American soldiers. He also apparently thought nothing of the intimacy with which the British and Hessians were coming to know the rivers and roads around Charlottesville, even allowing Phillips and Riedesel to leave Charlottesville to travel to Berkeley Springs, 134 miles further into the interior of the state, to visit a health resort.

In the summer of 1779, Jefferson became governor of wartime Virginia and had to leave Charlottesville for the seat of government in Williamsburg. Not long after taking office, he received a furious letter from George Washington, commander of the Continental Army, demanding to know why hundreds of British and Hessian prisoners were simply packing their bags and walking away from the lightly-guarded camp in Charlottesville. Though embarrassed, Jefferson was convinced Phillips and Riedesel knew nothing of the escapes.

Later in the year, the two officers were exchanged for American prisoners. Riedesel and his family ended up in Canada, where the Baron served as a senior military official. As for Phillips, Jefferson looked forward to socializing with him again in times of peace. And Phillips would indeed return to Virginia: as commanding officer of a force of 4500 with orders to invade the state and take Thomas Jefferson prisoner.

Albemarle Barracks was belatedly closed by Governor Jefferson in the fall of 1780, as the state lay open to invasion. The remaining prisoners were marching north to Fort Frederick, Maryland, where they were held until the end of war. As in Charlottesville, a number of the Hessians remained behind and settled in the United States.

Flight from Monticello tells a story that is complex, fascinating, and at times even funny. This is a must-read book for any history lover!

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Location: Charlottesville, Virginia, about two miles from Monticello 

View of Ashlawn Highland, home of James Monroe

James Monroe’s Ashlawn-Highland is a stark contrast to Mr. Jefferson’s intellectual pleasure palace just two miles down the road. The home is beautiful, but quite small, and reflective of the gifts of its owner. As a president and a man, Monroe strikes me very much in the mold of Harry Truman or Gerald Ford. To his detractors, he was a partisan hack who put political loyalties first. To his admirers, he was a good and decent man on whom his country leaned in times of crisis without ever fully appreciating him.

James Monroe

James Monroe: No pushover, he

Monroe’s connections with Thomas Jefferson ran deep. When the Revolution broke out, Monroe was one of the young students at the College of William and Mary who raided the Governor’s Palace and liberated the swords and muskets that were stored there. He enlisted in the Continental Army and was badly wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Trenton, an incident recounted in fascinating detail in David Hackett Fischer’s book Washington’s Crossing. Back home in Virginia, he studied the law with none other than former governor Jefferson (himself a brilliant attorney). As a Jefferson ally, he was soon elected to the Virgina House of Delegates, the Continental Congress, and at age 32, to the United States Senate.

In 1794, Monroe was appointed U.S. minister to France at the height of the French Revolution. Like Jefferson, Monroe strongly favored the revolution but not the extreme bloody turn that it took. He acted quickly to rescue all the Americans who fell from favor and faced a potential turn at the guillotine, including Thomas Paine and Madame Lafayette. But his bent for the radical faction also earned him the ire of President Washington back home, who fired Monroe and ordered him to return home.

Ashlawn Highland's incredible white oak was planted in Monroe's day

Politics had taken an ugly, paranoid turn as the political class, once united as the “Founding Fathers,” split apart into Hamiltonian (Federalist) and Jeffersonian (Republican) parties. As a leading Jeffersonian, Monroe was elected governor of Virginia; outside the state he was criticized by Hamiltonians as a French dupe, a Jacobin, and occasionally, a traitor. The election of 1800 was disputed between Jefferson and Aaron Burr and came down to a narrow vote in the House of Representatives. Many believed that Monroe and other middle state governors were prepared to arm their state militias and attempt to overthrow the government if Burr somehow won the election.

What makes Ashlawn-Highland a “Lewis & Clark” stop is, of course, Monroe’s next act, a critical role in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. As detailed in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (on sale now, click “Buy Now,” folks), Louisiana had been the pawn of France and Spain for decades, and a major impediment to the dreams of Americans like Jefferson who dreamed of westward expansion.

Around 1800, the master French diplomat Talleyrand became concerned about Spain’s weakness in North America. It was easy to see that the Americans were a rising people and would eventually overrun the Spanish territory, with or without their government’s consent. Talleyrand negotiated the cession of Louisiana back to France, though for the most part it continued to be administered by Spanish officials.

Liz touring the outbuildings of James Monroe's Ashlawn Highland

As president, Jefferson was trying to maintain cordial relations with both European powers, but the French takeover of Louisiana was a setback to say the least. It seems that Talleyrand and his boss, Napoleon, had big dreams for reestablishing a true French colonial presence in Louisiana. As Jefferson wrote to his minister to France, Robert Livingston, “There is on the globe one single spot, the possessor of which is our habitual and natural enemy. It is New Orleans, through which the produce of three-eighths of our territory must pass to market … France, placing herself in that door, assumes to us the attitude of defiance…” A inveterate hater of all things British, Jefferson began to reluctantly eye an alliance with Britain as the only way to ensure that U.S. commerce could travel freely on the seas … unless …

In 1802, Jefferson sent his old friend James Monroe to France with $2 million and an order to negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and “West Florida” (the present-day Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle) from the French. Even as Monroe was crossing the Atlantic, things were happening fast. The plans of Napoleon and Talleyrand had collapsed in the face of an unexpectedly bloody and costly uprising in Santo Domingo (Haiti). When Monroe arrived on the scene, he found the French leaders ready to smash it all for cash — not just New Orleans, but the entire Louisiana Territory, almost one million square miles of land.

Many historians believe that Napoleon and Talleyrand believed they could simply lift the Americans’ wallets, then take the territory away again by force when they got back on their feet. In any case, in a whirlwind succession of secret meetings, and without any authority whatsoever except their faith that Thomas Jefferson had their backs, Monroe and Livingston concluded the deal, purchasing Louisiana for a cool $15 million — surely one of the greatest real estate bargains in world history.

Statue of James Monroe at Ashlawn Highland

Historian John W. Foster wrote of the significance of the Louisiana Purchase this way: “It made the acquisition of Florida a necessity. It brought about the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, the thirst for more slave territory to preserve the balance of power, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery. It led to our Pacific Coast possessions, the construction of the transcontinental lines of railway and our marvelous Rocky Mountain development, the demand for the Isthmus Canal, the purchase of Alaska, the annexation of Hawaii … it fixed our destiny for world power.”

 Not bad for two weeks’ work in a long and storied political career. Thanks, James Monroe.

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Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, keeper of the French botanical gardens, was known for his theory of degeneracy. He also thought that the Earth was formed by the collision of a large body with the Sun and that it might be up to 75000 years old, rather than the 6000 year limit set by the Bible.

It is difficult to imagine now the depth of ignorance that European scientists possessed about the Americas back in Lewis & Clark’s day. The greatest and most influential naturalist of the 18th century, French scientist Georges Louis LeClerc, the comte of Buffon, published extensively on the New World and essentially trashed it. Buffon wrote that the New World had emerged much later from the biblical flood and was thus still in the process of drying out. It was possessed of an unhealthy climate and rife with underdeveloped animals that couldn’t hold a candle to the lions and elephants in the Old World. Worse still were the people, Buffon wrote. The Indians were hairless and cold-blooded, like reptiles, and possessed of tiny and weak genitals. And black people were becoming lighter, their African glory fading away from some mysterious environmental cause. (As Dave Barry used to say, I am not making this up.)

Considering that Buffon in his day had a reputation akin to that of Charles Darwin in a later era, these were devastating charges. Among educated Europeans, America essentially had a reputation as a degenerated land full of barbarous and debased people and animals. These notions filtered down to the man on the street as well: Hessian mercenaries who fought with the British in the American Revolution wrote home of their surprise to find their opponents to be white men not so different from themselves. Literary critics even blamed America’s climate for the continent’s alleged failure to produce a decent artist or writer.

In what has been called the most important American book written before 1800, America’s leading intellectual — Thomas Jefferson — took on Buffon and the European scientific establishment. First published in France in 1785, Notes on the State of Virginia would be the only book Jefferson ever wrote. He requested that one of the first copies off the press be delivered personally to Buffon.

Jefferson the surveyor overlooks the north grounds of the University of Virginia campus.

The first section of Notes is usually omitted from modern reprints, but Jefferson considered it to be the heart of his argument. Side by side in table after table, Jefferson compared the animals of the Old World and the New World by weight. In almost every instance the American animal was larger, in many cases astoundingly so. The American cow weighed in at 2500 pounds vs. 763 for a European heifer. The bear tipped the scales at 410 pounds vs. 153 for a European bear. And so on. Jefferson even estimated the weight of the extinct prehistoric mammoths being uncovered in the United States to counter Buffon’s jibe about the New World’s lack of elephants. Among those who helped Jefferson gather this data on American animals were Doctor Thomas Walker, explorer of the Cumberland Gap and relative of Meriwether Lewis, and George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Old Northwest and brother of William Clark.

Jefferson also refuted Buffon’s statements about the Indians who were, he wrote, “neither more defective in ardor nor more impotent with his female than the white.” Indians were “in body and mind the equal of the white man.” Indians were at an earlier stage of the civilization process, it was true, but that was not due to a lack of native genius; in fact, Jefferson could cite numerous instances in which Indians had assimilated, a process which was bound to continue as they became more familiar with “husbandry and the household arts.”

This folk art piece was created between 1790 and 1800 and is known as "The Old Plantation." Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.

Unfortunately, Jefferson decided to weigh in on the merits or lack thereof of the African-American race, and these statements hang over Notes of the State of Virginia today. His statements on the character and appearance of slaves are all the more tragic because of what we know to be his hypocrisy on the puzzlement as to just why those Africans were lightening up in the New World. In the interest of not letting Jefferson off the hook, a brief excerpt of his views on skin color:

And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The underlying tone of the narrative section of Jefferson’s Notes is confrontational. In it, Jefferson submitted questions designed to embarrass and expose the great Buffon for his pseudo-science. Who, Jefferson wanted to know, were the European travelers who had supplied the naturalist with his information? Where was the data about the animals they encountered? Could it be examined?

A primo New Hampshire moose

Shortly after the publication of Notes, Jefferson was named United States minister to France. Though Jefferson generally avoided personal confrontations, he courted one with Buffon, calling upon him to present him with the hide of an exceptionally large American panther. Jefferson repeated many of his questions to Buffon in person, finally telling him that the American moose was so large that a European reindeer could walk under its belly. Buffon called Jefferson’s challenge, telling the upstart Virginian that if he could produce moose antlers that corroborated his story, he would retract his statements about the degeneracy of New World animals.

Jefferson swung into action, bombarding his contacts back in the States with requests for moose and other American animals that would essentially bludgeon the smirk off Buffon’s face for good. Governor John Sullivan of New Hampshire was deputized to get the moose, but unfortunately bungled the job and ended up sending Jefferson a hodgepodge of several animals. However, Jefferson apparently wore Buffon down with his dogged pursuit of the truth. Reportedly, Buffon promised Jefferson to set the record straight on New World animals, but he died in 1788 before he had the chance to write further on the subject.

Jefferson and his proteges continued lifelong work on examining the creatures, geology, and native peoples of America. Some twenty-five years later, the naturalist Alexander Wilson, a close friend of Meriwether Lewis’s, was still excoriating Buffon. In his landmark nine-volume American Ornithology, Wilson calls special attention to Buffon as a man who committed countless errors “with equal eloquence and absurdity.”

More great reading: Notes on the State of Virginia (full text)
Thomas Jefferson’s Archaeological Dig

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As Black History Month draws to a close, it’s important to remember the long road blacks had to travel to emancipation. Nothing illustrates this better than the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Edward Coles, his young Virginia neighbor.

Thomas Jefferson by Sully, 1821

Thomas Jefferson by Sully, 1821

United States history owes Edward Coles a debt, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he was the man who brought about the reconciliation of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in the twilight of their lives. In 1811, Coles was serving as President James Madison’s private secretary when he visited John Adams in Massachusetts. Adams recalled his tense final meeting with Thomas Jefferson, his successor as President, after Adams’ bitter defeat. When Coles mentioned gently that Jefferson spoke of him with kindness, Adams blurted, “I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” Assured of Jefferson’s affection and respect, Adams put aside his bitterness and wrote Jefferson a letter. The correspondence between the two elder statesmen is a priceless record of their later lives, and a national treasure.

The second reason the U.S. owes Edward Coles a debt came later. In August 1814, Coles, still only 27, wrote Jefferson a letter. Coles was a slave owner but was deeply troubled about it. He wanted to free his slaves, but under Virginia law, the emancipated slaves would be required to leave the state after one year, with no money, property, rights, or prospects of making a living. To Coles, that was a bleak prospect.

He wrote to Jefferson to seek his help in “devising and getting into operation some plan for the great gradual emancipation of slavery.” Mentioning the “renowned Declaration of which you were the immortal author,” Coles suggested that Jefferson could use his influence to try to bring about more humane slavery laws in Virginia, up to and including outlawing slavery altogether. If such laws could not be brought about, Coles wrote, he might have to leave Virginia, taking his slaves with him.

Jefferson’s reply was revealing of his personality, his circumstances and his history. While drafting Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson condemned the British crown for the slave trade, saying King George III “has waged cruel war against human nature itself…captivating & carrying [blacks] into slavery.” Jefferson also condemned the King for “inciting American Negroes to rise in arms against their masters.” This language was dropped from the Declaration before passage, at the request of Southern delegates. In 1778, the Virginia legislature passed a bill Jefferson introduced to ban further importation of slaves into the state; he said it “stopped the increase of the evil by importation, leaving to future efforts its final eradication.”

Leisure and labor at Monticello

Leisure and labor at Monticello

The key word was “future.” In the present, Jefferson relied upon slave labor for making a living, and in his later years, that living was surprisingly modest. With his farms struggling and debt soaring, slaves were the biggest asset Thomas Jefferson owned next to his homes and land—and he simply could not afford to think about emancipating them. He may have shuddered in writing at the evils of the slave trade and the moral repugnance of slavery, but Jefferson’s hypocrisy on the topic is well known. He had done little to support the actual abolition of slavery.

In his reply to Coles, Jefferson was true to form. He praised Coles for his idealism, but held out little hope that change was possible anytime soon. Recalling past political battles in the Virginia House of Burgesses, Jefferson told Coles that anyone who proposed an end to slavery was “denounced as an enemy to his country, and was treated with the grossest indecorum.” The younger generation was no better. “Your solitary but welcome voice is the first which has brought this to my ear, and I have considered the general silence which prevails on this subject as indicating an apathy unfavorable to every hope.” He discouraged Coles from leaving Virginia, saying instead that Coles should simply treat his slaves well and wait for a better time.

Edward Coles

Edward Coles in later life

Coles was disappointed that Jefferson declined to support his cause, but he was not persuaded that waiting was the proper course. By April 1819, Coles had secured an appointment as  Register of the Illinois Land Office. He boarded his ten slaves onto flatboats and headed down the Ohio River, until they reached the new state of Illinois. There he purchased enough land to set his slaves up as farmers and free men.

Coles recalled the morning that he gathered his slaves around him and announced that they were now free to do as they pleased. “In breathless silence they stood before me, unable to utter a word, but with countenances beaming with expression which no words could convey, and which no language can now describe.” After helping Coles get his own farm started, virtually all of his former slaves settled near him, each man now working 160 acres of his own.

Talk of legalizing slavery in Illinois prompted Coles to declare himself a candidate for governor in 1822. Coles won a tight race, becoming the second governor of Illinois. He immediately challenged the state’s political elite to eliminate the Black Codes and the indenture laws that created de facto slavery. In 1824, the issue was put to a popular referendum, the first such vote in U.S. history. Coles’s leadership prevailed, and Illinois remained free.

To close, here are perhaps the most eloquent words ever written on why waiting for gradual emancipation and civil rights would never have worked. This was written on another April, almost 150 years later, from a Birmingham jail.

Martin Luther King in Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King, April 1963

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

Further reading:

Full text of Letter from Birmingham Jail
Biography of Governor Edward Coles

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Location: Ten miles south of Lynchburg, Virginia

Poplar Forest -- Thomas Jefferson's "other" home

Speak the name “Thomas Jefferson,” and it won’t be a minute before the subject of Monticello comes up. Jefferson’s magnificent mountaintop home in Charlottesville is an indelible reflection of the personality, character, and even the quirks of the third president of the United States. But what I didn’t know until recently is that Jefferson had a second home about sixty miles west of Monticello (about a three-day carriage trip in those days). Nestled along a winding mountain road south of present-day Lynchburg, Poplar Forest is where Jefferson spent the bulk of his retirement years, trying to evade his own celebrity and find time for peace, writing, and reflection.

Not surprisingly, Poplar Forest somewhat resembles a miniature version of Monticello, but the first insight into Jefferson can be found before you even catch a glimpse of the house: Jefferson really, REALLY didn’t want to be bothered out here. Even today, nestled in a quiet and semi-rural suburb, Poplar Forest can be reached only after trekking over a gravel road through a densely wooded area.

Campeachy chair at Poplar Forest. This back-saving style was Jefferson's favorite in old age; he bought several and had several others made by carpenter John Hemings (Sally Hemings' brother).

The history of the mansion is very interesting. Jefferson inherited the property on which Poplar Forest stands from his wife. As he aged, he found the siege of visitors at Monticello unbearable, and built the house here as a retirement home and retreat. From the time he left the White House in 1809 until he was about 80 and became too old to make the trip, Jefferson spent much of the year at Poplar Forest, accompanied by his books and his brainy granddaughters.

I really enjoyed learning about Jefferson’s granddaughters Ellen and Cornelia Randolph. Ellen was 17 and Cornelia 20 when Jefferson first began living at Poplar Forest in 1816. Jefferson was proud of their studious ways, calling them “the severest readers I have ever met with,” quite a compliment from one of the great minds of any age. The girls were well-versed in history, philosophy, literature, and the classics, but they were also witty and fun-loving, as their letters reveal. And they brought out the doting side of Jefferson as no one else ever did. I laughed out loud in recognition of my own father at the story that Jefferson loaded up the carriage with a variety of sweaters and cloaks for the girls, in case they encountered any bad weather.

Bust of Cornelia Randolph, by William Coffee (1819)

As with Monticello, the house at Poplar Forest was quirky and sui generis — which created a problem after Jefferson passed away. Jefferson’s grandson Francis Eppes considered the estate a white elephant and sold it just two years after Jefferson’s death. For the families that came after, it was a completely impractical residence, and attempts to remodel and convert the large rooms to a more conventional lifestyle only damaged the historic character of the home without really making it more livable. In 1984, the house was purchased by a non-profit. A complete and amazingly detailed exterior renovation was completed in 2009, and an interior restoration is currently underway.

As with Monticello, Jefferson monkeyed constantly with the house and the surrounding landscape, trying to apply various innovations and principles of design. For example, in one project, Jefferson had his slaves dig up the entire lawn to create a sloping effect. In a related project, they used the dirt to create an artificial hillside to “balance” an additional wing Jefferson had constructed on the other side of the house. The effort is lovely, I suppose, but for me it was difficult not to feel disgusted and aggravated with Jefferson’s self-indulgence and overspending, which left his family destitute after his death.

We were fortunate to visit Poplar Forest on the greatest of all Jeffersonian holidays: July Fourth. The expansive lawn was buzzing with musicians in period costumes, historical demonstrations, and booths peddling fun old-fashioned crafts. We cooled off with a great snow cone while listening to the ceremonial reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Poplar Forest is a fascinating Jefferson site, one that gives a fuller, more three-dimensional picture of the architect of westward expansion in his older years. It’s an architectural and cultural treasure, and I can’t wait to visit again in a few years to see the secrets of the interior restoration begin to reveal themselves.

For more reading: Great article on the restoration of Poplar Forest

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