Archive for the ‘Virginia’ Category

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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Colonel George Hancock

Colonel George Hancock

In March 1807, William Clark confided to Meriwether Lewis that he had asked for the hand of young Julia Hancock in marriage. “I have made an attacked most vigorously, we have come to terms, and a delivery is to be made first of January,” Clark wrote proudly. He expressed surprise that his future father-in-law, Colonel George Hancock, had turned out to have anti-Jeffersonian political leanings. Clark wrote that Hancock was “a Fed which I did not know untill the other day. I took him to be a good plain republican.”

Perhaps Clark shouldn’t have been surprised about Hancock being a Federalist, as Hancock came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the country. His father, also named George Hancock, owned large possessions in the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Accompanied by a large number of slaves, the elder George Hancock fled South Carolina during the early days of the Revolution, when the British took possession of the seacoast. Ill with gout, the old man faltered and died on the road.

Count Kasimir Pulaski falls at the siege of Savannah, 1779

Count Kasimir Pulaski falls at the siege of Savannah, 1779

Young George Hancock entered the Revolutionary Was as an ensign from Chesterfield County, Va., in 1776, at the age of 22. He served on the staff of Count Kasimir Pulaski and was said to have been one of the officers who caught Pulaski’s body in his arms when the count fell mortally wounded from his horse during the siege of Savannah in October 1779. Captured by the British, Hancock survived the war, went home to Virginia, married a wealthy young lady, and became a successful lawyer. Together he and his wife had five children. One biographical sketch of Hancock says that he “had a splendid presence, being six feet three inches in height, and possessed much of the personal beauty that distinguished his daughters as among the most beautiful women in Virginia.”

Fotheringay in Botetourt County, VA

Fotheringay in Botetourt County, VA

Hancock was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates from 1784 – 1792 and represented Botetourt County as a federalist member of the Third and Fourth United States Congress. He received his title as “colonel” in 1785 by appointment to the Virginia militia. Hancock was also a highly successful planter. He owned at least two beautiful houses on fine estates. One was “Santillane” in Fincastle, where William Clark first met Hancock’s 11-year old daughter Julia, who would later become the first Mrs. Clark. The other home was “Fotheringay” in Botetourt County. Fotheringay took its name from the castle in England where the imprisonment, trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, took place. Fotheringay was also home to a number of slaves, and Hancock was known as a strict slave-master.

Fotheringay and Colonel Hancock are at the center of one of the most bizarre burial stories in Virginia history. According to tradition, following his death in 1820, Hancock was interred in the family tomb on a mountainside at Fotheringay either standing or sitting in a marble chair.

In 1886, a member of a subsequent family who owned the estate, a Miss Anne Beale Edmundson, went into the vault in 1886 in preparation to having it repaired and to investigate whether or not Hancock was, indeed, “buried standing up.” According to a 1935 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, this is what she found: “On the floor a mass of crumbled bones and stones were found. Near the top of the heap was the skull of what she supposed was the last of the earthly remains of Colonel Hancock. At the bottom of the pile were other bones identified as the legs and trunk. The position of the bones and the fact that they were intermingled with the disintegrated stone led to the belief that the body had rested upon some kind of support in a sitting position.”

George Hancock's tomb at Fotheringay

George Hancock's tomb at Fotheringay

In an interview, Miss Edmundson reported:

I can hardly believe he was placed in the vault in a standing position. If that were true, it would have been necessary to support his body with a chain or some other device to prevent it from falling down. When I examined the interior of the vault I found no chain nor other supports which could have been used for this purpose.

The theory as to Colonel Hancock’s burial in a sitting position is further substantiated by the fact that the tomb contains three other bodies, all laid to rest in the usual way. These are his daughter, Julia, who married General William Clark, brother of George Rogers Clark, conqueror of the Northwest Territory; a son, John Strother Hancock, who died at the age of 8, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Patrick Lockhart, who was the former Mrs. George Strother, mother of Margaret Strother, wife of Colonel Hancock. When I entered the vault I found the bones of all three of these bodies intact in their niches in the walls of the tomb. If Colonel Hancock had not been buried in an unusual way, why didn’t his bones occupy a niche in the wall like the others?

According to tradition, the colonel wished to be buried sitting up so he could look down into the valley (dubbed with the misnomer “Happy Valley”) and make sure his slaves were hard at work. Which pretty much tells you all you need to know about the kind of guy Colonel Hancock was—definitely not a man who would subscribe to a crazy notion like “all men are created equal.”

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Location: Charlottesville, Virginia

Monticello with the fish pond in the foreground. Jefferson began work on this house when he was 25 years old, and completed most of the construction by the time he left the White House forty years later.

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.

Monticello entrance hall

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.

Mary on the terrace at Monticello, where Jefferson experimented with new trees.

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.

"Virginia Luxuries," by an unknown artist, around 1800. Courtesy Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.

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.

Saving Monticello, by Marc Leepson (2001) is a great book about what happened to the house after Jefferson's death

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.

We took the shuttle back down the mountain and had a good picnic lunch from a little snack stand, then returned to the top to spend a little more time hanging out, shopping, and finally taking a walk to Jefferson’s grave, situated in a still-active family graveyard. Jefferson’s grave is famous for its inscription, which he wrote himself:





BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

Thomas Jefferson's grave at Monticello

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.

Tons more great reading at the Monticello website

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