Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Jefferson's Monticello

I was visiting Virginia properly for the first time so it was impossible not to consider visiting the famous home of the third President of the United States.

The approaches to the little house on the little hill are shrouded by trees and everything is perfectly manicured, down to and including the charming wooden visitor's center at the bottom of the hill on which is located Thomas Jefferson's home.

Monticello in Italian actually means 'little hill' and was planned by Jefferson over forty years and built for his retirement by an assortment of slaves, free men and temporary craftsmen.

Jefferson has been described variously as brilliant, inscrutable, a genius and an enigma. Every modern American has an opinion about the Virginia farmer, as he described himself in the national census of 1810, and all Americans with opinions like to sign the 33 year old author of the Declaration of Independence up to their various causes. I came up with a few opinions of my own after my first brief visit to his home on the little hill.

Most people take the shuttle up the hill and the intrepid few walk back down. We stormed up the hill on foot, warned at some great length by the guides that we could only tour the home if we made our tour group at the time allotted. We zoomed up the hill like G.I.s at Monte Cassino, only faster, while meeting satisfied groups stumbling down to the shuttle stop.

Monticello has tremendous views across the Rivanna River Valley, and one can easily understand why Jefferson wanted to create his retreat here. He was a farmer in his own mind, all his life, whether he was serving as the First Secretary of State, as the Ambassador to France or as the nation's third President. He grew lots of stuff at Monticello with his 200 slaves.

We arrived in the midst of the Spring abundance and tacked ourselves accidentally onto the 4:20 tour such was our fear of missing the inflexible deadline...but we were booted off and went to buy some heirloom seeds from the gift shop, a legacy of Jefferson's mad desire to expand the stock of plants in the New World, in direct contradiction of Monsanto's evil genius in modern rimes of patenting genetic modifications and depriving farmers of crop varieties.

Our guide was funny and well informed and imparted his knowledge in a very approachable way, sucking us all into the story of Jefferson's daily life in his home. Immediately he discussed the famous controversy concerning Jefferson's affair with his black slave Sally Hemings and the children they had. In it's literature the Jefferson Foundation acknowledges the DNA evidence and thus essentially the controversy is no more, it is a fact.

Much is also made of Jefferson's sentiments about the equality of all men (sic) and his decision to keep and use his slaves. It is clear to me after visiting Monticello that Jefferson must have been a granite firm pragmatist. No way he could have operated the four farms without unpaid labor. As it is he died penniless as public service was not a paying proposition in those days and ex-Presidents had yet to be awarded lifetime pensions.

We took one last look at the exterior built in the Italian style which Jefferson learned from his extensive reading as he never visited Italy. He also had a number of clocks, one outside on each end of the house rare enough in this days and many ornate time pieces indoors including one that told the day of the week. Indoor photos are not permitted so I have included the link to the foundation's website below:

Monticello House And Gardens

It a was pointed out to me that the house is smaller in reality than it appears to be in the collective imagination, even though it includes upstairs bedrooms and a number of rather oddly laid out rooms downstairs, one room opening into the next in an oddly open layout. The are also store rooms, kitchens and cellars attached to the house in semi submerged wings stretching each side of the main formal garden.

The other thing that is abundantly clear from a quick visit to Monticello's interior is that Jefferson prided himself on his accomplishments with displays of artifacts from scientific discoveries including the opening up of the West. Nowhere does one see any religious content in the house, no symbols no chapel no reference. Indeed the portraits of Jefferson's heroes in the common rooms point directly at his scientific bent. There is no chapel or space devoted to religion in the home

In our modern society's schism over the separation of church and state and the demands of modern religious that things go better for all of us with prayer I find it astonishing that Jefferson's name is invoked. He and James Madison worked to write and pass a law rarely mentioned today but inscribed on Jeffersons's tomb (see below) as one his greatest achievements, that of separating Virginia's constitution from it's colonial basis which held the Church of England as the sole official religion of the Commonwealth. That Jefferson believed in the total separation of Church and State could not be more obvious, but confusing modern preachers with facts gets one nowhere. But there are the facts.

Jefferson cultivated a huge vegetable garden still visible today and still cultivated to preserve his heritage seeds. The roadway was lined with Mulberry trees and various cottages to house slaves and white workers, including smiths and carpenters.

The vegetable garden sat on a terrace above an orchard and nought he tried hard Jefferson failed t grow grapes in an effort to emulate his favorite French wines. For all that he was American Jefferson greatly admired European civilization.

After eight years as America's third president Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1809 and dismissed his white workers, presumably for lack of funds and dedicated himself to farming.

Much has been made of Jeffersons's death 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence but on his monument he wanted to be remembered for three things. Including his determination in retirement t create the University of Virginia. A loud thunderclap in support of public education, another no-no for modern know nothings.

I suppose if original intent meant anything at all in the modern world we'd see a very different, more substantive debate going on in the presidential election underway. as it is everyone claims Jefferson as spokesman for their cause no matter what he wrote in granite about himself.

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