Thursday, August 15: Monticello was the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who started building the estate when he inherited a large tract of land from his father at the age of 26. The plantation was originally 5,000 acres, with cultivation of tobacco and mixed crops by primarily slave labor.
Jefferson designed every aspect of Monticello, an icon of architecture and a World Heritage Site, constructing and modifying its buildings and landscape over 40 years.
Even though I’ve visited Monticello many times in my life, as I’m a native Virginian, it’s been many years since I’ve been here. Today, Sarah and I visit the plantation, first seeing a film about Thomas Jefferson and then taking a shuttle up to the mansion for a house tour.
I’m impressed by the 15-minute film because not only does it discuss Jefferson’s accomplishments, but it describes his angst over not being able to see a solution to the problem of slavery in the early American economy. His slave-holding directly contradicted his beliefs about equality among men, as espoused in the Declaration of Independence, which he authored. The film also discusses historians’ belief that Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves.
The claim that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, entered the public arena during Jefferson’s first term as president, and it has remained a subject of discussion and disagreement for two centuries. Based on documentary, scientific, statistical, and oral history evidence, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF) Research Committee Report on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings (January 2000) remains the most comprehensive analysis of this historical topic. Ten years later, TJF and most historians believe that, years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson’s records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison, and Eston Hemings (Monticello: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account).
I’m impressed that the Thomas Jefferson Foundation doesn’t try to gloss over the contradictions evident in Jefferson’s vision for mankind vs. the way he lived his private life. This admits to his fallibility, and his humanity.
The house tour is excellent, with the tour guide giving us a history of Jefferson’s involvement in Monticello, public affairs, horticulture, and family life. Sadly, we’re not allowed to take photos inside the house.
The house, which Jefferson designed, was based on neoclassical design as described in the books of the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. The house sits on the summit of an 850-foot (260 m) – high peak in the mountains south of the Rivanna Gap. Its Italian name translates as “little mount.”
Our guide tells us that Jefferson left explicit instructions regarding the monument to be erected over his grave. In an undated document, Jefferson supplied a sketch of the shape of the marker, and the epitaph with which he wanted it to be inscribed:
“…on the faces of the Obelisk the following inscription, & not a word more:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
Father of the University of Virginia
“because by these,” he explained, “as testimonials that I have lived, I wish most to be remembered.” (Monticello: Jefferson’s Gravestone)
The plantation at full operations included numerous outbuildings for specialized functions, a nailery, and quarters for domestic slaves along Mulberry Row near the house; gardens for flowers, produce, and Jefferson’s experiments in plant breeding; plus tobacco fields and mixed crops. Cabins for field slaves were located further from the mansion.
After leaving Monticello, Sarah and I head to Jefferson Vineyards, where we sit on the lawn in Adirondack chairs and drink glasses of Merlot before heading back into Charlottesville to have lunch at Revolutionary Soup.