Walking through Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and his family (both acknowledged and enslaved) is a powerful and thought-provoking experience. Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man, and his talents and the scope of his life are a little overwhelming to consider from a modern perspective. Pretty much everyone knows Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and that he was the 3rd President of the United States. Only one of which he took pride in, by the way. He is reported to have said the presidency was “the daily loss of friends” and did not even include it on his epitaph.
If you’ve got a nickel in your pocket, you know what Monticello looks like. It still looks like that, thanks in a large part not just to modern conservationists who have stewardship of the property, but to a Jewish man, US Navy Commodore Uriah Levy, who purchased the home in 1830, then in disrepair after Jefferson’s death. Levy was a Jew who directly credited Jefferson’s role in creating the Republic with allowing him to live a life “which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.” The Levy family held Monticello for more than 90 years, until it was transferred to the current trustees in 1923.
Almost 90 percent of the house is original, which is truly remarkable. What becomes immediately apparent, as you walk through, is that Jefferson’s statesmanship was not his greatest accomplishment. That’s kind of hard to comprehend. The Enlightenment created Jefferson, and to this day, we still benefit from his ingenuity. He believed “human reason and knowledge can improve the condition of mankind.”
He was the governor of Virginia, the vice-president of the US as well as the president. He was the ambassador to France. We have the Library of Congress because Jefferson donated his library to the Nation. When it was burned by the British in the War of 1812, he established it again. Jefferson was not an inventor himself, but he was a visionary, and what we would probably today call an Early Adaptor. He employed new technologies in his home and in his architecture, such as a cooktop with burners for his cooks he learned about in France, double-paned windows, harmonious ratios of natural light carefully worked out using the Golden Mean to proportion the rooms of his house, and innovative indoor sanitation. He was an architect of innovative usage, attention to detail, and tremendous craftsmanship. Everything from the drainage on the roof (still being studied by preservationists at UVA) to the mortise and tenons of the window panes were designed for not only efficiency, but for beauty. Jefferson doubled the size of the US through the Louisiana Purchase. He maintained friendships with Lewis and Clark, and collected accurate maps, soil, flora and fauna, fossils and relics of indigenous people. He studied topography, and had paintings of Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and John Locke in his parlor.
Jefferson was a prolific but very disciplined writer. He used a polygraph machine to copy all of his thousands of letters, leaving behind some of the clearest and most well documented historical, private and business papers in America. We have almost 19,000 papers written by Jefferson over his lifetime. He believed and stated educated citizens were essential to the survival of democracy.
The docents and stewards of Monticello don’t shy away from the fact Thomas Jefferson, a product of the Enlightenment, was also a slaveholder. Modern genetics and careful curation and compilation of documents and oral histories have established with near certainty that Jefferson did indeed have four children with Sally Hemings, a woman whom he literally owned. To modern sensibilities, this difficult to consider. The foundation is careful to attempt to accurately tell the names and stories to the enslaved workers who lived their lives, some for five generations, at Monticello. Nearly half of the enslaved people were of the Hemings family. In his will upon his death, he made provisions for some enslaved people to be freed. But only some. Jefferson allowed, unlike many, his enslaved workers to learn to read and he encouraged and enabled the study of trades and craftsmanship. As I said, it’s hard to reconcile.
The grounds are beautiful, even in the winter austerity. The family cemetery is a short walk from the house, past the slave quarters and down a gentle hill, holds the remains of the Jefferson family, decedents of the Levy family, and of the Hemings families. On Jefferson’s marker, he asked for only three things: Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. When it came down to brass tacks, that’s what mattered to him.
I’m kind of in love with Jefferson and I’m kind of conflicted at the same time. It’s a complicated love that I don’t entirely understand. How could one person achieve so much? The answer is also complicated, and involves owning other human beings, inheriting a tremendous start, and leaving his family with tremendous debt. People have devoted doctoral thesis to and not arrived at satisfactory answers about Jefferson. The truth is multi-facted and elusive, and probably impossible to nail down, but few would argue the fact that he had a powerful effect where he extended himself.. His ideas are still fueling our debates and the complexities of who we are as a Nation, and in which direction we should face for our future. That’s a legacy worth contemplation and study.