Monday, February 17, 2014


Have you ever seen pictures of a place or heard stories about it, and then when you got there is was just "meh"? That is not the case with Monticello, which lived up to and surpassed all of my expectations.

Thomas Jefferson began building Monticello in 1769 when he was just 26 years old. Originally a tobacco plantation farmed by slaves, it comprises 500 acres. Jefferson designed the 11,000-square-foot neoclassical home himself, and redesigned/rebuilt it many times over the next 40 years.

It helped that we had an articulate and extremely knowledgeable tour guide; in fact, he was one of the best guides we've ever had at a historical venue. I'm pretty sure he has read most of the books written about and by Jefferson. He sounded like a history professor, and his enthusiasm about his topic was contagious.

Jefferson is known as a creative inventor, so we were on the lookout for unique touches. Right away we noticed this compass on the porch ceiling (Do you see it in the photo above?) and learned that it is connected to the weather vane on the roof and indicates the direction of the wind. Family and guests don't have to have their hair messed up by unruly gusts to find out which way the wind is blowing.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any pictures inside Monticello--with the exception of  the room that forms the doom on the top of the house. (Honestly, I just don't get why flash-free pictures aren't allowed at historical places. Is it so they can sell more postcards and books in their gift shop?) The octagon was one of Jefferson's favorite architectural shapes, and he used it several times in Monticello. The Dome Room had sunshine-yellow walls, a grass-green painted floor, and an oculus in the ceiling:
This room has only been open to the public since 2010.
The attention to detail throughout Monticello is impressive:

These stairs just outside the Dome Room lead to one of Monticello's twelve skylights, and a nearby floor-level window must have delighted Jefferson's children and then his grandchildren:
And that, unfortunately, is the extent of our interior pictures of an amazing house. You'll have to take my word for it: Monticello does not disappoint.

I did buy the plaque below in the Monticello Gift Shop. It is a sentiment once expressed by Jefferson to John Adams, and it is borne out by Jefferson's very well-stocked library--which we could not take pictures of. 

With its pillared porch and symmetrical windows, the back of the house is almost identical to the front. In fact, Jefferson called the two entrances "the east front" and "the west front." The aforementioned octagonal dome room with its round windows is a distinguishing detail of the rear view (or is it the front view?), however, and it is this view of the house that most Americans think of as Monticello, probably because it is the one on the back of the nickel. 

The gardens of Monticello are almost as famous as the house itself, and there was not limit on photography outside, thank goodness. Historical records show that Jefferson grew as many as 105 different varieties of flowers. Even in October, the flowers were stunning:
The 1,000-foot-long garden terrace served as Jefferson's agricultural laboratory as well as a major source of food for his family and slaves. Jefferson was very involved the planning, researching, planting, and harvesting the 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits grown on the plantation.

Jefferson especially loved trees. He personally selected the trees to be grown near the house and oversaw their placement.

According to Jefferson's directions, he was buried at Monticello:

Before his death, Jefferson wrote the words on the obelisk, which he also designed.
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And father of the University of Virginia

I came away from Monticello even more intrigued by Jefferson than I had been before our visit. He was, along with Ben Franklin, the Renaissance Man of the Founding Fathers. Besides being a statesman, he was an inventor, a scientist, an architect, a farmer, an agronomist, a prolific reader and writer, a family man, and a philosopher. (I am sure there are more skills and interests I have missed.) As mentioned in my previous post, I have read Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, and after our trip I picked up his autobiography, a slim volume of less than 100 pages that cost just 99 cents for my iPad. Jefferson wrote this book as a retrospective at age 77. It is really a political autobiography rather than a personal one, covering the years between his birth in 1743 to just after the French Revolution in 1790, ending eleven years before his Presidency (1801-1809). Still, for general insight into the man and his times, it is a great read.

Some fun things I learned:
• Jefferson's father died with he was 14 years old, and his mother raised six daughters and two sons by herself.
• He began learning Latin at age 9, and then French shortly thereafter.
• He became a member of the Legislature in 1769 (age 26).
• He said of Patrick Henry's talents as an orator: "They were great indeed; such as I have never heard from any other man. He appeared to me to speak as Homer wrote." Later, however, he notes Henry was "the laziest man in reading I ever knew."
• He called for a colony-wide day of "fasting, humiliation, & prayer" in 1774 in an attempt to avert war.
• He did not believe freed slaves could live peaceably among the white population, and that they would have to be deported to Africa.
• He was living in France when the French Revolution began, and he believed Louis would have made the necessary adjustments to forestall revolution but for his gaudy, proud, disdainful, indignant, pleasure-seeking, gambling, dissipated, inflexibly perverse wife. (Jefferson and Marie were not great pals.)

Some of my favorite quotes:
• "That the question was not whether by a declaration of independance [sic] we should make ourselves what we are not; but whether we should declare a fact which already exists."
• "The pusillanimous idea that we had friends in England worth keeping terms with, still haunted the minds of many."
• He said James Madison had incredible poise and speaking habits: "Never wandering from his subject into vain declamation, but pursuing it closely in language pure, classical, and copious, soothing always the feelings of his adversaries by civilities and softness of expression . . . . With these consummate powers were united a pure and spotless virtue which no calumny has ever attempted to sully. Of the powers and polish of his pen, and of the wisdom of his administration in the highest office of the nation, I need say nothing. They have spoken, and will forever speak for themselves."
• "I thought it would be useful . . . to reform the style of the later British statutes, and of our own acts of assembly, which from their verbosity, their endless tautologies, their involutions of case within case, and parenthesis within parenthesis, and their multiplied efforts at certainty by saids  and aforesaids, by ors and ands, to make them more plain, do really render them more perplexed and incomprehensible, not only to common readers, but to the lawyers themselves."
• "Yet the day is not distant when [the public mind] must bear and adopt [emancipation], or worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free."
• On the death of his wife: "I had two months before that lost the cherished companion of my life, in whose affections, unabated on both sides, I had lived the last ten years in unchequered happiness."  (And that is all he wrote about her death.)
• "If the present Congress errs in too much talking, how can it be otherwise in a body to which the people send 150 lawyers, whose trade it is to question everything, yield nothing, & talk by the hour? That 150 lawyers should do business together ought not to be expected."
• "Were we directed from Washington when to sow, & when to reap, we should soon want bread."
• "I have ever believed that had there been no queen, there would have been no [French] revolution. . . . I should have shut the Queen in a convent, putting harm out of her power . . . ."
• On France: "A more benevolent people, I have never known, . . . the hospitality of Paris is beyond anything I had conceived to be practicable in a large city. . . . In what country on earth would you rather live? --Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest & sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France."

He spends a lot of time talking about:
• the importance of keeping the colonies united as one as a means of protection and avoiding civil war, and the need for mutual sacrifices
• slavery issues (He notes that he "brought in a bill" in 1778 to prevent their further importation, and that it "passed without opposition . . . leaving to future efforts [slavery's]  final eradication.")
• public education (He would hate Common Core.)
• raging, angry debates about what should be written into the Constitution

I am ready for broader information about Jefferson and have scouted out the book I plan to read about him next: Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.  The author, Jon Meacham, won the Pulitzer Prize for a previous biography of Andrew Jackson.  I have read and enjoyed his 2004 book Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, which I wrote about on a post about Yalta. Meacham's book on Jefferson was published in 2013.


  1. I listened to "The Art of Power" and enjoyed it a lot, although the book does not focus as much on Jefferson's personal life as I would have like. Jefferson is one of the most admirable historical figures. He certainly had a wide range of interests and talents.

    Boo Hiss to those places that ban picture taking!!!

  2. Monticello was a great visit. He was an incredible person.

  3. We had a lot of Jefferson in DC, as Dave was a "Jefferson fellow" for the Department of State. There's a private room on the 9th floor of the State Dept. building that has a lot of historical things related to Jefferson, as well as a lovely marble statue (and which I had Dave pose by). We never saw that octagonal room, as we were there before 2010. So you got one more room to take photos in than we did. I did love the house and the grounds--so beautiful.

  4. I've been to Monticello probably five times, and return every time I can convince my travelling companions to join me. I never tire of it. One of the great travel destinations.