I may have spoken too soon. The prior segment of this series dwelled upon how scratching the surface of almost any historical figure reveals them to be hopelessly human. Monticello, located in Charlottesville, Virginia, is likely the best known presidential home in America, with its architect and main inhabitant, Thomas Jefferson, likely the president most notorious for human weakness (until recently, anyway). So perhaps I should have saved the theme for this piece, but to err is human.
Most people are familiar with Jefferson’s relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, not to mention how perpetual consumerism left him perpetually mired in debt. There is no need to dig deep into Jefferson’s life to reveal the breadth of frailties, but the depth of his intelligence and drive to be productive certainly countered those shortcomings. Confirmation lies in the remarkable scope of Jefferson’s accomplishments: primary author of the Declaration of Independence; the driver of the Louisiana Purchase; sponsor of the Lewis & Clark expedition, and so much more.
Included with the “more” has to be constructing Monticello. Did I suggest this may be the best known presidential home? Monticello is the one and only presidential home making the esteemed list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Monticello is the one and only presidential home portrayed on US currency, appearing on the flip side of the United States nickel. It is a marvel to tour.
Astonishment begins upon arrival at the Visitor Center, a splendid facility that includes a theatre running a looping fifteen-minute introductory video, a gallery featuring displays devoted to Jefferson’s life and persona, and a discovery room featuring hands-on exhibits aimed at youngsters. Yes, there’s also a café and gift shop, as well as a counter to purchase tickets for guided tours. With ticket in hand, you may catch a complimentary shuttle bus immediately behind the Visitor Center. The buses are convenient to scoot up the hill, though I prefer the fifteen-minute walk to reach Monticello. Approaching the plantation house by foot takes you past the family cemetery where Jefferson is interred – his love of Monticello made evident by requesting to be buried here.
Creating Monticello was a lifelong pursuit. A stunning piece of property (Monticello is Italian for “little mountain”), Jefferson inherited the undeveloped land from his father before the Revolutionary War and would build and rebuild his home constantly across the next forty years. Most of the final renovations were accomplished during his two terms as president and these finishing touches were deeply influenced by his years in Paris serving as Minister to France.
With his penchant for art, science and recent discoveries, another facet of Monticello is the wild collection of curiosities Jefferson gathered. A substantial portion of original pieces have been returned and presented as they were during the days when Jefferson lived here. Even today the menagerie on display at Monticello leaves it feeling more like a museum than a home: I can only imagine the impression made by Monticello back in the day!
Jefferson’s obsession with technology is manifested by the numerous devices witnessed during your tour. Among the memorable is a mechanical contraption that allowed Jefferson to automatically copy his letters. Basically, an extended arm with another pen plugged in to reproduce your scribbles on a separate sheet of paper, the polygraph typified Jefferson’s fascination with life. Jefferson’s support of scientific advances was evinced by communication with the inventor: several enhancements suggested by Jefferson were subsequently incorporated into the polygraph. Jefferson is mainly credited for bettering innovations of others, but another treat at Monticello is the ‘magic doors’ in the parlour, apparently his own design. When one entrance is opened or closed, the other follows suit due to being linked by chains beneath the floor.
Similar to the way Jefferson must have laboured over where to apply his energies, your primary dilemma may be deciding which particular tour to select. Most opt for the basic tour (the Day Pass), though this potentially exposes you to the treatment found at Mount Vernon. At least Monticello provides a single guide throughout this tour and there is some opportunity to ask questions, but high tourist volume still relegates this to a rushed experience. Once I upgraded to the “Behind the Scenes” tour, which is more in-depth and gets you up to the second floor. Any tour you purchase entitles you to join the ‘Gardens and Grounds’ and/or ‘Slavery at Monticello’ presentations, which begin at scheduled times each day.
I felt “Behind the Scenes” was worth the additional charge (please note this needs to be purchased in advance). The group size was smaller and the pace more leisurely. Before proceeding to the next room, our guide never failed to pause for questions and make certain everyone was satisfied. Better yet was being able to witness the second floor, which includes access to Monticello’s dome, though I need to warn you about climbing the steps. Stairwells are exceeding narrow and steep – Jefferson’s practical nature eschewed broad staircases trendy at the time, in recognition of how much square footage they robbed from functional space – and our guide exclaimed: “I know I keep saying ‘hands-off’ everything, but please grab onto the railings when going up the steps!”
Once you have toured the interior, there are plenty of outbuildings to explore and this is an exceptionally lovely parcel. Jefferson was also a devoted agriculturist, an early recognizer of the value of crop rotation and strove to seek alternatives to tobacco as a cash crop for the new nation.
Sadly, slave quarters are among the other structures to visit. We are still venturing about Virginia, where every president was a slaveholder, and a common theme becomes apparent around this topic. The shameful practice is openly acknowledged, but every president is noted for treating slaves “better than most” as if a saving grace. Personally, the biggest disconnect I have with Jefferson, who owned around 200 slaves and fathered children by his ‘property’, is a rebuke to King George III appearing in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence:
He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery into another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation hither.
We all know these words never made it to the final document. We are all hopelessly human, but that is never a justification.
Given the knowledge base at the time, I am unable to condemn Jefferson’s views. Although some of this president’s actions seemed unplugged from reason, that is only obvious in hindsight and I believe Jefferson edged society in the right direction. As a traveller, I reaped a bounty by enjoying the beauty of Monticello and learning more about an exceptional life. I can only pass along a recommendation for you to savour a similar experience while stressing how vital it is to view travels through a modern prism and synthesize the lessons to help yourself grow.