Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

[SIDEBAR: This is a little bit of American history, but there is some relation to the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France beginning in 1784, exactly during the time of the Affair. He approved of the French Revolution, even after it turned bloody. He said that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing”.]


The west front of Monticello.

Monticello (a national landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site) is the home that Thomas Jefferson built for himself outside Charlottesville, Virginia. It sits atop a small mountain (“Monticello” means “little mountain”, of course). It’s a remarkable place because of its history, its idiosyncrasies, the man who built it, and for its beauty. The reason Jefferson chose the site was its spectacular views of the mountains for miles around. It remains an alluring place today for many of the same reasons Jefferson chose–and largely because of the history encapsulated here.

The house is a perfect reflection of the man who built it: progressive, idiosyncratic, a font of knowledge, contradictory, and a little baffling.

In many of its little conveniences–curiosities, really–the house was ahead of its time. There were dumbwaiters for wine, skylights in many rooms, and the first dome ever built on a house in the United States. Of course, being ahead of your time comes with risks. The skylights leaked and the room beneath the dome was never used for much. Luckily, the dumbwaiter seems to have worked as planned. Jefferson the man was equally ahead of his time in his ideas, ideas that he apparently had trouble putting successfully into practice. He had faith in democracy and equality, yet he owned slaves. It’s one thing to say “all men are created equal” and much another to act upon those words when one’s own livelihood is at stake.


Jefferson’s little foibles show in his design of the house: he didn’t like stairs, so there is no sweeping stairway in the entrance hall. In fact, the stairs are tucked away in the center of the house and are frighteningly narrow and steep. Likewise, Jefferson apparently caught on to the fad for alcove beds while living in France. His own bed is an alcove bed that opens on one side to his “bedroom” and on the other to his “cabinet”. At the foot of his bed was a clock. When it was light enough for him to see the hands on its face, Jefferson woke. This was all good and well for Jefferson, but really alcove bedding is a bad choice in the sticky summers of Virginia. His poor family and guests could only endure. Likewise, they simply had to endure the narrow stairs leading upstairs (Jefferson lived on the ground floor–the narrow stairways never bothered him). The fact

The gardens and the view.

The gardens and the view.

that the house was almost perpetually under construction during Jefferson’s lifetime is indicative of his continuous drive to bring the world around him into line with his own vision–a vision that he doesn’t seem to have ever quite achieved either in his house or in the nation beyond (the United States isn’t, after all, the agrarian republic he envisioned, and it would take nearly 150 following his death for real equality to be achieved).

Because it was built particularly to serve Jefferson’s oddities, Monticello is absolutely unlike any other house of the time and tells us a lot about the man himself. These oddities may not make sense to us, but the house wasn’t built for us. It’s easy to be baffled by the choices Jefferson made. I, for one, just shook my head and chalked it up to Jefferson’s eccentricities, which I admit are pretty endearing to me.

After returning from Monticello, I started thinking of all the historic houses I’ve visited. In particular, I thought of Mount Vernon. They’re from the same time period, but it’s obvious how they’re owners shaped them. Monticello is brilliant but scattered and a bit haphazard. Mount Vernon is elegantly simple, unassuming and sensible.

A Working Laboratory


Grape vines in the vineyard.

John F. Kennedy once said to a group of Nobel prize winners that they were the greatest collection of brainpower the White House had ever seen–except, perhaps, for when Jefferson dined alone. Jefferson never tired of learning and experimenting. He was an avid amateur scientist, botanist, tinkerer, and thinker. His “cabinet” (a small room) is filled with his scientific instruments (a telescope and “polygraph”, for instance). He kept a large garden in which he experimented with many native and non-native varieties of vegetables, fruits, and trees. He wrote copious notes on everything he did, from which we can reconstruct both the weather and the particulars of 18th century horticulture. Jefferson, for example, was an early adopter of tomatoes, which previously were thought to be poisonous. Part of the pleasure of gardening for him was, no doubt, the discovery of what grew well, when, and in what conditions. The “book room” once held thousands of volumes, most of which were sold to the US government to become the nucleus of the Library of Congress. In his greenhouse, there was apparently a workbench where he would work on small projects. He never grew tired of discovering more about the world around him.

Obvious Contradictions

Of course, the major contradiction in Jefferson’s life as well as at Monticello is slavery. It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Jefferson declared that all men are created equal and yet owned hundreds of slaves throughout his life. The cognitive dissonance required for him to live his life this way must have been immense. There are other contradictions, though: in spite of the fact that Jefferson was building his dream home, it was never done, and in spite of the fact that he built the place in part to make a display of his stature in society, he was chronically  in debt. In fact, most of his belongings and, sadly, many of the enslaved people on the plantation were sold off to satisfy his debts when he died. And, while he was constantly working on the place, he never quite reached an endpoint.

A quote of Jefferson's referring to slavery. It hangs on my "plot wall".

A quote of Jefferson’s referring to slavery. It hangs on my “plot wall”.

Some people find Jefferson’s obvious contradictions confusing and off-putting. I think it’s a symptom of a restless mind that reached beyond the moral failing of a fallible human; basically, he could envision a more perfect version of himself, his home, and his nation but didn’t have the moral strength himself to really see it through. If he had, he might have made a stand against slavery. And if he had done that, it may have set an important example for all slave-holders. His stand might have sounded the death knell for the institution of slavery and saved this nation a terrible, bloody civil war. However, as he said, slavery was like holding a wolf by the ears: you don’t like it, but you can’t safely let go. And yet, Jefferson knew that slavery was an invasive cancer. He knew the Union was in danger from fracturing. “Like a fire bell in the night,” he said, the fear of disunion “awakened and filled [him] with terror”.

It’s interesting that he knew what was coming and yet still couldn’t bring himself to act. It’s more than a little the actions of an addict. This attitude was endemic to slaveholders in the South and only became worse. The cognitive dissonance deepened and the need to justify the unjustifiable grew more desperate. The rhetoric became commensurately more shrill as the perceived threat to the Institution became greater. It became so bad that Southerners–unlike Jefferson–began to profess that slavery was a positive good for slaves and slave holders alike. The contradictions are obvious only to us from the space of two hundred years. I think Jefferson understood his own limitations; others who followed him did not understand theirs.

But those are generalities. What is Monticello like?

Visiting Monticello

These days, when you arrive at the site, you park a little way down the mountain at a lovely visitor’s center. The visitor’s center is a brick plaza with a museum, a shop, an activity center, a theater for an introductory video, and a cafe. There’s a lovely central lily pond with a fountain and a trellis overhead. It’s a pretty introduction to the site. Going up a broad flight of brick steps, you come to the shuttle bus stop. A statue of Jefferson stands there, looking thoughtful and fairly pleased with himself. This is Jefferson after his retirement from the presidency, when he returned to Monticello for good (he remained there for about seventeen years and died there on July 4, 1826). The shuttle takes the guests up the final bit of mountain. You can walk a three-quarter-mile path through the woods, but I decided to save my energy for other things.

The east front.

The east front.

The shuttle lets you off near the east front of the house, which is NOT on the nickel. Jefferson, among other things, didn’t believe that buildings should have a “front” and “back”. So this is the “east front”. Tours inside the house are timed and guided, so I headed off to explore the grounds before my tour began.

The house is flanked by two L-shaped wooden patios that serve as the roof for the service wings below. The patios are at the level of the mansion’s ground floor, and can be accessed from the house by double doors. The “dependencies” beneath are sunk into the hill. At the end of each of patio is a small pavilion, about twelve-by-twelve feet. One pavilion served as an office. Another served as temporary housing for Jefferson and his wife while the house was under construction. It later was used for 20140621_105541parties. The views from these broad walkways and the pavilions are beautiful. Taken together, the plan is a broad u shape, with the mansion at the bottom of the u and the pavilions at each tip.

The dependencies I mentioned stretch beneath the entire length of each patio and underneath the house itself. There are kitchens, an ice house, stalls for horses, more wine cellars than any house but Jefferson’s would ever have need of, a pantry for Jefferson’s expensive imported foods, and privies. This was the domain of the slaves. Jefferson’s wife and then daughter, who ran his household, would have descended here to direct operations, but Jefferson himself would have only rarely visited the place.

Beyond the house is an avenue known as Mulberry Row. This was where many slaves lived and worked. There was a nailery and a smithy here as well as slave residences (rough huts, really). There is a guided talk of about an hour long here, and it is very informative. There has been extensive archaeological digging here along Mulberry Row, turning up valuable information about the life of the slaves at Monticello.

If you walk along Mulberry Row and turn back, you can see the familiar west front of the building, the one of the nickel. Here to the west of the house, there is a fish pond, a law, groves of carefully-planted trees, and paths lined by flowers. South of the house and just down the hill from Mulberry Row are the gardens. As stated, Jefferson was an avid gardener. The gardens have been largely restored to something that would have been familiar to Jefferson. Today, they are still growing and experimenting with various plants and trees. There is also a vineyard and orchard along the slope. On the hazy, humid summer day I was there, the plants were bursting with life and the mountains served as a misty, mystical backdrop. It’s a beautiful place to grow your broccoli.

Jefferson's tombstone.

Jefferson’s tombstone.

I continued away from the house to the west, and came to Jefferson’s grave. His tombstone tells us he was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, and the founder of the University of Virginia. Those were the things he was most proud of.

Having seen most of what the grounds and dependencies had to offer, it was finally time to enter the house itself.

The tour begins at the main entrance on the east side of the house. As mentioned, the entrance hall does not have a staircase. Instead, Jefferson’s guests were greeted by artifacts/curiosities sent to him by explorers like Lewis and Clark and by gifts from Native American tribes conducting negotiations with the US government. Most of these are now gone, though replacements fill the void. The next room is the square sitting room, which, unusually for this place, is a fairly standard room for things like writing letters or teaching children. Beyond is the book room, which was once crammed with literally thousands of books (this room is less standard for the day and age). The book room looks out onto the greenhouse, another Jefferson peculiarity. The next room is the cabinet, filled with Jefferson’s scientific instruments. Next comes the bedroom with its lofty skylight and alcove bed, and then we come to the parlor. Today, portraits of friends and luminaries hang on the wall: Francis Bacon, George Washington, John Adams, and so on. In Jefferson’s day, the walls were absolutely crammed with portraits. The space not taken up by paintings is taken up by two sets of glass doors. In one direction, the doors open out onto the west lawn. In the other direction, the parlor opens onto the entrance hall by way of double glass doors that close–like magic!–with just the touch of a finger.

Beside the parlor is the dining room and the connected tea room. The dining room is painted a shocking–but to me pleasing–yellow. The tea room is a glass-lined room; basically, it’s a solarium or conservatory.

Down a narrow passage, you get a sight of the narrow stairs and the double-sided cabinet used to send dishes to the dining room. You then arrive at Mr. Madison’s room. James Madison, who followed Jefferson as president, was a good friend and stayed so often in this room that it is named after him. There’s another alcove bed here, but unlike the one in Jefferson’s room, only one side is open. The other three sides of the bed are enclosed.

From here, the tour takes you out onto the north terrace, where Jefferson used a telescope to oversee the building of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia below.

Monticello is an unusual place, and not somewhere I would be comfortable living. I was charmed by the views and its idiosyncrasies, but I was only there for a few hours. The mansion was, of course, very particular to Jefferson, so my predilections are immaterial. It was his world and his house, and everyone else was just living in it. You have to admire how much of himself he put into the house–and it is a treasure for all generations.

So, if you ever get a chance, go see Monticello. It’s more than worth the price of admission.

Statue of Jefferson at the visitor's center.

Statue of Jefferson at the visitor’s center.