Monticello is one of the most famous homes in America. It is a place I certainly did not want to miss on our travels. One of the reasons I wanted to stay in the Charlottesville, Virginia area was to be able to visit Thomas Jefferson’s home. Of course, there are many other things of interest to see in this area including the homes of other former presidents. Monticello though stands out, as well as Thomas Jefferson and his many accomplishments for our country.
Thomas Jefferson spent many of his years in public life – he wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as a delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and Congress, was governor of Virginia, minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President and President for two terms. During his presidency he arranged the Louisiana Purchase which doubled the size of the United States and he also authorized the Lewis and Clark Expedition which explored a passage to the northwest. Just thinking about all his achievements is mind boggling! He was also an author, scientist, architect, horticulturist and inventor, to name some of his passions. He also founded and designed the University of Virginia. The saying of Jefferson below, sums up to me how he felt about learning and exploring.
Monticello became Jefferson’s “experiment” – a place where he could try new ideas. He was never so happy as when he was at his home. When his two presidential terms ended in 1809, he retired to Monticello, a 5,000 acre plantation and lived there until his death. Jefferson was the architect for his home and he worked to improve the house and grounds for 40 years. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located on a high hill there are wondrous views all around of the countryside that he loved. During our tour of his home, one of the visitors asked the docent if Jefferson was bothered by the public trying to come see him uninvited after he retired from the presidency. At the time, Monticello was accessed by a long winding dirt road uphill and our docent replied that not too many people were interested in trying to make the long trek up the mountain. Today there is a shuttle that takes visitors from the visitor center to the top of the hill.
The tour inside the home was interesting with many original furnishings and belongings of Jefferson as well as impressive architectural details. We were able to see a few of the things he invented, for example, his “copy machine.” As he wrote, a second pen moved the same way on another page, copying the writing. Another invention was his revolving book stand, a turntable with five adjustable stands that could be swiveled so the books would face the reader. The stand could also be folded down into a cube. Jefferson was an avid reader and had many books. Since he had such a large collection, he offered to sell his over 6,000 books to Congress in 1815, after the British burned the Capitol and Library of Congress during the War of 1812. Many of his books were destroyed after a fire in 1851 but some still remain. Mark and I were able to see his books at a Library of Congress temporary exhibit in Washington D.C. some years ago and we were very impressed.
After living in France, Jefferson developed a love for French cooking. He brought back copper cookware, French recipes and fine wines. He made sure his enslaved cooks learned how to make French foods and helped to introduce French cooking to the American diet. Near the home is a reconstructed kitchen with period cookware, hearth and stove.
Jefferson was an avid gardener or farmer and had a huge garden maintained today in the same area with similar plants. Jefferson used to like to sit in the Garden Pavilion building and read. In addition, he had many fruit trees and attempted a vineyard for wine production. Above is a picture of part of his 1,000 foot long terrace garden where he experimented with 70 different species of vegetables. His favorite vegetable was reported to be peas. Jefferson was a thorough record keeper and on our guided walk we were shown laminated copies of a few of the records he kept. He wrote down what he planted and whether or not the plants succeeded or were a fail. Below is a picture of one of his lists. It was interesting to see what plants were a failure, such as carrots, cabbage and okra.
The lawn area in front of the house was ringed with tulip beds of many different colors and varieties. There are 7,000 tulip bulbs planted here each year for spring bloom. I learned that during Jefferson’s time, bulbs were expensive so he did not have the lavish displays as are seen now. In addition, the tulip plants and flowers were much smaller. Among the beds were tulips of the same variety he would have planted and they looked stunted in size.
Jefferson had a number of slaves that lived on the property. When he wrote the Declaration of Independence, he declared that all men were created equal and had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet he owned 600 people throughout his lifetime and at the time of his death, willed that only five should be freed. This is a paradox that can be difficult to understand and appeared to be something he was unable to rise above or do anything about. Slavery was an issue he believed would have to be solved by a future generation.
Jefferson was buried at Monticello and his gravesite along with other family members can be viewed at the bottom of the hill from his home. He only wanted to be remembered for three things and these are inscribed on his tomb stone: 1) Author of the Declaration of Independence, 2) Author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and 3) Father of the University of Virginia. It was amazing to me that serving as president for two terms was not something he wanted to be remembered for.
Another amazing discovery for me was that three of the founding fathers died on July 4, Independence Day: Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same day. They died 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. James Monroe, another founding father and fifth president also passed on this date five years later.
Thanks for reading! In the next post we explore Skyline Drive in the Blue Ridge Mountains.