Karen, the tour guide for the 9:15 AM group visiting Monticello called Thomas Jefferson a complex man – over and over and over again. She did this mostly because the man responsible for one of the most magnificent pieces of human writing, the Declaration of Independence, built his beloved home on top of Monticello mountain on the backs of “enslaved workers.” That was another term Karen used over and over and over again – enslaved workers, not slaves.
It was incredible to walk on the same grounds as our nations third president. Jefferson called Monticello his “essay in architecture.” It took forty years to build. He started when he was 25 years old and when he completed his public life around age 65, he occupied the home full-time. I’m sure I don’t have all of this exactly correct but this is what I recall from today’s tour.
There is a shuttle that takes you up to the house. I rode up and walked down. There are about 25 folks in each group. My tour group was pretty tame. Mac took the afternoon shift and went up for the 2:15 PM tour. It got up to 99F in Charlottesville today. Hot.
No pictures inside the house. I was able to capture a couple of shots from the outside looking in…as close as I could get to anything.
Jefferson was quite a guy, a complex guy. He had souvenirs in the front entrance from the Lewis and Clark expedition. His heroes were John Locke, Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton. He was the founder of the University of Virginia. He wrote The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a forerunner to our first amendment for religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. He sold his first library to the Library of Congress soon realizing, “I cannot live without books” in a letter he wrote to John Adams and began his second collection.
In 2012, the Smithsonian Institution and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation held a major exhibit at the National Museum of American History titled: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: The Paradox of Liberty. In essence, I came away from Monticello believing Jefferson is indeed a paradox. Not the best businessman, but a visionary, a radical, the man who grew our country via the Louisiana Purchase and who believed “that all men are created equal” but one who did not have “any immediate solution to the problem” of slavery.
The contrasts in the man are evident in the Jefferson and African-American cemeteries:
They are evident in the abodes of owner and owned:
The work got done in the cellars of Monticello, in long hallways where enslaved workers walked and produced. I touched a wall and wondered what sounds had echoed there over two hundred years ago.
Jefferson’s gardens were a masterpiece. In 1854, Jefferson wrote:
I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been on a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden. No occupation is so delightful as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.
The gardens were my favorite space on the grounds.
In the middle of the garden is a small structure where I imagine Jefferson went to consider life. I’m sure his worries about family, money, politics, education, religion and even the weather match some of the concerns of twenty-first century life. The more things change…
I’ve wanted to see this landmark for a long time and not sure why. I’m fascinated by people who think and who dream, by people who create. I’m grateful for those who carved out my freedom and I’m saddened by the enslavement of any human being. Finally, I realize that each one of us is a melding of our best and worst selves. It’s a daily struggle.
As I walked down the mountain, I landed back at the shuttle stand where the statue of Jefferson greets each new guest. A young lady named Emily asked if I wanted a picture with Jefferson as she witnessed my ‘selfie struggle’. I said sure and then I said, “…but I have mixed feelings about this guy” as I put my hand in his cast iron hand. She said that was a good way to put it and she shared my feelings.
Tom was a complex guy but he got one thing very, very correct – equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Tie that up with a bow made of loving God, neighbor, our enemies, and self, and I think I have the makings of a mini-declaration. A trip to Monticello prompts one to think about these things. It was a good day.