The third president is a favorite of mine. What’s not to love? He wrote the Declaration of Independence, helped start a university, served as the first Secretary of State, was ambassador to France. The guy spoke and read six languages. And he’s famous for his passionate affair with literature. He said, “I cannot live without books.” He loved new inventions and considered himself a farmer. Plus he was tall and you know how I go for the tall ones.
He also owned 600 people and fathered children with one of them—maybe because they loved each other? Maybe because he was her master and just raped her when he felt like it? No one knows and Jefferson, who kept impeccable records about everything under the sun doesn’t tell us squat.
So we visited Monticello (Italian for ‘little mountain’) and tried to grasp what made this man tick. He wrote “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Yet when one of his slaves escaped, he hunted him down, had him publically whipped and then sold him into the deep south, far from his family, absolutely never to be heard from again.
He also housed his enslaved people in individual houses by family instead of dorm-style as was easier, less expensive and common in Virginia at the time. He encouraged them to hunt, fish and grow crops on their own so they could make money for themselves.
Upon his death, he freed a handful of very loyal slaves but did not think to free their spouses and children.
He wrote “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.”
I mean, come on TJ, make up your mind. Heroes aren’t perfect but if Jefferson considered Ben Franklin (an abolitionist in his later years) to be the most brilliant man of their time (and he did), why didn’t Tom see the hypocrisy and folly of his ways? I’ll tell you why. He was accustomed to a certain way of living and that lifestyle was built on a 5,000-acre plantation running smoothly so he had time to design clocks and dumb waiters and keep up correspondence with other human-owning brainiacs. He ignored his conscience and continued an abhorrent tradition instead.
So while we thoroughly recommend a visit to this historic and very well-restored home (90% of it is original), it isn’t to be taken lightly. With every step, we felt the heaviness of the past weighing on us.
The house and grounds are extremely beautiful and despite the fact that it drizzled on us and the temperature kept dipping lower, we lingered and wanted more. We took the house tour and saw Jefferson’s private suite of rooms where he stayed almost exclusively especially after the death of his beloved wife. We stood in the guest room frequented by James and Dolly Madison, close friends of the Jeffersons. Our tour guide is a handyman and he crafted duplicates of some of the best Jefferson gadgets for the museum built below the house. We went downstairs afterward to try our hand at raising and lowering the dumb waiter and counting miles with an odometer of sorts that Jefferson fashioned for his carriage.
We also took a tour of the slave quarters and a sort of “Main Street” where a huge garden provided food for the tables and a blacksmith shop, smokehouse and nail “factory” kept Jefferson’s operations well-supplied.
We even had the chance to see Jefferson’s tomb and read the epitaph he wrote for himself:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia
The Griffin Discovery Room was by far our favorite hour of the day and we would have missed it if dear friends hadn’t told us to be on the lookout for it. It’s down some stairs, behind the café at the visitor’s center. Don’t skip this place even if you don’t have kids. I tell you what, it was awesome. The girls got to touch anything and everything—a code machine, cooking utensils, slave uniforms, rocking chairs, replica paintings and a polygraph machine. They dove into all the items (many kid-sized) that are made to be examined and experienced. Danny and I wandered the room reading all the signs and learning more about the complicated man, Thomas Jefferson. We didn’t worry they were going to break something. Nothing was too precious. Paige instantly made a friend, of course, and the two girls rustled up some grub for other visitors and chatted about the Jefferson family like they were regular guests in the grand house. I learned that Lafayette came to Monticello and who the Committee of Five was.
Go to Monticello. Thomas Jefferson is still the guy who did all those great and important things. He is to be remembered and our country owes him (and many other brave founders) a million times over. He believed in what he was doing, in founding a nation, in writing a freedom of religion law, in planting a variety of crops to learn what grew best in Virginia soil. He was a self-taught architect, a governor, a husband, a farmer, a friend.
By the end of our time in DC I came to terms with Jefferson the way I am at terms with King David. The man after God’s own heart got it wrong…big time…but he also got a good deal right. Both sinner and saint dwelt in his body and I guess that’s true of Jefferson and me, too.