One of the pleasures of growing up and living in Virginia is being surrounded by its great history which has had a profound effect on not only the course of the United States, but also the course of the world. I grew up walking to school through what was a Civil War battlefield where George Armstrong Custer had once fought. President Woodrow Wilson was born in the next town over from me in Staunton, Virginia, and I would drive by his birth home and its museum daily when I lived in Staunton as a young adult. A 40 minute drive away, in Lexington, is the Virginia Military Institute where World War II hero, and the namesake for the plan that rebuilt Europe, George C. Marshall attended and has a museum and library there in his honor. But in my neck of Virginia, no one historical personality looms larger than Thomas Jefferson with his famous home outside of Charlottesville—Monticello.
Thomas Jefferson built his own monument and museum by designing and building his home on a small mountaintop overlooking Charlottesville. The name he gave it, Monticello, is Italian for “hillock” or “small mountain.” Designing, redesigning, building, and rebuilding Monticello proved to be a lifelong project that was never fully finished while Jefferson was still alive. Visitors there today fully get a sense of the lifestyle and diverse interests of a man who was truly the product of the Enlightenment. His home is full of paintings and statuary of the great Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers to inspire visitors.
Upon entering the main entrance of Monticello, visitors today, as in Jefferson’s time, see items displayed from Jefferson’s greatest foreign policy achievement during his time as president, the Louisiana Purchase. The main entrance hall is predominately decorated with Native American and animal artifacts given to Jefferson by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark from their famous exploration of the lands acquired by Jefferson from France.
The Louisiana Purchase was a shrewd move by Jefferson. Even though he was an ardent Francophile, which is reflected in the architecture of Monticello from his time spent in France as Minister, he was cautiously alarmed when he learned that Spain had secretly ceded Louisiana to France. That transfer made Napoleon—someone who Jefferson admired but was all too aware of his desires for world domination—a neighbor and gave him control of the vital port of New Orleans that controlled the flow of commerce from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River.
Upon learning the news, Jefferson instructed his ministers to try to purchase New Orleans from France. To his surprise he learned Napoleon needed money to fund his war efforts and offered not only to sell New Orleans but also all the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains for the bargain price of $15 million. Despite being aware his unilateral action would probably violate the Constitution, Jefferson immediately seized on and approved the purchase before Napoleon had a chance to change his mind. In a stroke of a pen, the size of the United States was doubled. Fortunately for Jefferson, Congress would later approve of the deal.
From the entrance hall, the layout of Monticello branches out into other rooms such as the quite elegant parlor and dining room. In those rooms Thomas Jefferson entertained his friends and family, and entertained renowned guests such as James and Dolly Madison and Marquis de Lafayette. But there was one part of Monticello that was private for Jefferson, and that was his library and study. His library contained thousands of books on all manner of subjects. “I cannot live without books,” he once wrote. When the British burned Washington during the War of 1812 it destroyed the book collection housed by the Library of Congress. Jefferson responded by selling his personal collection of up to 10,000 books to Congress to replace the collection that had been destroyed. Even though the money from the purchase was needed desperately to pay off his heavy debts, he began purchasing books to reconstitute his own collection. His lifelong love of learning was profound and inspired him to found the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Today, visitors will find very little of his book collection remains at Monticello, and for a library that once contained an estimated 10,000 books, only a few hundred are displayed. But standing in his library and study still gives a visitor the sense of a great man reading and writing letters—formulating thoughts that would give birth to a nation and change the world. One of the great men of history Thomas Jefferson corresponded with from his study was John Adams. They were close friends that bonded during the cause of the Revolution, only to become enemies later in life, and then once again rekindle their friendship in their final years.
It was John Adams who noticed Jefferson’s “happy talent for composition” during the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and persuaded him to write the Declaration of Independence. The words Jefferson wrote in that document would go down in history as some of the most profound ever written and would inspire revolutions around the world ever since:
“….We hold these truths to be self-evident, that 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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Those words propelled a nation into being.
Much forgotten in contemporary history are Jefferson’s words that were left out of the final draft of the Deceleration of Independence. This is due to one of the great contradictions of Jefferson’s life. Monticello was a plantation that supported itself on slave labor and Jefferson it was discovered in more recent years had fathered at least six children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Yet, despite his dependence on slavery in his personal life, Jefferson was very anti-slavery in his public life. In his original draft of the Deceleration he included language denouncing slavery, but many in the Continental Congress objected and the passage was removed. It was not the first time in Jefferson’s life he spoke out against slavery. While serving as a Virginia legislator, where he would also later author the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, he wrote a law banning the importation of slaves to the state. The bill, however, failed to pass.
Off to the side of Jefferson’s library and study at Monticello is an alcove where his bed sits that also connects to his bedroom. It is in that bed, on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the formal adoption of the Declaration of Independence—Thomas Jefferson died at that age of 83. In a strange twist of history, John Adams also passed away on that same exact day at his home in Massachusetts. Jefferson was buried in a cemetery plot a short walk down the hill from Monticello. On the obelisk that marks his grave he had inscribed, “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson… Author of the Declaration of American Independence… of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom… and Father of the University of Virginia.” He did not feel his role as American President worth mentioning.
It is a blessing for me to live so close to Monticello. While Thomas Jefferson was far from perfect, and not even my favorite Founding Father, he was a man that was able to look beyond his shortcomings and to inspire others to the highest ideals. Visiting Monticello regularly is a great way to reflect on the history of the United States and its origins. No other presidential home comes as close to capturing the character of its occupant and their times quite like Monticello.