Friday, October 30, 2009

Seeing Jefferson's Monticello

Monticello. Thomas Jefferson's little world. He sought to create a self-sustained idyllic community, complete with its own little businesses, extensive gardens, indoor bathrooms, and a small pond near the kitchen for storing live fish. Did you know that he designed the house initially, went to Europe and changed his mind, and tore down the first design to create the house we see today?
Jefferson, our nation's 3rd president, was 6'2" tall. Peter's trying to catch up.
Here is an extensive terrace near the house where many vegetables are still grown. Everyone loved the little building there, with windows on all sides. A retreat while weeding? A place to dash out of the rain?

One of my first questions of our guide was whether any of the original trees on the property from Jefferson's day, were still standing. She told me that the last original Jeffersonian tree was cut down only last year, because they feared it might fall on the house. Later we found this massive trunk, beside the house. This was one huge tree! I would have loved to see it.
I've taught American Literature every year that I've taught school. I've often read the inscription from Jefferson's tombstone in the textbook -- finally I was able to see it for myself. Jefferson lists here the 3 accomplishments of which he was most proud: writing the Declaration, founding the University of Virginia, and writing the Statute of Va. for Religious Freedom. The third, hardly anyone studied anymore, I suppose. Jefferson was a man dedicated to education. Although he and his wife (who died young) had only one daughter (of six children) who lived to adulthood, this daughter blessed him with 11 grandchildren. They were raised and educated at Monticello, among their grandpapa's books, rare collections, and scientific instruments.
Unfortunately, Jefferson's desire for education did not extend to the majority of the residents of Monticello. He inherited $40,000 of debt from his father-in-law. That's probably more that a million dollars today. He died with about 3x that much debt. The slaves and property were sold to alleviate this burden. But the man who claimed, for all of us, that "all men are created equal," and that they have the right of freedom, did not free his slaves, but passed them on to be sold after his death.

Jefferson strikes me now as a man full of ideals who was not able to sacrifice to meet them. He sacrificed for his own pleasures and interests, but the ideal of freedom was simply not practicable to him. In spite of the beauties of Monticello, this is a sad legacy to leave.

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