How would Thomas Jefferson feel about the government shutdown here in the United States? (Bear with me here for a little thought experiment…)
I’m sure the republican (small “r”) part of him would appreciate the legislature taking a stand to the executive. His support of the French Revolution probably shows he wouldn’t bat an eye at this political brinksmanship.
But then there’s the executive part of him…the part that signed the Louisiana Purchase. That shows he understood the need for a strong president to make moves for the betterment of the nation with an eye towards the future, peering further than the people could see. The intellectual side of him would no doubt scoff at the sophomoric arguments made by the Tea Party.
And that is the conundrum of Thomas Jefferson. He wrote that all men are created equal…but he owned slaves. He ideologically resisted a centralized society, but practically he extended the reach of the presidency.
So here’s my point: it’s easy to think of someone like TJ as a paper cutout, a two-dimensional character from a history book. Learning about someone who’s been deified in American history can make it hard to realize that he was a man, deeply flawed like the rest of us. And perhaps the best way to bring that paper cutout back to life is to exist, at least momentarily, in his three-dimensional world.
As Lauren and I stood in the foyer of Monticello my hair stood on end. In this great mansion on a hill we were surrounded by artifacts brought from all corners of the globe. There were fossils dug up by William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) and maps of the world (long before Google maps existed). There was one map drawn of the American colonies by Jefferson’s father. On it were the great cities of Philadelphia and New York…but where Washington, DC should have been it was simply blank space.
The clock in the main hall was of Jefferson’s own design…and it had been telling time accurately since the turn of the 19th century. Walking through his personal quarters was like walking around in the mind of a genius. Books galore and an office space loaded with contraptions and scientific devices. His bed was just feet from his desk…he was always surrounded by his work.
Just an FYI, they don’t let you take photos in the mansion. That just gives you more time to contemplate the genius of Thomas Jefferson. After the tour, which lasts all of 40 minutes, we roamed around the grounds. Perched on a mountaintop outside of Charlottesville it can seem like a paradise. The mansion is operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and they’re pretty upfront about the contradiction that is slavery at Monticello. They offer a good tour covering that aspect of life at the mansion, I definitely recommend it. That part of the Jefferson legacy is easily enough glossed over, but it shouldn’t be.
Just wandering the grounds is entertaining enough. You have to look at the mansion as a book written by Jefferson. Every aspect of the design was carried out with great intent. He wanted this building and this parcel of land to be his legacy, he wanted it to reflect who he was as a living, breathing man. And for the conspiracy theorists out there…I’m sure you can find some subcutaneous meaning.
One more recommendation: take the shuttle up from the visitor center, but walk back down. The walk isn’t difficult at all, just over a half mile. And it’s all downhill. It’ll take you by the Jefferson family cemetery and, of course, Jefferson’s grave. But before you even embark down that path take a walk through the garden. It’s still growing food, and in the autumn it’s a welcome burst of color.
I think we spend all our lives searching for genius…well this is a pretty good place to find it.