Last November, on the way back from Fort Stewart, I made a detour to a place I've always wanted to visit...that place on the back of the nickel. It's otherwise known as Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.
Even though the place is much smaller than I expected, I wasn't disappointed in the least. In fact, the dimensions of the property and the home made it feel somehow much more real, and in doing so, made the great man himself much more human in my mind. The interior of the home was intimate and warm, with each room holding some delight in woodworking or mechanical comforts unique for the time.
Each new discovery led me to understand that in some ways, Mr. Jefferson was not much different than any other proud homeowner. He was always looking for ways to improve his castle. In fact, the history of Monticello is divided into two phases: Monticello I, which was mostly a brick-and-mortar sanctuary from the elements of this remote late-18th century Virginian hilltop; and Monticello II, which is the warmer, more refined home of a man having spent several years in Paris as an ambassador of our country. Mr. Jefferson, it turns out, among other things, may have been one of the very first Americans to get remodeling fever.
Thomas Jefferson said that "Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements." He spent much of his life "putting up and pulling down," most notably during the forty-year construction period of Monticello. Influenced by his readings of ancient and modern architectural writings, Jefferson gleaned the best from both his reading and from his observations in Europe, creating in his architectural designs a style that was distinctively American.
Monticello was built of American chestnut timbers; the floors are wonderful old pine planks, the same that could be found in very many an old southern home. And one of the most famous pieces in the home is a revolving book stand made from local walnut, and probably produced at the joinery shop on the premises. This piece allowed the thoughtful Mr. Jefferson the ability to scan several texts at once in pursuit of his great thoughts.
Our tour guide gave us additional insight into the humanity of Mr. Jefferson, touching not only on his relationship with his slave Sally Hemings, but on the fact that he was $100,000 in debt at the time of his death. While much has been made of the first, I found the latter much more interesting. It turns out that Monticello might not even be there today if it had not been purchased and resurrected in Jefferson's honor by a certain Uriah Phillips Levy, one of the great characters in American Jewish history.
"He was pugnacious, determined, eccentric, confirmed in the righteousness of his causes, an able businessman who was quite wealthy, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. His admiration rested on Mr. Jefferson's well-deserved reputation as a champion of religious liberty; not toleration, but liberty. "I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history," Levy declared, "the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life." Levy's admiration for Jefferson first expressed itself in a unique gift that the lieutenant made to the government and the people of the United States. As he wrote to his attorney, George Carr, "there is no statue to Jefferson in the Capitol in Washington. As a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to commission a statue." And the statue, in its way, led to Monticello.
"For those of us who are used to seeing Monticello as it is today, lovingly restored to what our best knowledge tells us was Mr. Jefferson's plan, it is hard to envision the great house as seedy or run-down. In fact, it was already looking that way in the last years of Jefferson's life. He was so far in debt that he did not have the money necessary to make the needed repairs or to do the preventive maintenance that the house required. A visitor in 1824--two years before Jefferson's death--reported that the mansion was "old and going to decay," and that the gardens and lawns were "slovenly."
"On this work Levy gladly embarked, and from all reports did so successfully. Levy assembled a small army of workers--including over a dozen slaves that he purchased--and put them to work cleaning out the interior of the house, making needed repairs on the outside, and restoring the landscaped gardens and lawns. There are conflicting accounts as to whether Levy actually managed to buy some of Jefferson's original furnishings that had been sold at auction after his death, but he did go to great lengths to restore the house to its former glory. He put in working order the seven-day clock that had been made to Jefferson's specifications in 1793, and also restored the body of a two-wheel carriage that tradition, if not fact, claims to have been the one Jefferson rode to Philadelphia in 1775 for the Continental Congress.
As in so many other things, we see that the great things in life are usually due not only to the efforts of the one who imagines and designs them, but to all those others who work to build and maintain them.
Read more Chuck Ray:
As an exercise in understanding more about the real roots of our country, the men who built it, and the ubiquitous use of wood in those days, I recommend a trip to Monticello. There are literally dozens of others interesting architectural, historical, and construction details that make the whole experience much more than I have captured in this short piece. In fact, I hope to return myself one of these days when the kids are in other places, not complaining about their hunger. But then again, that also is a part of the human experience...I'm sure TJ had the same problem.