27 July 2009


In its way, one of the costliest homes ever built.

I first visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville, Virginia, when I was a boy of about eight. I’ve returned several times, most recently last week. The place turns out not to be one of those monuments that mysteriously seem to shrink as you get older: the estate is vast and the house itself still looks quite large, even to grownup eyes, not least because it’s built into the hilltop. Wander around a bit, and you will find a perspective that permits you to appreciate the size of the place. Getting a grasp on Jefferson himself is another matter.

Take a letter! No, I’ll do it myself!
Jefferson’s desk, with some other people’s inventions.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains the estate, is working hard to provide perspective — and more honestly — these days. The visitor is now told that Sage of Monticello did not in fact invent any of the gadgets around the house: not the dumbwaiter, not the polygraph machine, not the swivel chair, not the cannonball clock, all of which used to be credited to him when I was a boy. An enormous visitors’ center is now open, with something like four exhibition galleries that examine Jefferson’s philosophy, his architecture, and other interests. (Pressed for time, I wasn’t able to explore.)

Most significantly, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which maintains the estate, has broached the sensitive topic of slavery at Monticello with candor and thoroughness, if you look for it. One of the walking tours around the house examines the individual histories of specific slaves who lived in the quarters and who worked in the “dependencies” (outbuildings) no longer standing. Of course we know a great deal about Jefferson’s slaves not least because of his sexual relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings, his late wife’s half-sister as well as the mother of several children who are believed to have been his. When I was a boy, the visitor to Monticello heard precious little about the slaves there, and nothing at all about the Hemingses or any of the other families who built and maintained the place.

The Madison Bedroom:
My generous offer to test whether the accommodation still befits a Madison was met with little enthusiasm.

There are still a few historians and Jefferson partisans (most of them white) who believe that Jefferson and Hemings didn’t have a sexual relationship, and the Jefferson Foundation tactfully acknowledges this viewpoint. But for the rest of us, Jefferson’s attitude toward slavery remains the great stumbling block to understanding him — and so it shall remain, I believe, simply because it never will be possible to reconcile the champion of liberty with the exemplar of oppression.

Fidel Castro’s philosophy has turned out rather different in the practice than in the preaching, too, and ultimately some contradictions may be inherent by necessity in the revolutionary type. Jefferson’s sins appear graver, though, and far more disappointing, simply because he was right about so much, and ahead of almost everyone else. Would it have hurt him to be a little perfect, really?

Portrait by Thomas Sully
This and all the illustrations on this page are copyrighted by
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

To wander around Monticello is to wonder. The audacity of his conceit is everywhere apparent: to live at once like an English nobleman and a Classical scholar, by dint not of titles but by worth both material and intellectual! To possess the greatest mind of his age, and yet to fool himself as to the human cost of his experiments! To embody the contradictions of a nation that, for generations after him, would continue to promise equality for all — while withholding it from millions!

In short, I can understand why so many of the visitors to Monticello prefer to take the gardening tour. It’s easier to think about.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious, Bill. What do you see as the worst consequences of slavery? The answer would help me understand your view of Jefferson.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Sorry for the delay in posting your comment, Rick -- I've had logistical issues as I hopscotch across the northeastern U.S. this month.

The question itself is almost imponderable, though. I mean, what consequences of slavery weren't worst? Do I possess the means to grade such a tangle of horrors?

What strikes me while I do ponder your question, however, is that slavery wasn't the only problem -- or else the condition of African Americans would have been instantly corrected following the passage of the 14th Amendment (at the latest). Instead, American slavery proved both a reflection and an encouragement of that profound racism that denied African Americans basic civil rights and opportunity, and that endures too potently to this day.