I arrived at the base of the mountain and could not really see much. Everything was cool. leafy and green. I parked and made my way to the visitor center, a complex of stores, ticketing office, interpretive theater and cafe, waking up slowly to meet the onslaught of new visitors who would want to make the trek up to Monticello. Pretty soon, our guide for the Revolutionary Garden tour was there. It was obvious that this lady knew her stuff, as she had a bit of informative Jeffersonian trivia that connected every single visitor in her group to the great man himself. We walked up a few steps to the bus loading area, where we were met by a life-size, six foot two inch statue of Jefferson, keeping watch over the morning’s activities.
A trip to Monticello is by default a study in contrasts, in ideas expressed and presumed and in the mind of a great reader, thinker, experimenter, documenter, and statesman. From the time I set foot on the drive in front of the house, I was aware that this was a special place, and that the man who built it loved the mountain top.
For the next eight hours, I was immersed in Jefferson’s world, first walking along a one thousand foot garden that is an exact replica of the one he himself planted in 1813, two hundred years ago. Seeing the variety of plants, the neat rows, the methods of staking and covering and blanching and weeding and documenting successes and failures, precipitation and sunshine, reaffirmed that this man missed little in the world around him. At the end of the garden tour, we were treated by the professional staff to a wonderful mid-morning brunch of the fruits of the garden, literally. We saw sesame plants and heard how TJ experimented with at least three or four presses to extract sesame oil. We saw a ninety year old stand of fig trees, loaded beyond measure with green, not quite ripe figs, the branches bowing under the weight.
The tour of the house was also a wonder. It was furnished just as it was in President Jefferson’s time, with the very artifacts of his time there. No photography was allowed inside. From the Jefferson designed clock and Lewis and Clark artifacts on the walls in the foyer to the copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall of the bedroom-turned-schoolroom to the study with its rotating book stand, Jefferson’s beloved house served him and his family and guests in a fashion that was ahead of its time. He was said to have written more than 19,000 letters, and the manual, mechanical copier on his desk faithfully reproduced, in his own handwriting, a copy of each one he wrote. Since he had given his first library of books away (these later formed the nucleus of the Library of Congress), he had accumulated another large library of volumes, stacked floor to ceiling in the “book room”as he called it. The dining room, the bedroom where his friend James Madison often stayed the night after an evening of conversation and dinner, and the exquisite gardens surrounding the house all made this experience a very pleasant one indeed.
The slavery tour, learning about the hierarchy of life on a Virginia plantation, and seeing how the hustle and bustle of life on the mountain was maintained were all enlightening. It struck all of us, I think, that the man who, at age thirty three, authored the document that outlined inalienable rights for all equally-created men owned over six hundred human beings in his lifetime. He freed less that two dozen of them at his death, and the rest were sold to help pay off the $107,000 in debt that Jefferson left behind. Jefferson was intelligent, brilliant even, with boundless energy and creativity, but he was also human. He shaped history, but he was also heavily influenced by his times.
A short stroll down Mulberry Lane from the house, past the gardens, lead me to the Jefferson cemetery and gravesites for the third president of the United States, his wife, his children, his mother, and other members of his family. Seeing this site, and knowing that he and John Adams died only hours apart on July 4, fifty years almost to the hour that the United States had declared its independence from Great Britain, still gives me chills.
Monticello is a place of great beauty, stark contrasts, wonderful stories, and exquisitely detailed accounts of a time two centuries gone by. If you are in Virginia, it is well worth your time to make the trek to the mountain top and take in the view that drove Thomas Jefferson to carve out his place in the world there, a legacy that will live on forever.