Last Saturday’s visit to Monticello (see the photo post below) re-ignited my fascination with Thomas Jefferson, no doubt the most brilliant and multi-talented of our Founding Fathers (who all stood head-and-shoulders above our current crop of politicians!). I remember Jack Kennedy’s quip at a dinner for Nobel Prize winners:
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
Jefferson As Statesman
Here’s the chronology:
1743 – Jefferson born April 13 at Shadwell, Va.
1760 – Enters Williams and Mary College
1764 – Inherits 3,000 acres along the Rivanna River
1769 – Becomes a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Begins construction of Monticello
1770 – Takes up residence at Monticello
1772 – Marries Martha Wayles Skelton, a 23-year-old widow
1775 – Attends Second Continental Congress
1776 – Drafts the Declaration of Independence, adopted July 4
1777 – Serves in Virginia House of Delegates
1779 – Elected Governor of Virginia
1782 – Wife Martha dies and Jefferson promises never to remarry
1783 – Elected to Congress
1784 – Begins diplomatic mission to France
1789 – Returns to United States
1790 – President Washington appoints him first Secretary of State
1796 – Elected vice president under John Adams
1801 – Elected third president on 36th ballot in House of Representative
1803 – Concludes Louisiana Purchase. Commissions Lewis & Clarke expedition
1804 – Re-elected president
1809 – Retires to Monticello
1815 – Sells his library to Library of Congress, whose collection was mostly destroyed in War of 1812
1817 – Designs University of Virginia
1826 – Dies on July 4, the 50th anniversary of Declaration of Independence. (His friend John Adams dies a few hours later.)
Jefferson and Monticello
Jefferson designed every aspect of Monticello, an architectural icon and World Heritage site. He constructed and modified its buildings and grounds over 40 years. “. . . putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements,” he once remarked.
In 1796, Jefferson began transforming what had been a two-story, eight-room house into a three-story, 21-room structure, inspired by modern neo-classical houses he had seen in Paris. A dome was added over the west front, the first on an American house.
In the parlor, Jefferson’s family gathered to read, talk, and play games and musical instruments. Jefferson’s catalog indicates that 48 works of art filled the room. Many were portraits of men who inspired him, notably his “trinity of the three greatest men the world has ever produced” — Frances Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke.
In the dining room and adjacent tea room, two meals — breakfast and dinner — were served.
When Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1809, his wife Martha had been dead for 27 years. Their only surviving child, Martha Jefferson Randolph, moved from a nearby plantation to live with her father. She was the mother of eight children at the time and would give birth to three more between 1810 and 1818. So the upper stories of Monticello were always filled with children and guests.
Jefferson was a shy, retiring man who mostly kept to himself in his first-floor apartment. He differed greatly from today’s politicians, and gave only two speeches during his public life — two inaugural addresses.
Jefferson’s Medallion Portrait Now on Loan to Monticello from Harvard
Both Jefferson and his daughter remarked that this was the best-ever portrait of him. It’s a water color (or gouache), mounted on blue paper.
Jefferson As Slave-Owner
Critics note that the drafter of the Declaration of Independence (with its assertion that “all men are created equal”) remained a slave-owner throughout his life. For most of his life he owned 200 slaves, two-thirds of them at Monticello and one-third at his Popular Forest plantation.
A number of extended families lived in bondage at Monticello for three or more generations. Sundays and holidays provided their only opportunities to socialize and nurture the connections that united them as a community. As was the case throughout the slave-owning Southern states, they had a rich cultural and spiritual life that flourished in spite of their circumstances.
Jefferson and Sally Hemings
Sally Hemings (1773-1835) was an enslaved lady’s maid at Monticello and a member of the large Hemings family that had served Jefferson throughout his life. Several of them, including Sally, accompanied him when he was our ambassador to France.
During his first term as president, a newspaper reported that Jefferson had fathered her six children. The relationship has been debated ever since. DNA test results released in 1998 indicated a genetic link between the Jefferson and Hemings families. Based on this and other scientific, documentary, and statistical evidence, most historians now believe that Jefferson was indeed the father of Sally Hemings’ children. The Monticello Foundation has accepted this reality and the Monticello tour guides include it as an accepted fact in their talks.
Our tour guide also mentioned the evidence that Martha Jefferson and Sally Hemings were half-sisters. Sally and some of her siblings may have been children of John Wayles, the father of Martha Jefferson.
Jefferson was a truly great man. But he also was a human being. And he stands as an example of our national tendency to spend without worry about mounting debts.
Jefferson Dies, Deep in Debt
Jefferson owed money most of his life, and the debts increased substantially after his retirement. (His presidential salary was about the same as Obama’s: about $400,000 annually in today’s dollars.)
Jefferson inherited lots of debt when his father-in-law died in 1774. Though he was rich in land and slaves, farming produced little income. Jefferson was a major creditor himself, but payments to him were unreliable. In 1818, late in his life, Jefferson endorsed a note for $20,000 for a friend who died two years later, with the debt unpaid. But the main problem was that Jefferson lived beyond his means, spending large amounts of money on building projects, furnishings, wine, entertaining, etc.
One couldn’t declare bankruptcy in those days. While Jefferson was alive, his reputation kept his creditors at bay. But when he died, the debts came due. Converting his debts into today’s dollars is an inexact process, but our tour guide said they totaled about $2 million! To pay the debts, Jefferson’s family had to sell much of his property, including Monticello and most of its furnishings.
Fortunately, subsequent owners of Monticello maintained the house without major structural changes. Uriah Phillips Levy, a Jewish US Navy officer who admired Jefferson for his views on religious liberty, owned and preserved the house from 1835 until his death in 1862. During and after the Civil War, the grand house fell into disrepair. In 1879, Commodore Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, bought the home and used it as a summer residence. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased Monticello from him in 1923.
Much of this historical account is taken from the website http://www.monticello.org/ and the excellent pamphlet — Discover the Genius of Jefferson — provided to visitors at Monticello.