Wednesday, June 4

Thomas Jefferson and Monticello

Thomas Jefferson,  circa 1800
Recently while driving the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway my husband and I stopped to visit Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson.  

Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, third president of the United States, and founder of the University of Virginia.  He was a public official, historian, philosopher, inventor and plantation owner.

He was born on April 13, 1743, at the Shadwell Plantation located just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, and had five siblings. 

His father Peter Jefferson was a successful planter, surveyor and cartographer who produced the first accurate map of the Province of Virginia.   Having inherited a considerable estate from his father, Jefferson began building Monticello (pronounced “Monti-chello” like the musical instrument) when he was twenty-six years old.
Three years later, he married Martha Wayles Skelton, with whom he lived happily for ten years until her death. Their marriage produced six children, Mary, Martha, Lucy, Jane and Peter, but only two survived to adulthood, and only one had children.

Monticello in Springtime

Thomas Jefferson was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1768 and joined its radical bloc, led by Patrick Henry and George Washington. In 1774, Jefferson penned his first major political work, "A Summary View of the Rights of British America," which established his reputation as one of the most eloquent speakers for the American cause.
 Original draft
In June 1776, the Congress appointed a five-man committee (Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman and Robert Livingston) to draft a Declaration of Independence. The committee then chose Jefferson to author the declaration's first draft, selecting him for what John Adams called his "happy talent for composition and singular felicity of expression." Over the next 17 days, Jefferson drafted one of the most beautiful and powerful testaments to liberty and equality in world history.

Thomas Jefferson was a consistently opposed to slavery his whole life.  Calling it a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” he believed that slavery presented the greatest threat to the survival of the new AmericaJefferson also thought that slavery was contrary to the laws of nature, which decreed that everyone had a right to personal liberty.  These views were radical in a world where slave labor was the norm.

As far as his ownership of slaves goes, it's important to keep in context the time in which he lived. There were legal restrictions on the freeing of slaves, and social norms considered slavery to be a right.   One did not simply free slaves at that time by walking up to them and telling them they are free to go. There was also a financial burden to be had, both in the release of a slave, as well as the labor loss that would be incurred on these types of plantations.  During Jefferson’s time, by law a freed slave must leave the state within a year, meaning not only leaving the area but all their family and friends behind.
Slavery was a terrible problem that Jefferson did indeed struggle with, as did many of the founding fathers of this country. If we wish to have an idea of what might have happened to Jefferson and his family in his time concerning slavery and his views of freedom, we need only look at the violence over many recent decades that have occurred over the issue.  An entire civil war and 1000’s of lives lost, the south created the KKK as a direct result of freedom of slaves, our own president, Abraham Lincoln was killed because of it.

At the time of the American Revolution, Jefferson was actively involved in legislation that he hoped would result in slavery’s abolition.  In 1778, he drafted a Virginia law that prohibited the importation of enslaved Africans.  In 1784, he proposed an ordinance that would ban slavery in the Northwest Territories.  

circa 1780
After Jefferson beloved wife, Martha Jefferson, died on September 6, 1782, at the age of 34, after only 10 years of marriage, Jefferson spent months in mourning.
Asked to be the U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson spent some time in Europe and during this period is when he avidly studied European culture, sending home to Monticello books, seeds and plants, statues and architectural drawings, scientific instruments, and information. Some if not all his children were with him while in Paris.

In 1790 Jefferson accepted the post of Secretary of State under his friend George Washington.  The Republicans, led by Jefferson, promoted the supremacy of state governments, a strict constructionist interpretation of the constitution and support for the French revolution.

Back at home by the late 1790’s, Jefferson spent his time farming, managing his finances and continually making improvements to Monticello.

Grape vines at Monticello 

Recently while visiting Monticello, what struck me the most about Thomas Jefferson were all his hobbies and interests.
Like Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson had a knack for tinkering, fixing and reinventing.
He kept Mocking birds, was into Astronomy, played the violin, loved mathematics and was an obsessive book collector.  In Jefferson’s study you will see an invention that allows a person to read 5 books at once.  It spins and also has several candle holders attached to it.

Jefferson was a writer, wine maker and even a mastodon / fossil hunter.
His love of horticulture really got my attention since I too like to dabble in the art.  Jefferson had 330 types of vegetables and 170 species of fruit.  His vegetable garden is 3 football fields long!
Garden envy, me.

It was also at this time in the late 1790’s that Jefferson had an affair with a slave named Sally Hemings. Light-skinned and beautiful, Sally Hemings was in fact Martha Jefferson's half-sister. Many accounts say that Sally was strikingly similar in looks, manners and even the tone of voice to Jefferson’s wife Martha, her half sister. Sally's mother, Betty Hemings, was a slave owned by Jefferson's father-in-law, John Wayles, who was the father of Betty's daughter Sally. While there is no definitive proof that Thomas Jefferson had children with Sally Hemings, the circumstantial evidence is all but conclusive: Jefferson was with Sally (either in France or at Monticello) nine months before the birth of all six of her children.
Furthermore, historical records corroborate the stories passed down orally through the Hemings family. Most compelling is recently produced DNA evidence showing absolutely that a male member of the Jefferson family fathered Hemings's children, and that it was not Samuel or Peter Carr, the only two of Jefferson's male relatives in the vicinity at the relevant times. It is therefore overwhelmingly likely, if not absolutely certain, that Thomas Jefferson fathered Sally Hemings's children.

Years after his wife’s death, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had at least six children. According to Jefferson's own records, four survived to adulthood.
Beverly (b. 1798), a carpenter and fiddler, who left the plantation in late 1821 or early 1822 and, according to his brother, passed into white society in Washington, D.C. 
Harriet (b. 1801), a spinner in Jefferson's textile shop, also left Monticello in 1821 or 1822, probably with her brother, and passed for white.
Madison Hemings (1805-1878), a carpenter and joiner, was given his freedom in Jefferson's will; he resettled in southern Ohio in 1836, where he worked at his trade and had a farm.
Eston Hemings (1808-ca. 1856), also a carpenter, moved to Chillicothe, Ohio, in the 1830s. There he was a well-known professional musician before moving about 1852 to Wisconsin, where he changed his surname to Jefferson along with his changing his racial identity to white. Both Madison and Eston Hemings made known their belief that they were sons of Thomas Jefferson.

Photo of Jefferson / Hemings descendants.

For more reading on slavery at Monticello
 "Those Who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello—is the culmination of 40 years of research by Lucia Stanton, Shannon Senior Historian Emeritus at Monticello.

In 1897, Jefferson ran for President of the United States.  The then-Vice President John Adams won the office of president in the electoral college, and which, by the rules of the time, made Jefferson the new vice president.  Besides presiding over the Senate, the vice president had essentially no substantive role in government.
To occupy his time during his four years as vice president, Jefferson authored "A Manual of Parliamentary Practice," one of the most useful guides to legislative proceedings ever written, and served as the President of the American Philosophical Society.

Ariel view of Monticello and gardens.  Photos from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Leonard Phillips

Elected President himself in 1801, perhaps two of the most notable achievements of Jefferson’s first term as president were the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and his support of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
In keeping with his Republican values, Jefferson stripped the presidency of all the trappings of European royalty, reduced the size of the armed forces and government bureaucracy and lowered the national debt from $80 million to $57 million in his first two years in office.

The White House during Thomas Jefferson's time,
Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress

His second term as President, from 1805 to 1809, was a time when he encountered more difficulties on both the domestic and foreign fronts. His second term is most remembered for his efforts to maintain neutrality in the midst of the conflict between Britain and France; although his efforts did not avert war with Britain in 1812.

During the last seventeen years of Jefferson’s life, he remained at Monticello. During this period, he sold his collection of books to the government to form the nucleus of the Library of Congress. The original library having been burnt down by the British.

Jefferson embarked on his last great public service at the age of seventy-six, with the founding of the University of Virginia. He spearheaded the legislative campaign for its charter, secured its location, designed its buildings, planned its curriculum, and served as the first rector.
The University of Virginia opened its doors on March 7, 1825, and it is said he thought it was one of the proudest days of his life.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, just hours before his close friend John Adams, on the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. He was eighty-three years old, the holder of large debts, but according to all evidence a very optimistic man.

Monticello After Jefferson
The story does not end for Monticello at Jefferson’s death.  While visiting the guides told us that Jefferson often purchased back family members of his slaves. And he rarely sold off his slaves, which if he had would have paid down most of his debt. Because of huge debt when Jefferson passed away the family was forced to sell off Monticello and all it furnishings and art work at auction.

A really good article was written in 1998 by Preservation Magazine about the history of Monticello after Jefferson’s death. I dug out the copy of that issue I have kept for 16 years.

The house was purchased by James T. Barclay, an eccentric Charlottesville druggist on November 1, 1831.  Barclay wanted to turn the property into a silkworm farm so cut down all of Jefferson’s loved cultivated groves of trees and dug up the manicured lawns and flower gardens.  Cringe!
Barclay’s silkworm business failed within 2 years and Monticello went back up for sale in 1833.

Uriah Levy purchased Monticello when he was a 44 year old bachelor and naval lieutenant.  He was a fifth generation Jewish American. 
Years before even purchasing Monticello, Levy had a statue commissioned of Thomas Jefferson, Levy’s boyhood hero, in the U.S. capital.

Because of Jefferson, Levy wrote, and the writing of the Declaration of Independence, a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life. 

Monticello during Uriah Levy's ownership,
Photo from The Preservation Magazine

Many in Charlottesville did not welcome the Jewish new owner, even calling him a foreigner.
What Levy did as soon as he purchased Monticello was begin repairing and renovating.  He spent large sums of money restoring the house and grounds and even opened Monticello up to visitors who wished to view Thomas Jefferson former home.
Uriah Levy may well be the first American to act upon the idea of preserving a historic dwelling.

A year before Levy’s death, the southern Confederates seized Monticello as property of an alien enemy.  In November 1864 it was sold at auction for $ 80,500 to Benjamin F. Ficklin.  Once the Civil War ended the property was returned to the previous owner.  But Monticello had gone to ruin during the war time because of looting and many furnishing belonging to Uriah Levy disappeared.
When Uriah Levy passed away, Monticello was tied up in a will dispute for 17 years, throwing Monticello further into a terribly run down condition. Finally in 1879, Jefferson Monroe Levy, Uriah’s nephew bought out the other family members claims to the property.

Monticello in ruins, Photo from The Preservation Magazine

Jefferson Levy hired an engineer and set about repairing the house and restoring the gardens, spending large sums of money
He also maintained an agent to locate and buy back any furniture and works of art of Thomas Jefferson’s and reinstalled them in Monticello. He also replaced any missing woodwork and mantels by commissioning replicas from original designs.

But a movement was started to take Monticello from Jefferson Levy, considered by many in Charlottesville to be a non American native, greedy, selfish, an alien, running a bachelor’s hall.  Anti Semitic tones were also high.
Many campaigns were launched to try and take or force the sell of Monticello to become a public shrine. What followed was a series of hearings and debates in the House and Senate concerning the fate of Monticello.  Levy was able to fight off all these attempts to take Monticello from him.
Finally in 1914, Levy was asked to part with Monticello for the National demand to have Monticello commemorate Jeffersonian principles. Levy relented.  It is said it was a very emotional scene and Levy burst into tears.  Levy said that he never dreamt he would ever part with Monticello. He died less than three months later.
Once the the privately run Foundation took over Monticello everything having to do with the Levy’s was removed.  Sad indeed.

As I look at the people of America today, I see many who just do not understand the concept of freedom.  Every where you look more and more people are crying out for more laws, more restrictions, anything to stop something someone else does not like.

Our Bill of Rights

If we are to understand and follow our founding father's ideas on freedom and our rights, as written down, we should each live our lives as we see fit and allow others to do the same.  I don’t need a law to force you to hate brussel sprouts because I hate them, and you should not try to force me to like them.  (Won’t happen) We should both be free to think as we want as long as my freedom does not infringe on your freedom.  That includes lifestyle, religion, etc.
That’s a hard concept to grasp, right?


Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits 
drawn around us by the equal rights of others. 
I do not add 'within the limits of the law' because law is often but the tyrant's will, 
and always so when it violates the rights of the individual.


Anonymous said...

Well written and thought provoking. I had never heard the story of what happened to Jefferson's home after his death. Very interesting. Thanks for an informative post. Mary

Elizabeth Ohiothoughts said...

Thanks, I find Jefferson and what he believed to be very interesting and love love his gardens! We hope to make a return visit sometime.