On the last Sunday before Thanksgiving, we celebrated a little early.
Neo-neocon called to say she was passing through the area on her way north. We made plans to meet and to have dinner. It was a wonderful and rare opportunity to meet a fellow-blogger and share experiences.
Our meeting place was Thomas Jefferson’s most famous home, Monticello. We parked in the lot below the house and took the shuttle bus to the top of the mountain, where everyone got off at the front door. I tried to imagine how visitors had come up by carriage or horseback. Back then, one would have had to find the easiest path to traverse a steep climb.
Neo-neocon had never seen Monticello. Nor had I, despite more than twenty years of passing the turn to his place nearly every day on the way to work. The Baron had been at least once, taking his niece and her friend to see our third President’s house. He also had done a painting of Monticello, though that was before I knew him…if there was such a time.
The house tour is brief, limited to the first floor. The second and third floors, which were the family rooms, are closed to the public, but in their day those rooms must have been busy places; Jefferson’s daughter and her husband and their six children moved into Monticello after it was finished. Before he died, his daughter would bear another three children. Jefferson wrote that he loved being surrounded by his grandchildren. Eventually there were eleven, so “surrounded” he was indeed.
And then there are the Jefferson-Hemings descendants. A long controversy continues over Jefferson’s relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings, who was also his late wife’s half-sister, and came to live with the Jeffersons at some point. Sally was only fifteen at the time, and Jefferson had been a widow for some years before he began his life-long relationship with her. Such were the intricacies of relationships and secrets of slave-owning Americans, that their amount of white or black genes were labeled. Thus, Sally Hemings was a “quadroon”. Many scholars believe the issue of Jefferson’s paternity has been resolved through DNA testing; others disagree.
Jefferson’s divided mind on this subject can be seen in his notion that mixing the two races resulted in diluting the superior white blood, and leaving the children of such unions as inferior. Yet he fathered all those children on his own slave, whose blood was already “diluted” by her black mother and white father.
Thus his slave children are allegedly related to both Jefferson and his wife, Martha, whose father sired Sally Hemings with one of the slaves that Jefferson inherited from his father-in-law. So Sally Hemings’ children were more than merely the half-brothers and sisters of Jefferson’s “legitimate” children. The reality is that they were closer to three-quarters related to their more fortunate siblings.
We will never be free of the “race” questions and tensions in America. And that is a good thing: it means we bear in consciousness the mistake the Founding Fathers made in giving in to the southern, agrarian slave owners in “order to create a more perfect union.” Had they not compromised themselves in this, the north and south would have been divided from the beginning and there would never have been a federation of states. Instead, they left the problem to be resolved by the blood, sweat and tears of their own descendants eighty years later. Even now, the argument goes on, in more muted terms. It is not an evil that is capable of being exorcised from the body politic of this country. The call for “reparations” — as though this could be resolved by the laying on of money — trivializes the mystery of America.
But back to the house; it is such a reflection of its architect and owner: the floor plan is both beautiful and ingenious — Jefferson was a gadget lover, and his various tools and entertainments are out on display. His ingenuity extends to such things as Palladian windows that can be raised to let in the mountain air in the hot Virginia summers, and dumb waiters to bring food and wine up from the cellar to be served in the first floor dining room.
His home reflects Jefferson’s personality in another way. Myron Magnet, writing in the latest issue of City Journal, compares the houses of some of the other Founding Fathers with Jefferson’s effort to create Monticello:
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When you compare the houses of Virginia’s other Founding Fathers with Monticello, what strikes you is how they’ve grown up organically, the products of historical development. You can see George Washington’s increasing importance written all over Mount Vernon, for example. This gentleman-architect first raised the story-and-a-half 1740s house he had inherited from his half-brother to two stories, then expanded its middle to accommodate a grander hall and staircase, then added a pediment to try to disguise the asymmetry he had created, and finally built additions on either side with splendid presidential rooms, stylishly neoclassical by contrast with the earlier rococo. Similarly, as a young congressman, James Madison brought his bride home to his parents’ 1760s brick house, Montpelier, and in 1797 built a private four-room extension for the two of them, with a separate entrance, like a duplex townhouse in a modern condo development. A new Tuscan-columned portico helped the two-family house look more like a single mansion, and in 1809 a new front door and new wings made the house look truly unified and presidential, with plenty of space for entertaining as well as for Mother Madison, who lived with them until her death at 97. But inside, you can still trace the piecemeal development.
Monticello, by contrast, looks like the product of a single, unified conception, springing from Jefferson’s brain like Athena from the head of Zeus. It didn’t, of course. It was over 50 years in the making: Jefferson and his wife began their ten years of marriage in one of the little pavilions, basically a studio apartment with a basement kitchen, all that then existed of Monticello. Jefferson kept changing his mind about what he wanted, especially after he returned from his four years in Paris, filled with visions of French neoclassicism and smitten with the Roman Maison Carrée at Nîmes, which he gazed at “whole hours . . . like a lover at his mistress.” He tore down walls, designed historically accurate details in all the classical orders, extended porticoes, moved stone columns, enlarging and perfecting. “Putting up and pulling down [is] one of my favorite amusements,” he commented, with the result that for years he found himself “living in a brick-kiln” with unplastered walls. But he produced something transcendent, like Palladio’s villas or Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House.
The years of turmoil to reach this result make one reconsider skeptically his description of the American Revolution as “a beautiful example of a government reformed by reason alone, without bloodshed.” What about the years when Washington froze and his men starved trying to outlast British armies that chased them for 600 miles? As Jefferson’s experience building Monticello should have taught him, nothing springs forth like a fully formed Platonic ideal. Yes, there is a self-evident right to liberty, but it took six years of bloodshed to establish that right in the New World. And many of those fighting believed that they were safeguarding not an abstract idea of liberty but the historical liberty that they had enjoyed during five or more generations of self-rule here in America and that belonged to them as freeborn Englishmen, protected by such “musty records” as Magna Carta.
There is a certain otherworldliness to Jefferson’s political philosophy (compared with his hardheaded pragmatism as president). But one remembers that he did not fight in the Revolution, since he was serving as Virginia’s governor…
Actually, Jefferson himself didn’t “tear down walls…” He had a hundred and fifty people to do his bidding and it was they who made the bricks, constructed the walls, and then tore them down again as their master changed his mind. One begins to wonder if this is where the phrase “them crazy white folks” might have originated.
Released from the brief and well-orchestrated house tour (there were other groups coming up behind us) I walked the grounds with Neo-neocon and the Baron. The spirit of those people who made Jefferson’s dreams into reality were far more present to me than was Jefferson. However brilliant a polymath he was, it was they who had to understand his dreams enough to bring them into reality. It was they who were the life and blood, the muscle and sinew who brought Jefferson’s ideas into being and buffered him from the harsher aspects of feeding, clothing, and cleaning up after oneself. It was their section — the dependencies — that I really wanted to see: the kitchens, the animal stalls, the ice house, the brewery, and of course, the slave quarters for the house servants under the eastern terrace.
Jefferson designed his mansion so that the dependencies are under the house, much like the English basements of the Federal period, except that these rooms take up all the undersides of the house, and are cut in half by a long breezeway open at both ends. Neo-neocon observed that since the view from his home was so important to Jefferson, that at least subliminally, he might have wanted to put out of sight and mind the slave cabins, smokehouses, and outhouses that dotted the landscape of most plantations.
I think she is right: we know fairly well a house in our area that has been lived in by generations of the same family since it was built in the early 1800’s. Originally built on a thousand acre plantation on the James River, it is reduced from its former grandeur to a tenth of that. Some of the slave cabins remain and are used for storage. The house itself is supposedly designed by Jefferson. It is situated so that at the vernal equinox the sun shines through the front door on the east and the light exits at the back door at the west end of the house. Only now, the “front” or eastern door of Springview is really at the back of the house, since visitors no longer have to make the climb by horse or carriage. It is much easier to park near the west door. Like Monticello, some of the original furniture remains. However, unlike the Monticello Foundation’s immense outlay of funds for restoration, as new generations took over and installed their own furnishings, the older things got shoved closer to the walls to make room. Thus the closer you get to the walls, the more ancient the pieces you will find.
And like Monticello was then, Springview remains heated by wood. It gives the house a pleasant smoky odor that reminds you what Monticello must have smelled like in its time as an actual residence.
There were slave quarters at Monticello, of course, on Mulberry Row. Even though they housed 150 people, they no longer exist, having been bulldozed down at some point to make a road. It is mostly the dwellings of the wealthy that remain for us to contemplate.
Jefferson hated waste of any kind, especially time. One ought always to be busy. He said, of walking as exercise:
“A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercises, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be your constant companion of your walks.”
He wrote thousands of letters, and his ingenious copy-writer device, allowed him to preserve facsimiles his voluminous correspondence before it went on its way to the recipients. My, how he would have loved owning a laptop. Jefferson was probably one of the few who, had he been hurled into the future, would have instantly begun examining its artifacts even as he decried the degradations of an increasingly uncivil, illiterate society. So much for his ideal “free yeoman” — now they are all encased for eight hours a day in small cubicles, stacked floor after floor on top of one another…and yet they live a life of more material ease than he could ever have done.
Neo-neocon and I made the requisite tour of the gift shop, while the Baron, a guy, mostly wandered on the porch, only coming in as they rang up my purchases: a paperback copy of one of my favorite books on the Founding Fathers, some rose and lemon tea made on the plantation, and various children’s entertainments. I am not too old to color the cards of butterflies…
Our visit to Monticello was followed by dinner at an Indian restaurant. The Baron could eat Indian food every day, and this particular restaurant fixes it to his liking. When he introduced me to it, I preferred the mild varieties. Now I eat it Indian style, fiery and wonderfully flavorful.
That night, when I lay down to sleep, the first thing I saw when I closed my eyes were those vistas from Monticello. There is something about being able to gaze into a far horizon that works its wonders on the soul. Whether it be the horizon of the eternal ocean, or the hazy Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance, those images remain for a long time.
Thank you, Neo-neocon, for an early Thanksgiving day…