As as child I was fascinated by Thomas Jefferson and visiting Monticello was always on my list of places that I wanted to see. As I grew older, I better understood how complicated he was, but I still wanted to see Monticello. Consequently we went to some trouble to schedule the visit and went to the Richmond area specifically to be able to go and see. I also took Thanksgiving week off (my first full week off since starting my new job) and we scheduled Monday in the hopes it would be less crowded.
Monticello was laid out a little differently than other places we have visited, with a large visitors area at the base and a shuttle bus to take us up the hill to the house. The times were strictly scheduled for the bus and just getting on while social distancing was strictly regulated.
Once we got to the top though things were a little strange. We were placed in a tented area where we waited to go into a second tented area and once again they gave lots of information outside of the house. I understand the need for this I guess, but the experience was a bit like being herded into a cattle car and despite the elaborate precautions I didn’t feel particularly safe. I did appreciate how knowledgeable all the tour guides were and they told us lots of interesting facts. The most interesting was that the house was originally designed for just Thomas Jefferson as a retirement home, but ultimately he had kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids living with him which filled up the house pretty quickly.
They let us into the house in groups of twos and threes, so we were left standing on the porch for awhile. It was pretty windy so I had an opportunity to see a weathervane on the ceiling of the porch. Never seen anything quite like that before and thought it was super cool.
The tour of the house was ok. Only the ground floor was open, but at least it was self guided and there were lots of people to answer questions. Once again though the furnishings were mostly not originals because Thomas Jefferson died deeply in debt and many things were sold off. Thankfully the Levy family stepped in and bought the property. They were huge fans of Thomas Jefferson, because they were Jewish and Thomas’s writings on religious freedom protected their faith. Over the years they collected some family items but others are reproductions.
After finishing the house, we toured underneath the building. The house slave quarters and kitchens were under the main building which was a more European arrangement and very different than Mount Vernon. There were many signs about the lives of the slaves in this section including the story of Sally Hemmings. I have always been fascinated by Sally’s story, because she went to France as a house slave with Jefferson and negotiated her return based on how she and her children would be treated. Because she was half white, many of her children chose to pass as white and their lineage and history is often lost when they changed their names.
After reading those stories, I was feeling much less generous about Thomas Jefferson. Yes, he was the architect of many of the freedoms we hold today, but it is important to remember that most of those freedoms were for white, male landowners.
As we walked around we saw the front part of the house was pretty picturesque, but smaller than I expected. I also had it in my head it was mostly white, but that wasn’t actually the case.
My favorite part of the tour was actually the gardens. They have gone to significant trouble to plant historical items there and even sell cuttings and seeds of historical plants. We talked briefly with a gardener there and she was very happy digging in the dirt.
Finally we walked down to Thomas Jefferson’s family plot and then continued to walk downhill the rest of the way to the visitors center. It was a beautiful walk and not that long, although I would not recommend walking up the hill since it is pretty steep.
When we got back to the visitors area we went into the gift shop (I generally like to go after we tour a place) and although it was a nice one the prices were pretty steep. My favorite sections were the historical plants and seeds.
Overall I have to say I left feeling unsettled and did not enjoy the tour as much as I had hoped. It’s just impossible to separate the man from his actions in this case, although I still admire him for many of the things he wrote and the ideas he espoused. I am glad I went, but I do not think I would go back. It just made me too sad.
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