One of the numerous highlights of 2017 for me, which also included several monumental family gatherings, was a long-awaited visit to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. After a whirlwind weekend of activity surrounding the wedding ceremony of my youngest daughter, the opportunity to see this historic home, which I had dreamed of since I was a young boy in grammar school, suddenly became available, prompting me to investigate the options for tours on their website, “https://www.monticello.org/
It didn’t take long to decide to take what they called the “Behind the Scenes Tour,” which included, according to the description, a tour “…through the first floor of Monticello and up the narrow staircase to explore the private quarters on the second and third floors, including the iconic Dome Room.” Although it was a bit expensive as museum ticket prices go, I felt like I wanted to see as much as possible, since it might be my only opportunity to take such a tour.
Since photography was prohibited in many of the areas within the home, where I was unable to make my own images, I have notated the sources for the images provided.
Upon arrival, I joined a handful of other enthusiasts along a path in front of the East Front main entrance for a brief introduction to the rules governing what was expected regarding visitor behavior–not touching anything on display, not sitting in any of the chairs except where designated, no photography was permitted in certain areas, and reminders about how challenging the stairs might be for anyone not accustomed to such climbing. Once the introduction was complete, we were led to the main entrance where our guide was waiting to greet us.
After a brief conversation waiting for a previous tour to conclude, we were led into the Grand Entrance Hall, where Jefferson was said to initially greet important visitors to the estate:
The feeling of standing in this enormous and storied hall gave me a clear sense of just how significant this home must have been even to the original visitors in the early 1800’s when Jefferson lived in the home. Many of the artifacts are those which were originally on display at one time or another, and I could feel the anticipation building to see more.
It took a total of forty years to complete what would become the permanent residence for Jefferson in Monticello, and although he took an active role in its construction throughout that time, he had always intended it to be the place where he would live out the remainder of his days, once his public life had concluded. During his tenure as President, from 1801 to 1809, he directed the tasks to complete Monticello from Washington, D.C., and the home itself was mostly completed when he arrived there in 1809.
Standing in the hallway leading up to the library room, preparing to move forward on the tour, I was momentarily overtaken by a keen sense of standing in a place where Jefferson himself surely had stood innumerable times, and looking ahead into that room, I felt myself drifting into an almost hypnotic state, almost expecting to see him turn the corner to greet us. From this point on, at various times throughout the tour, I couldn’t shake the sense of intercepting and sharing momentary flashes of a presence of spirit in several of the areas of the home, pressing me to stay back at times behind the group, in order to linger and absorb this sense of spirit.
During his lifetime, Jefferson had accumulated some 6,000 volumes in his personal library, and our guide reported that after the British burned many of the buildings in the city of Washington during their occupation in 1814, including the Library of Congress, Jefferson donated a large portion of his own personal collection to help America’s Library to recover from that disaster.
© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
Throughout our tour of the upper floors, I continued to be struck periodically by how potent the sense of presence persisted in certain rooms, and the expert commentary provided by our guide, combined with the authentic and thoroughly researched artifacts which were present in each area, only enhanced this sense within me. Once we reached the very top of the house, in what was called the “Dome Room,” we were once again allowed to take photos, and the story surrounding the dome, which was added in 1800, brought us back to earth. Its original purpose was apparently never fully realized, as a kind of gathering place or receiving area for visiting dignitaries, and ended up being mostly used for additional storage according to the records obtained by the foundation.
The payoff came when we were directed to a set of double doors leading out to what should have been the West Front outside terrace, but instead revealed a secret room, apparently taken over by the grandchildren who lived in the house as a kind of getaway from what was very likely a fairly busy household.
Once the main tour had concluded, we were led to an adjoining room across from the Dome Room, where we sat and began a wonderful opportunity to discuss what we had seen, and to ask questions regarding anything we were still curious about. At the prompting of our expert guide, we began an initial conversation about the people who built Monticello, who were referred to in all the literature as “enslaved people.”
Obviously, the implication was controversial as it seemed an attempt to minimize the very difficult fact that slaves were employed in nearly every aspect of both the construction and the maintaining of the plantation. While the existence of slavery was a fact of life in those years leading up to Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence, and while the treatment of those individuals was, by most accounts, much less harsh than it was elsewhere in America at that time, there was no escaping the reality that these individuals were considered property, and that Jefferson struggled broadly with this reality, without taking any concrete steps to change the arrangement.
His relationship with Sally Hemmings, with whom scholars have verified that he fathered six children, didn’t come fully into the light for many years after his death in 1826. Today, we know a great deal more about this side of the Jefferson legacy, and the periodic reunions which take place at Monticello, now include all of the descendants of both Jefferson and Hemmings.
Taking a long walk around the grounds after the main tour permitted some additional views of the quarters for the workers and slaves, the original kitchen, and storage areas common to plantations at that time, but obviously on a grand scale due to the size of the estate, which originally was spread out over 5,000 acres, covering about eight square miles. One of my favorite points of interest was a huge tree along the gardens in the West Front area, which very likely existed when Jefferson walked those paths.
While we know so much more now about this controversial figure from American history, the fascination contained in any study of all of his accomplishments and contradictions seems never to diminish while standing in this architectural marvel or walking on the grounds just as Jefferson no doubt did many times during his tenure at Monticello. When Jefferson died in 1826, he was deep in debt, in today’s equivalent of several million dollars, and everything in the house and the property itself were auctioned off to pay his debtors. For some years afterwards, the house fell into disrepair and was nearly lost to history, but for the efforts of Uriah Levy, a Commodore in the U.S. Navy, who purchased the house and several hundred acres surrounding it in 1834. When Uriah passed away in 1862, the preservation efforts fell to his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy who took over in 1879, who restored many of the features of the home. In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the property from Levy and began years of restoring and purchasing of neighboring property and original artifacts, and has handled the care and preservation of Monticello ever since.
The memory I now carry with me of a sense of the Spirit of Jefferson’s Monticello, may largely be a part of my lifelong interest in stepping through the door, and the realization as a grown man that my childhood dream of standing in that house had finally come to fruition. The experience itself affected me profoundly, while still educating me in the ways which the flawed and very human Jefferson didn’t always keep in step with his words and declarations. The same might be said of any one of us, and while I found these revelations sobering at times, I still experienced a sense of awe as I walked the halls and staircases of Monticello.