Wisdom of the World
September 4, 1998

At Monticello, Where Jeffersonian Genius Is Held Self-Evident

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    CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Nichole Wilder was arguing with her sister Samantha.

    "Look at Mount Vernon," said Nichole, 16. "The family needed slaves, they were a part of life."

    "Yeah," acknowledged Samantha, 8. "But Washington freed his slaves. Jefferson never let his slaves go free."

    "Jefferson died in debt," Nichole countered. "And Washington's wife had lots of money, so he didn't have to worry."

    The Wilder sisters, from Winchester, Va., were here with their parents to visit Monticello, the house that Thomas Jefferson built. And they had come up against the central contradiction that historians have worried over for years (and volumes): How can the man who wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" have been a slave owner all his life?

    When I was Samantha's age, growing up in Washington in the 1960's, I visited Monticello with my Girl Scout troop. But the questions that came so naturally to the Wilder girls did not occur to us then. We were told that "servants," not slaves, worked in the house and fields, and the private lives of Presidents were nobody's business. Monticello told the story of a great patriarch, a talented polymath and frontier genius; it was a shrine to a Great White Man.

    A recent weekend in Charlottesville proved that a historical site -- indeed, history -- is viewed through different prisms at different times. Today, movies like "Jefferson in Paris," an exploration of his relationship with a slave, Sally Hemings, or the recent "Primary Colors" frankly confront issues of character. The President as flawed human being has become a more compelling image than the President as secular saint.

    And so Monticello now tells a more ambiguous story, in line with our thinking about both Thomas Jefferson and William Jefferson Clinton.

    Jefferson was born in Albemarle County on April 13, 1743, at his family's estate on the Rivanna River; his father was one of the first settlers in the county. When the elder Jefferson died in 1757, he left 5,000 acres to the future President, who was then 14. These became the site of the Monticello plantation.

    Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg from 1760 to 1762, then studied law. He served in the Virginia House of Burgesses, as the state's Governor, as a United States Congressman, as Minister to France and as Secretary of State.

    He was elected President in 1801 and re-elected in 1804.

    But Jefferson is equally famous for his many accomplishments and interests outside public service: in architecture, botany, winemaking, agriculture, music and literature. And his expertise in these areas is fully evident on a visit here. Vines, Violin and Books

    In what he described as his "essay in architecture," Jefferson designed the main house at Monticello. He also planted its vineyards and created the sumptuous gardens. His violin is on display at the house, as are many of the books he bought to replenish those he donated to the new country; they became the core of the Library of Congress.

    Construction on Monticello began in 1768. When Jefferson returned from France in 1789, after his stint as Minister, he redesigned the house. It was not finished, and Jefferson did not live there until after he retired from public life in 1809.

    He died on July 4, 1826, $100,000 in debt. In January 1827, a poster put up in the area announced that "130 valuable negroes" were offered in the executor's sale of his estate.

    As we approached Charlottesville, named for George III's wife, Charlotte, I referred to the classic W.P.A. guide to Virginia, which describes the city, also home to the University of Virginia, as "a natural bowl" and "an immense many-pavilioned garden." The bowl shape gives a visitor the nagging feeling of driving around in circles, but the road is well marked, and we easily found Monticello's winding entrance.

    Despite pouring rain and cool weather, the parking lot was full; people waited patiently for the buses to take them up a hill to the house. We hurried past the crowded gift shop, with its Monticello slide sets, Monticello architectural ornaments, Monticello Riesling and Chardonnay, Monticello Wedgwood, Monticello stemware and a collection of tchotchkes and books that ranged from a red quill ballpoint to monographs written by Monticello scholars.

    The private, nonprofit Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation has run the estate since 1923. Its president, Daniel P. Jordan, a dapper and effusive Southerner, has a doctorate in history from the University of Virginia and during his 14 years of work at Monticello has overseen an aggressive fund-raising campaign to expand its educational component.

    Seven members of the Monticello staff hold Ph.D.'s, and throughout the year more than 400 academic researchers visit. For the 500,000 regular tourists, the guides are unusually well informed and offer as much information about the lives of the slaves who lived on the estate as they do about Jefferson.

    In the summer, and during some weekends throughout the year, visitors can take special tours of the plantation that explore slave life exclusively.

    "There has been increased attention paid to this theme over the last decade," explained the head guide, Elizabeth Dowling Taylor. "It is a gradual awakening to the process of being enlightened and telling an inclusive story and telling it from a wide perspective." Home to Many Families

    Though the special tour was not available when we visited, our guide, Betty Hopson, began her remarks to us by explaining, "Monticello was a home to many families including Jefferson's and his daughters." She said that Jefferson inherited his slaves from his father and father-in-law, and that the slaves worked in the fields farming tobacco and wheat. Ms. Hopson also talked freely about members of the Hemings family who worked in the house during Jefferson's lifetime and were freed when he died.

    Historians have long debated the nature of Jefferson's relationship with Hemings. The estate's brochure on slave life explained the controversy this way: "Sally Hemings's name became linked to Jefferson's in 1802 when a Richmond newspaper editor claimed that she was Jefferson's mistress and had borne him a number of children. The story, which still can be neither refuted nor clearly substantiated, continues to capture the public imagination."

    Most of Jefferson's biographers, like Dumas Malone, have discounted the story, but recently others have acknowledged its plausibility; the results of a DNA test being performed on Hemings's descendants may provide a resolution.

    "People think that we are uptight about Sally Hemings or slavery," Jordan said. "But we are not. We deal with it every day."

    Much of what I remembered from my childhood visit remains; the image of Jefferson as the avatar of the Enlightenment man is secure. We learned that he could read seven languages and that all are represented in his library. We heard of his garden plan, which included 20 oval-shaped flower beds at the four corners of the house and a garden with more than 250 varieties of vegetables and herbs. We saw the several clocks he designed, among them an obelisk clock in his bedroom; its dial is supported by two black marble obelisks. We also saw his famous plantation clock that shows the month, day and time.

    A few miles from Monticello is Ash Lawn, the home of another Founding Father, James Monroe. But who other than the sturdiest academic contemplates Monroe? Jefferson continues to be compulsively interesting, and though his breadth and genius are surely part of the reason, his flaws are also compelling. Addressing the Paradox

    Julian Bond, the civil rights leader who is a professor of history at the University of Virginia and at American University and serves on a committee on African-American interpretation at Monticello, offered this view: "Jefferson talked about slaves as 'my family.' Obviously if some family members owned other family members, it is not a family in a traditional sense. You keep having to answer the question, was Jefferson a good slave master? That's an oxymoron. There are no good slave masters."

    And yet, Bond continued: "He is universally admired for everything that he did and that he stood for. There is a desire to lift him out of slavery."

    On Saturday morning, we visited the University of Virginia. Jefferson designed the grounds in 1817 and was involved in all aspects of its construction as well as in designing its educational approach. His intent was to create a small scholarly community in which students and faculty members lived and worked side by side. This was revolutionary at the time, because a college was typically one large building, and students and teachers went their separate ways after class.

    The construction of the university was not quite complete when Jefferson died, although 40 students entered in 1825. Today, there are more than 18,000.

    Alexandra Buljancevac, a junior, led our tour through the campus, which Jefferson referred to as his "academical village." His accomplishments as an architect were in evidence as we contemplated the long lawn with the elegant rotunda, flanked by 10 pavilions, more lawns, and the east and west ranges.

    Slavery did not enter any discussions here, until I asked Cliff and Janet Raynor and their two sons, Alex, 7, and Michael, 5, from Raleigh, N.C., their impression of Jefferson.

    "One thing that we took away from Monticello was this dichotomy between his private and his public life," said Raynor, 38, who is a manager for Interpath, an Internet service company. "And it's something that most of us face: We say one thing and we do another. We tell our kids not to lie, and then they catch us making an excuse that isn't true. And here he made these public philosophical statements about slavery being evil, and at the same time he held slaves."

    Before leaving Charlottesville, we went to the new Visitors Center to see the exhibit "Getting Word," about an oral history project, three years in the making, on Monticello slaves and their descendants. Pictures of the reunion were on one wall, with quotations from some of the slaves blown up next to them. The impression is solemn but not painful.

    "I think the visitor coming out of Monticello should be chastened in the way that those who visit the Holocaust Museum are chastened," the historian James Loewen said in a interview. "People should come out of Monticello with tears in their eyes."

    I saw no tears at Monticello. But for me, the figure of Jefferson can no longer exist as a calm and distant historical icon. And even without tears, the focus on slavery, the efforts to bring to life all those who lived on the mountaintop, bring that world a bit closer to earth.

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