Monticello, located just outside the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, was the plantation home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and 3rd president of the United States. The main house sits atop the summit of an 850-foot high peak on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a National Historic Landmark and the only U.S. president’s home named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Thomas Jefferson was born into a life of privilege and high social standing. His father, Peter Jefferson, was a successful planter, surveyor, cartographer, and politician. As a member of the colonial gentry class, Peter Jefferson provided his family a prosperous and cultured lifestyle.
Benefiting from his father’s success, Thomas Jefferson was afforded a quality education. He discovered a love for books at an early age. Starting at the age of five, he attended boarding schools and studied with many different tutors. At the age of sixteen, he attended the College of William and Mary, and then he went on to study law with George Wythe. Jefferson’s education shaped the man he would become and ostensibly, as a Founding Father, the country that was to be created.
At the age of fourteen, Thomas Jefferson inherited 5000 acres upon his father death. Twelve years later, the scholarly Jefferson would design and build a house on that property atop the lofty hill that he would call Monticello—the name derived from the Italian word for “little mountain”. Over the course of forty years, Jefferson took delight from designing, redesigning, building, and rebuilding Monticello.
Unfortunately, the cost of the endless renovations, opulent lifestyle, an inherited debt from his father in-law, and other financial missteps, resulted in Thomas Jefferson amassing a sizable debt. At the time of his death, he owed what would translate to roughly 2-million dollars in today’s money. Jefferson’s daughter, who inherited the estate, was forced to sell Monticello. Thankfully for the sake of history, the succeeding owners preserved and maintained the estate as it was.
Then in 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation was established to purchase and maintain Monticello. It is a privately owned nonprofit corporation that endeavors to restore Monticello as Jefferson knew it. In its nearly 100 years of stewardship, it has overseen the preservation and growth of the estate. It has reacquired land that was once part of the original estate. It has built a modern visitor center keeping Monticello open to the public and offers daily tours.
Our journey to Monticello began online at www.monticello.org where we learned a little about what to expect from our visit and we explored the various ticket options. We selected the most popular ticket—the Highlights Tour. It is a 45-minute guided tour through the first floor of the main house. It includes the Garden & Grounds Tour and the Slavery at Monticello Tour. Same day and next day tickets were sold out. So our tickets were for two days later.
Printed on our ticket was the scheduled time for our tour—11:30AM—and instructions in bold letters to arrive 30-minutes early. It was a steep walk from the tiered parking lot on the lower slope of Monticello mountain to the admission gate. Handicap parking is available closer to the entrance for those with disabilities. When we arrived at 11:00AM, the lady scanned our tickets then said we should go directly to the shuttle for a ride up the hill to the main house. She said we had no time for the visitor center or to see the introductory movie. Bummer! They should of told us to arrive an hour early. She said we could visit those attractions along with the gift shop on our way out.
When we got off the shuttle bus at the top of the hill, staff members were well organize and made announcements that helped direct everyone to different stations along a covered walkway depending on the type and time of tour. “11:30 Highlight Tour ticket holders meet your guide at the third station”. Hey, that is us, third station…got it.
Our tour guide assembled the group, checked everyones tickets, and announced a few rules before we were led up the brick walkway to the columned East Front Portico—the same entrance where guest would have arrived when visiting Thomas Jefferson. As we approached, I looked for the iconic dome that Monticello is known for, but I did not see it from that vantage point. I learned the view seen on the reverse side of the nickel is of the West Front. Who knew a house could have two fronts?
The tour began in the Entrance Hall where several notable items were displayed. There was a set of elk antlers sent from Lewis and Clark, the Great Clock designed by Jefferson, a Mastodon jaw bone, marble top tables from France, Native American artifacts, hand drawn maps, a bust of Voltaire and much, much more. All the items were meant to impress and inspire conversation from visiting guest.
As we walked through the rooms on the first floor—the South Square Room, Library, Cabinet, Bed Chamber, Parlor, Dining Room, Tea Room, and the Madison Room—it was obvious that Monticello was well preserved. Jefferson’s detailed notes provided historians great detail into his home and possessions. Our guide said that 60 percent of the furnishing in the house are original to the time of Thomas Jefferson. It gave us a real sense of what it would have been like to visit during that time. His most treasured possessions, according to our tour guide, were the books that filled the library shelves.
Despite the sudden appearance of rain, our tour moved outside and around to the passage that runs below Monticello. We had our rain jackets, others had umbrellas, but most were unprepared for the change in the weather. “The tour must go on”, announced our guide as he headed off into the downpour. The group reluctantly followed him around the side of the house.
The All-weather Passage is a long corridor passing under the main house connecting the North Wing to the South Wing. Directly below the first floor, this lower level is where the labor occurred that kept the main house running. It is where some of the domestic house slaves lived. It is where the kitchen, dairy, smokehouse, and icehouse were located. The wine and beer cellars were there. So was the water cistern that slaves were tasked with keeping filled by carrying buckets of water up the mountain. It is where a small stable with tack room, carriage bays, and stalls for the carriage horses were located, even though there was a main stable located at the east end of Mulberry Row. I tried to imagine the hustle and bustle of daily activity that took place beneath Monticello and I found myself thinking, ”if these walls could talk”.
When we finished exploring the lower level, we saw that the rain had stopped. It disappeared as quickly as it appeared and the sun was shining once again. Our next stop was the Slavery at Monticello Tour. Monticello was a self sufficient plantation requiring a great deal of labor. Most of that labor came from slaves.
Our guide for this tour was an older gentleman with a serious manner. His stories and descriptions were heartfelt and vivid. As we stood on Mulberry Row, the main road and center of industry of the plantation, he described the contradiction in Jefferson’s life and asked the question, “How can the man that penned the words ‘“all men are created equal”’ be the same man that owned more than five hundred slaves during his life time”? He offered no answer and left us to ponder the question.
As we walked along Mulberry Row looking at the buildings where slaves lived and worked at the slaughterhouse, woodworking shop, blacksmith shop, cooper, nailery, and so on…the guide continued his stories. He told how, after the death of Jefferson’s wife, he began a relationship with one of his young slave girls that resulted in the birth of at least six children. It was not just any slave girl, but Sally Hemings, the half-sister of his deceased wife. Both women had the same father, but Sally’s mother was a slave woman. The law at the time was if the mother was a slave, then so is the child.
At the conclusion of the Slavery at Monticello Tour, we did a short walk down the hill to the Monticello Graveyard. With a few exceptions, it is a family cemetery for the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha Jefferson. It is the site of Thomas Jefferson’s grave. True to his nature and attention to detail, Jefferson sketched a design of an Obelisk he wanted placed over his grave and wrote the epitaph to be engraved thereon.
Those three accomplishments, writing the Declaration of Independence, writing the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom that was later used as a model to the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, and the founding of the University of Virginia, are what Jefferson most wanted to be remembered for.
When we returned from the cemetery, we discovered we missed the last Gardens and Ground Tour for the day. Undeterred, we took our own self-guided tour through the vegetable garden and West Lawn. It was during that stroll through the West Lawn where I saw the “Nickel View” of Monticello and met the distinguished Thomas Jefferson.
Okay, maybe it was not the real Thomas Jefferson, but it was the next best thing. This Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by historic interpreter and actor Bill Barker, never broke character and after a few minutes I felt like we were really listening to Thomas Jefferson. When I asked a question about his thoughts on the Lewis and Clark expedition, he went into great detail about how he made the Louisiana Purchase and sent his secretary and personal acquaintance, Meriwether Lewis, on a quest to explore and seek a river highway to the Pacific Ocean.
On our way back to the parking lot, we stopped at the visitor center and museum. We watched a short film about Monticello and we visited the gift shop. I would go back to Monticello again. There is still more to see. Maybe next time I will spring for the Behind-the-Scenes Day Pass that includes everything from the Highlights Tour plus a tour of the second and third floor which includes the Dome Room. At $85.00 per person, it is double the cost of the Highlights tour though.
Monticello was a fascinating and enlightening experience. I can’t possibly relate all I learned, and the affect it had on me. The conflict between Jefferson, the dignified gentleman with many accomplishments and contributions to our country and Jefferson, the slave owner and perpetrator of a possible unwanted relationship with a young slave girl is troubling. However, I am glad Monticello exist today. It serves as a place where the stories are told and people, like myself, can learn the real history.
Until next time…Happy days and safe travels.