Thomas Jefferson's Monticello
Updated: Feb 11
What is there to see in the state of Virginia? For one, the state is one of the 13 original colonies in North America. The state has plenty of historic landmarks such as Monticello, (Thomas Jefferson’s Charlottesville Plantation), Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg, to name a few. Virginia is also called the “Mother of Presidents”, because eight U.S Presidents were born here: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor & Woodrow Wilson. But before Europeans settled the area, the Monacan and Siouans - Tutelo speaking Native American tribes - occupied this area.
For history buffs, there is no shortage of historic sites to explore in Virginia. On this visit, we were able to visit two: Monticello and Williamsburg, two significant historic sites in the United States.
Monticello (mon-tee-CHEL-oh), was home to Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States (1801-1809) and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. Monticello is located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, outside of Charlottesville in Albemarle County, in the Piedmont region of central Virginia. The 5,000 acres property has been designated a National Historic Landmark due to its architectural and historic significance. In 1987, Monticello and the nearby University of Virginia (also designed and founded by Jefferson), were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Jefferson built Monticello (the name derives from the Italian word for "little mount") on a nearby hilltop of the property he inherited from his father at the age of 21. He started preparing to build the mansion in 1768, on the highest point of the hilltop where he roamed as a child.
He designed the mansion, the garden, outbuildings and grounds of Monticello himself. Jefferson’s land provided most of the construction materials (lumber, stone, limestone, bricks, etc.) for building his Monticello. Other materials such as nails were made on the property.
The mansion Jefferson built was inspired by architecture in France while serving he there as U.S. Ambassador from 1785-1789. The mansion was built and rebuilt for over a period of forty years, not quite achieving the neoclassical look he wanted. He referred to the ongoing construction of his home as his “Essay in Architecture”. He must have been a perfectionist, which is not surprising for such an intelligent and talented man. A genius in many ways I would think.
As Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote, “More than any historic home in America, Monticello speaks to me as expression of the personality of its builder.” Indeed, his house and surrounding property reflects the many interests, collections and mementos Jefferson had accumulated and achieved throughout his lifetime. From politics, science, archaeology, language, music, botany, architecture to cooking, he was a man of many talents.
Jefferson served two terms as the third President of the United States, but refused a third term. Instead, he turned his attention to his beloved Monticello, and continued to pursue his many interests including education. Thus he founded the University of Virginia in 1819. He financed it with the money from his vast collection of books (6,700 volumes) which he sold to the Library of Congress in 1815, replacing the books that were lost when the British burned the U.S. Capitol during the War of 1812.
Jefferson's estate was a working farm. He owned over 5,000 acres in Bedford County (at Poplar Forest), and 5,000 acres in Albemarle County. He also owned an estimated 600 slaves, some of which were inherited from his father and father-in-law. Over one hundred of these slaves tended to the needs of Monticello. Quarters were provided for domestic slaves.
Adjacent to the mansion is the Mulberry Row where numerous outbuildings for various specialized functions and trades (dairy, wash house, store house, a nail factory joinery etc.) were located. Some outbuildings remain intact but only the foundations survived for most.
Some of the outbuildings that survived at Monticello are the stone weaver's cottage, the chimney of the joinery and the cabin that served as of Sally Hemings - the household slave and half-sister of Jefferson’s wife.
It is believed that Jefferson had a 38-year relationship with her after his wife died. She bore six children by him, four of whom survived to adulthood. However, some scholars believed the evidence conducted on Sally’s descendants' DNA was insufficient. There is a possibility that Jefferson’s brother or any of his family could have fathered Sally Hemings's children.
JEFFERSON AS A GARDENER
"I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that . . . as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet." No wonder Jefferson planted so many varieties of vegetables. It was his main diet. The estate has extensive gardens which not only provided food for Monticello, it was also Jefferson’s experimental plot - a laboratory on different species of plants.
He was an avid horticulturist. In fact, he kept a detailed diary of his garden, recording the various varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers he planted, as well as his successes and failures. Conservationists re-created the vegetable pavilion in 1979, showing as best they could what what the garden was like in Jefferson's time.
As I love gardening myself, I can imagine the estate's gardens at their peak, even today. It must have been an incredible sight in spring and summer. Alas, we visited the estate in the fall, but we still found several flowering plants that were in bloom, as in the examples below.
After exploring the grounds of Monticello, we followed the path down to the cemetery where he is buried. Jefferson died at the age of 83 and was buried on the grounds (upon his request), in the Monticello Cemetery. The cemetery is owned today by the Monticello Association, a society of his descendants through Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson.
Jefferson died leaving behind debts. One source I read says that he was in debt most of his life. You will wonder why, but then of course spending lavishly on books, on his house and many other interests, as well as feeding his steady stream of house guests (as much as 50 persons at a time), servicing the obligations he inherited from his father-in-law, among other things, will have kept him deeply in debt.
Jefferson designed his own gravestone and wrote his own epitaph. It says simply:
"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia."
The estate was already entering the early stages of decay when Jefferson died and his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph was forced to sell the property. The property was auctioned off a year after he died. In 1834 it was bought by Uriah P. Levy, a commodore in the U.S. Navy, who admired Jefferson. He spent his own money to preserve the property. His nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy took over in 1879 who also invested considerable money to restore and preserve it. He later sold it in 1923, to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (TJF).
Jefferson served the country for almost five decades. He was a lawyer, architect, writer, farmer and a scientist. The current nickel, a United States coin, features a depiction of Monticello on its reverse side.
It was interesting to see a glimpse of Thomas Jeffferson's life. It was worth visiting the place and learning something of a man who helped shape the United States.
Instead of going back up to Monticello to catch the bus back down to the Visitor's Center, we opted to walk. We followed the trail back down to the parking lot from the cemetery. If we had known, we could have just walked up to the mansion. The path is nice and quiet, surrounded by the estate's many trees.