The Dream House of a Dilettante
"All my wishes end," he wrote, "where I hope my days will end, at Monticello."
Monticello, in south central Virginia, was Thomas Jefferson's home for the last 56 years of his life. He spent much of his time in 40 of those years building it, transforming it, tearing it apart and putting it back together again. He knew and loved every inch of house and property. When he was the American ambassador to France, he filled 86 crates with furniture and works of art for its rooms his rooms, and in 1789 brought fruit trees with him on the boat home. When he was president of the United States, he pined for Monticello and was overjoyed when he could take the four-day viayage required in those days to get there from Washington, crossing four rivers and numerous streams, few of which were equipped with bridges or ferries. He designed much of what was there himself, and supervised everything down to the last detail, from the half million bricks he had baked in his own kilns to the sewing of the crimson mantua counterpane he spread over his bed. Even with all the political distractions which took over so much of his time, said one of his overseers, "Mr. Jefferson always knew all about everything in every part of his grounds and garden. He knew the name of every tree and just where one was dead or missing."
Nearly everything at Monticello was sold at auction after his death and dispersed to the four winds. But for the last eighty or so years, a Memorial Foundation has been working on a heroic scale to restore the house and found, has been assembling paintings, furniture, scientific instruments and natural history specimens that he originally collected, and coaxes others out of museums and collectors for special occasions.
For the 250th anniversary of his birth, the Peabody Museum in Cambridge Massachusetts lent the collection of Indian artifacts presented to Jefferson by Lewis and Clark when they cam back from the historic mission to the northwest on which he sent them in 1804, including a buffalo robe with a painting of a battle between the Mandans and the Sioux. The Pennsylvania Historical Society produced the astronomical clock that ex-President Jefferson had built after his old less-accurate timepieces caused him to miss the start of the eclipse of 1811. One Jefferson descendant in New Mexico sent three strong figures from the pre-Columbian culture of Mississippi. From Howard University came the little three-inch-high bell that Jefferson's wife Martha gave on her deathbed to her 9-year-old slave girl Sally Hemings.
Both Monticello and Jefferson are properly regarded as uniquely American phenomena. But it is worth remembering that not only was Jefferson a British subject for the first 34 years of his life, he was also in some respects for all his days a typical English country gentlemen of his time. He would not have appreciated the comparison. He kept a French chef (to the outrage of the superpatriot Patrick Henry who grumbled, "He has abjured his country victuals"), stocked his cellar with champagne and Bordeaux wines, collected French art, relished French conversation, and in the titanic struggle between England and France that went on through most of his life, he generally leaned to the French side. "Mr. Jefferson," reported David Erskine, the British envoy to Washington in 1808, "never spoke with approbation of anything that was British...never lost an opportunity of showing his dislike to Great Britain."
Erskine was a bad reporter. Jefferson in fact found much to admire in England. His choices of "unquestionably the three greatest men the world had ever seen" were Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke, respectively apostles of reason, science and liberty, Englishmen all. Portraits of the three hung in the parlor at Monticello.
What Jefferson hated was the English upper-class, its snobbery, its stiff code of manners, its contempt for the people, its support of an established church - all anathema to a radical democrat and free-thinker like Jefferson.
Btu politics and manners aside, he had much in common with the great nobles and squires who formed the ruling oligarchy of England. Like them he was a big landowner: he inherited 4,000 fertile acres from his father and received 11,000 more as the dowry of his life, Martha Wayles. Like them he was a collector. He loved good horses and good claret, was outspoken and independent-minded, was a devotee of Italian music and scientific farming. He shared the public spirit of those men who were willing o tear themselves away periodically from their fox-hunting and their picture-collecting long enough to sit in the Housed Lords and of Commons and establish the principles of parliamentary government and civil liberty, as well as pick up a world-wide empire in what has been described as a fit of absent-mindedness.
Above all, he was like them in his passionate devotion to his land. It was said of Sir Robert Walpole, who as Prime Minister of Great Britain had regulated the affairs of much of the world for more than twenty years, that when the mail pouch with letters from all over the globe as opened at 10 Downing Street in London, the first letter he opened was the one from the gamekeeper of his family place in Norfolk.
Walpole would have understood how Jefferson, while serving as Minister to Paris during the birth-pangs of the French Revolution, could find the time out to write long letters to Virginia asking if the vines he had planted in Monticello were producing a wine fit to drink.
The English country gentleman took pride in crowning his fair lands with a noble house, one that would shelter his family in elegant comfort and also serve as a social and cultural center for the whole neighborhood. Jefferson had picked out his own sit for such a home shortly after he came into possession of his father's estate at the age of 21. It would be on land leveled off at the top of a peak rising hundreds of feet above a plain in the valley of Rivanna. He called in Monticello, Italian for little mountain.
At about the same time he began collecting and studying such books as James Gibbs' Book of Architecture and Giacomo Leoni's The Architecture of A. Palladio, works intended as practical guides for gentlemen who lacked the money or lived too far from London to get the services of a top architect, but who still wanted a house that would meet the standards laid down by Antonio Palladio, the 16th-century Italian who made a rigorous study of old Roman ruins and whose classical hand lay heavy on every fashionable building in 18th-century England. Jefferson never received any formal training, but his exceptionally keen eye noted interesting details in buildings wherever he went at home or abroad. And he read everything available. In one of his architectural notebooks he wrote, "the pediments should be in height two-ninths of their span," a rule laid down in Palladio's works but one which his English followers had overlooked.
Monticello was meant to be a traditional Palladian building, but it had highly individual features, first and foremost its location. Palladio had sensibly pointed out two centuries before that building a dwelling-place on a mountain-top would be an impractical folly, and Jefferson paid dearly - in the long and laborious transport of tons of stone, brick and timber - for disregarding the master's advice. Once the building was up, Jefferson found he could not find enough water in the well for the needs of what amounted to a small village - family, staff and guests - so additional water had to be hauled up by cart from hillside springs. Life could not have been comfortable on that mountain-too before the building was completed in 1809, and it is painful to think of young Martha Jefferson arriving to start her honeymoon in an unlit, unheated house surrounded by three feet of snow and then living there, with her husband away most of the time governing Virginia or writing revolutionary documents like the Declaration of Independence. She would live there, in a house of never-quite-finished walls and never-quite-finished roof, breathing brick and plaster dust, being buffeted by savage winds, bearing six children in ten years and losing four of them, till she died in 1782, not yet 34 years old.
But for Jefferson, there were compensations enough for all the discomfort. "How sublime it is," he wrote, "to look down into the workhouse of nature, to see her clouds, hail, snow, rain, thunder, all fabricated at our feet." Besides, he knew that nothing like Monticello had ever been built in Colonial America. The structures that Jefferson could see around him on his travels might be pleasant enough to look at, though to his stern classical eye there was always something uncouth and provincial about them. They tended to be built in sheltered lowlands, where people could huddle in small rectangular rooms with small rectangular windows to shield them from the wild environment.
The wilderness was not in those day regarded as a recreational playground. Then, and ever since then, the European immigrant's first impression of the American landscape has generally been one of excess. As W. H. Auden wailed in 1946, it is all "either much too hot or much too cold or much too wet or much too dry...and then -- oh dear! the insects and the snakes and the poison ivy! The truth is that Nature never intended human beings to live here."
Jefferson did not fear the wilderness and was prepared to civilize it He found his little mountain all covered with age-old oak and hickory and chestnut. Settling down in the middle of it, he turned the forest into a park. This was in the best neoclassical English tradition. Joseph Addison had written in 1712, "A man might make a pretty Landskip in his own Possessions." It was a call to English landowners to bring the works of men and nature into one harmonious design. Jefferson had the great open spaces of America to work with: he could make his Landskip encompass boundless virgin forests and Blue Ridge mountains. Proudly in the middle of it all lay his farm of Monticello, 300 aces of hillside and riverside land divided according to the most modern theories of crop rotation into seven fields, each producing a different crop every year. He separated the fields by planting rows of peach trees, as many as 700 of then, but he did not want ant visible divider between his fields and orchards and the decorative lawn and gardens which surrounded his house. So instead of a fence which would have broken the clean sweep of his views, he dug a ditch and covered it with wooden fences laid across it to serve as a cattle guard, where none of his cow would dare to step.
The same taste for dramatic contrast went into the house. The fashionable archite4cts of Jefferson's day aimed at a stately symmetry. So did Jefferson, but he did it in a very individual dynamic way. He wanted the beholder's eye to be always moving in and out. The west portico, the private entrance to Monticello, is a complex pattern of geometrical shapes, triangular and rectangular and octagonal. The straight lines play off against the gentle curves of the stone pillars, the balustrade on the roof and the fanlight window in the pediment.
The view through the double doors at this entrance draws the eye of the visitor up the broad steps, thought the parlor and the entrance hall, straight through the house to the doors of the east portico, which open on half of Virginia. There is never a firm boundary between the house and surrounding nature. The windows that start at floor level on the ground floor and give the impression that there is only one towering story to the building (but there are really three) bring in a floor of light and offer spectacular view in every direction,
The exterior wall of Jefferson's study had large windows so that while he sat browsing through his books -- 20 at a time according to an eyewitness, picking them up as he needed them - he could look out into the greenhouse to see how his experimental seedlings from Italy were doing, or check the progress of the gooseberries from the upper Missouri basis which he like to serve at tea-time.
The master of Monticello was always up to something. "It is wonderful," he told his daughters, "how much can be done, if we are always doing." The room s of Monticello, all of different shapes and sizes, breathe purposeful energy. Jefferson may have liked to indulge himself in the delusion that Monticello was a haven of tranquillity, a refuge from the "tumult of the world ." but it is hard to see how he could have had a moment of real repose in all those 56 years he spent there. His working day began when it was light enough to see the hands of the marble obelisk clock that had been made to his specifications in Paris. The hours were announced by clangs from a Chinese gong on the roof., which was powered by the great clock in the entrance hall, also of Jefferson's own design an d which he wound every Sunday. The mechanism was controlled by 50-pound cannonball weights that descended slowly through the week, sinking through holes in the floor on Friday to spend two day, still sinking still in the cellar.
When he was not busy designing things like the dumb-waiter that brought his wine up from the cellar, he might be writing one of his 20,000 letters or reading one of his 7,000 books in the seven languages that he had mastered. His collection was probably the largest private library in America. When he sold it to the government in 1815 for less than $25,000, it became the nucleus of the restored Library of Congress which had been destroyed in a fire set by invading British troops a year before.
He was always designing improvements: a set of venetian blinds to regulate the light in the greenhouse; a superior form of moldboard for a plow which won a gold medal from a French agricultural society in Paris in 1802. He regularly tested the soil for its suitability to his various crops and observed the heavens with the aid of his achromatic telescope. "We cannot know the relative position of two places on earth." he wrote, "but by interrogating the sun, moon and stars."
He was fascinated by the new world of fossils, then beginning to be studied in a scientific way. He collected them and wrote about them, and placed his most impressive mastodon bones in his entrance hall. The bones of a great beast found in western Virginia particularly fascinated him. At first he thought it was a prehistoric lion but then discovered that it was a giant ground sloth. Its scientific name is Megalonyx Jeffersonii. When he heard that religious leaders were claiming that seashell fossils found at altitudes of thousands of feet must have been deposited there by Noah's flood, he quickly calculated the amount of moisture present in Earth's atmosphere and proved that if every drop of it turned to water, it would not raise the level of the seas more than 52.5 feet.
In France, when he learned that the Count de Buffon, the great naturalist, was claiming that the mammals of the New World were stunted versions of Old World species, and that the so-called American moose was really a reindeer, Jefferson sent orders to the New World to have a moose shot and its skin and skeleton shipped over to Paris, and then personally delivered it, somewhat the worse for four months in transit, to Buffon's house.
After seeing the dome being built over the wheat market in Paris, as well as the dome of the Hotel de Salm, he decided that something similar would fit as a crown for Monticello. He found in the works of the 16th-century architect Philibert de l'Orme, a method of construction so simple that he could teach it to a "very coarse and uninformed carpenter who never heard of a dome before." Because he insisted on keeping good files, he used a kind of carbon paper, but threw it away when he discovered "the greatest invention of the present age," in the form of a polygraph, which allowed him tow write with two pens at once, and keep clean and accurate copies of what hie wrote.
From an ingenious Virginian, he picked up an odometer to attach to the axle of his carriage, where it chimed every ten miles (he always like to know just how far away he was from Monticello). When he came home from Paris in 1789, he brought with him a novelty that had intrigued him: some muskets with interchangeable parts. He was aware of the revolutionary possibilities and encouraged Eli Whitney to apply them to weaponry on a large scale/ In 1798 Whitney got a contract to manufacture muskets by this method for the U. S. Government.
He was a hundred years ahead of his contemporaries in concern for the fate of the Indian nations whose hunting grounds were being overrun by the irresistible surge of the pioneers. He was deeply in pressed by the dignity and eloquence he observed in hunter-warrior cultures. The entrance hall at Monticello housed what amounted to the first native-American museum. He would have preferred to see the Indians survive and prosper by settling down to cultivate a fraction of the lands they wandered over, but when they refused to take his advice, he was capable of the Machiavellian strategies that expanding civilizations always employ to acquire land. In 1803 he wrote to William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, that he would glad to see "the good and influential individuals among [the Indian tribes] in debt, because we observe that when their debts are beyond what the individuals can pay, they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands."
Monticello was also an art museum, with 59 paintings, 29 sculptures, a score or more of historical maps. Scenes of the Revolutionary War Huang on its walls, and busts of Revolutionary heroes stood on pedestals scattered about the house. Jefferson could not resist having his bust, much bigger than that of his arch-rival Alexander Hamilton, displayed just across from it in the main entrance to the house. He filled the rooms with fine furniture, fine draperies, chinaware and silverware, and he personally designed the first parquet floor in America, None of these furnishings were antiques. The people of that high-spirited time might admire the works of their ancestors, but they had none of the modern passion for preserving them intact. In 1786, when Jefferson and John Adams visited Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon, they dutifully paid reverence to the Bard's arm-chair and, "according to custom," cut off a chip to take back home as a souvenir. At home, Jefferson wanted good serviceable contemporary pieces turned out by cabinet-makers in New York and Philadelphia. These were supplemented by furniture that Jefferson designed himself and had made by Monticello slaves.
Though this was a time when an individual still could pretend to universal learning, the extraordinary range of interests shown by Jefferson amazed his contemporaries nearly as much as it amazes us today. President John F. Kennedy, with some coaching from his historian-in-residence Arthur Schlesinger jr., once greeted a group of Nobel Prize winners at dinner by saying that there had never been such concentration of talent in the White House since Thomas Jefferson dined there alone.
It was a pretty phrase but a somewhat misleading comparison. Jefferson could never have won a Nobel Prize. He had none of the specialized depth of knowledge of the modern scientist, preferring to know a fair amount about an enormous variety of things. General Turreae, the French Minister, once reported that he had heard President Jefferson discuss 27 different subjects in a conversation that lasted half an hour. Jefferson was a perfect "dilettante," a word that did not carry the tinge of disapproval it has today. It was rather a term of praise in the 18th century, it meant somewhat who took delight (in Italian, dilettare) in all manifestations of the human spirit. He approached everything with the amiable knowledgeable-amateur air that has been a hallmark of the British upper classes for the past three centuries. In 1750, just before he won half of North America for Britain in the decisive battle on Quebec's Plains of Abraham, General James Wolfe recited Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," remarking that he would have written that poem than taken Quebec that day. In the same spirit, Jefferson was always assuring friends that the "tranquil pursuit of science" meant more to him that all the great affairs of state and that he would not give up Monticello "for the empire of the universe."
Any visitor to Monticello can see that Jefferson was a superbly talented amateur architect, and a tolerably talented amateur farmer, gardener, fiddler, cabinet-maker, astronomer and paleontologist. It is easy to envision him in his study, 20 books at his feet, his favorite mockingbird Dick perched on his shoulder to sing to him while he let his thoughts roam. It is correspondingly easy to overlook the fact that this multi-faceted amateur was also, in one important domain, a thorough-going professional: he was a highly efficient competitive politician, one of the most practical, tenacious and successful this country has ever seen.
For more than 40 years he was in active public service : as delegate to the Virginia House of Burgesses (1769-79) and the Continental Congress (1775); Governor of Virginia (1778-81); Minister to France (1785-89); Washington's Secretary of State (1789-93); John Adams' Vice-President (1797-1801); and President of the United States (1801-1809). During the later period he was active in forming and then directing and holding together an unlikely coalition of Southern country gentlemen and yeomen, Western backwoods farmers and Northern laboring men. It was known as the Republican Party, and though it has changed its name since then to Democratic Party it is still very much with us. Only a decade or so ago it elected and then re-elected a President of the United States whose middle name was Jefferson.
In his years of retirement, Jefferson held open court at Monticello, welcoming, feeding, entertaining, charming and inspiring an endless stream of "people of wealth, fashion, men in office, professional men, military and civil, foreign ministers, missionaries, Indian agents, tourists, artists, strangers, friends." The house he delighted to show them around was not only a self-portrait of its enlightened builder, but a living emblem of the new republic he had helped to call into being. Standing above the clouds, it mingled high ideals with up-to-the-minute labor-saving contraptions; it brimmed with optimism, curiosity, the willingness to try anything and an unbounded faith in the ability of an educated democratic people to solve problems.
Monticello also had a tragic flaw. This temple to science and progress had a shaky economic foundation It could feed and even clothe its inhabitants (Jefferson liked to lounge around in a jacket made of wool from his own Merino sheep), but could not produce enough cash crops to pay for the Jeffersonian country-gentleman life-style. And it was kept going from day to day by the most oppressive and regressive of labor systems, human slavery. Jefferson was a man who deplored slavery, and entertained an optimistic hope that it would one day be abolished. But meanwhile there seemed to be no way to run a plantation in Virginia without slaves, though he might (like the translators of the King James Bible) persist in calling them "servants" He was able to free a handful, but most of them remained, and after his death at least 150 human beings had to be offered for sale with the rest of the property to pay his debts.
The conflict between ideal theory and uncomfortable facts tormented Jefferson as it did many of the Founding Fathers. With his revolutionary ardor he had helped rouse America against George III and was occasionally capable of bloodthirsty sentiments: the tree of Liberty, he once wrote, needed to be refreshed regularly with the blood of tyrants.
As a southerner, Jefferson believed passionately in states' as well as individuals' rights, and in keeping the power of the central government strictly limited. This included the size of the Army and the Navy. He would have been appalled to learn, as his countrymen would learn a few decades later, that the only way to free the slaves was to have a federal government powerful enough to impose emancipation by brute force on the South.
He wished to be remembered, he said, for having written the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, and for founding the University of Virginia. He certainly would not have wished to be remembered for what turned out to be his most far-reaching service to the Republic, the Louisiana Purchase.
It happened in 1803. Jefferson had sent emissaries, first Robert Livingston and then James Monroe, to Paris to offer $2 million for trading rights at the mouth of the Mississippi, or possibly the port of New Orleans
Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul of the French Republic but soon to be Emperor of France, had bullied the King of Spain into giving back to France the immense territory of Louisiana, which he dreamed of making into an American empire with its capital at New Orleans, and had sent over a powerful army headed by his brother-in-law General Leclerc, to run it. But revolt in Haiti - the first successful slave insurrection in the New World - and tropical fevers upset his plans by killing off Leclerc and most of his army. Now another war with England was looming as well, and he would need all the troops and money he could lay his hands on for that. Abruptly he decided o give up his American dream.
Within hours, the French Foreign Minister Citizen (formerly Bishop, soon to be Prince) Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, offering the astonished Americans a treaty which would hand over the whole of France's continental empire to the United States for $15 million. With very little hesitation, Livingston and Monroe accepted the offer.\
But the treaty had to be formally accepted by the American government. And there was a major obstacle. It would, according to Thomas Jefferson's reading of the Constitution of the United States, a flagrant violation of the states' rights which were at the heart of that document and of his whole political philosophy. Tennessee or Kentucky, being sovereign states, could buy the Louisiana Territory if they wished, but there was nothing in the Constitution which authorized the federal government in Washington to do so. If it could do something on this scale, it meant that it could do anything it wanted, and the Constitution would be turned into a blank piece of paper.
Jefferson the political philosopher could not sign such a treaty. But Jefferson the politician knew that the American public would never forgive him if he did not and would boot him and his party out of power at the very next election. And so he did what a successful politician must do in such cases, he compromised, he betrayed his principles in the name of a greater good, he signed the treaty.
The day he authorized the purchase, the United States doubled in size and embarked on the course of what came to be called its Manifest Destiny to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It acquired all or most of the present state of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana at a cost of less that 3 cents an acre. The squire of Monticello may have betrayed his principles, but he knew a good bargain when he saw one. And we are all sharing in the profits.
©1993 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine May 1003