The odd allure of Monticello: Jefferson’s estate

April 30, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Jefferson has always been a fascinating character throughout the study of all American history, yet nothing has been more ubiquitous throughout any scholarly or non-scholarly study of the man, than his sheer conflicting personality, life, and times. The founding father who wrote the words “all men are created equal” also owned more than one hundred slaves on his large and famous estate, Monticello- which borrows its name from the Italian word for “small mountain,” that has become both renowned but also infamous, as a testament to a character in American history that is both worthy of pride, but even shame.Yet, still I and many others, find fascination in the allure of Jefferson, who was so well read, and rounded as an individual, he was, I dare say, even more provocative than Benjamin Franklin. 

Monticello was an estate that was to be the model, the blueprint for the new neo-classical, feudal republic that Jefferson envisaged for the new United States. A place of agriculture, individualism, and freedom for all men to pursue their happiness, unless of course they were African-American. The allure therefore of Monticello, despite its beautiful architecture, magnificent surroundings, and collections of endless books, art and sculptures that could be found inside Jefferson’s home, is something rather shaky when one considers that there were men, women, and children who did not come under the all-espousing ideals of the great Declaration of Independence that shocked the world. 

The founding father, the individual who has been attributed to one of the few to play an important role in the foundation and formation of the greatest republic to have graced the world, was also a man who ran a small nail factory with slaves, had more than a dozen work in his house, and the surrounding fields which had been fruitful in the old-age American feudal stage, yet very much a remnant of early capitalism: Tobacco. Although he preached certain qualities of higher regard towards all men, he could not bring himself to ever let go of the most horrid aspect of the early republic. Namely he would not set his slaves free. 

Even his relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, whose children and ancestors of both were proven with extensive DNA testing in the 1990’s was not enough for him to let African Americans who worked at Monticello become freedmen. His character however dual, is undeniably worthy to understand as one that continued pervasively in the early day of the the new nation. The ideas of rapacious despotism were long gone, yet the social aspects that came along with that world, remained ingrained not only as the cohesive of “the old world” but surely even that of the new. Very few founding fathers did not ever own a slave, such as John Adams who along with his wife Abigail were completely against the slave trade, and despised the fact that during his presidency they had to live in the newly constructed White House, which used slave-labor to be erected. The sorrow of the situation was obvious. 

Monticello, which is found in the dead center of Virginia’s old plantation country, is surrounded by close to 2000 hectares, with a scenery that was undoubtedly mesmerizing, yet there was no place on the estate where the confounding form of slave labor was not visible. The first Monticello came into being in 1768, and ever since until he returned to it in the early 19th century he worked on the structure continually improving it with better designs, both in architectural aesthetics, but also functionality. In fact he continued to do so until his death in 1826. Interestingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that “More than any historic home in America, Monticello speaks to me as an expression of the personality of its builder.”

Thus is the case for Jefferson who used to dazzle his dinner guests by having created a contraption that seemed to replace empty bottles of wine with full ones. Of course it was only a product of his mechanical genius, such as his famous rotating chair, which in fact acted as a small elevator that led down to his cellar where one of his slaves would replace the bottle and send it back up in a matter of seconds. Jefferson’s showmanship therefore was on par with Franklin who used to parade down different French courts and numerous parties with his whimsical fur hat. 

The fact of the matter is that Jefferson’s ideals about a new nation, where freedom would reign as supreme, were not in fact a practical course even in his own household. It is simply not even a question of his racism, as he engaged in a very passionate love affair with Hemings, an African-American woman, something which causes a great deal of controversy amid historians as the extent of their relationship is not exactly known. Perhaps it was more a case of unable to let go of the past, however despicable it was, and with all its benefits, namely those of power, and stance.

The author will have a compendium of essays in American history published this May.