What I knew about Thomas Jefferson could fit on an index card: Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration of Independence, became President of the United States, and had a convoluted relationship with his slaves. So on a recent road trip, when my husband and I stopped at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, I was expecting to enjoy a leisurely morning tour and to move on to more interesting things in the afternoon.
We stayed much longer than we intended and still didn’t have enough time to explore. Grand houses like Monticello were considered normal on plantations, but Jefferson was criticized for building his house high on a hill where water would have to be dragged up—until he built a giant cistern under the house, capable of storing and supplying all the water needed for the house and the nearby grounds. Also under the house were storerooms, lavatories, a kitchen, and a carefully stocked and inventoried wine cellar, complete with customized dumbwaiters designed to carry bottles of wine directly to the dining room above. The house is full of his inventions, including a copying machine designed to duplicate letters as he hand-wrote them so that he could keep copies of all his correspondence. His extensive gardens, which today supply the museum restaurant with fresh produce, include many plants Jefferson cultivated after Lewis and Clark brought cuttings or seeds back from the western territories.
Even more interesting is what I learned about Jefferson himself. The third President of the United States was so shy about public speaking that, during his time as a Virginia delegate, he would sit in the back of the room and only add to the conversation by writing down his comments. The author of the Declaration of Independence was against the idea of the United States having a constitution at all, and would not sign the Constitution until he knew that it could be amended. Jefferson was in many ways against slavery, yet he owned slaves. The strangest thing to me is what he chose to put on his gravestone:
“Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia”
President of the United States? Apparently not important enough to mention.
I highly recommend a trip to Monticello if you can manage it. In the meantime, there’s plenty to read:
Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder by Jack McLaughlin
National Book Award winning- American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis
Six volumes of Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time
R. B. Bernstein’s Thomas Jefferson
For everyone, I recommend paging through the information at monticello.org, the official website of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc. From pictures of Monticello itself to images of Jefferson’s daily weather observations, there’s enough to get a glimpse of what an interesting person Jefferson was.