Thomas Jefferson is my second favorite president after George Washington, and we’re visiting his classic Monticello residence today. Is there any other private residence as recognizable as this? Maybe Versailles, but certainly to those of us who still know what the back of a nickel looks like, this has to be it.
We approach Charlottesville through a series of quietly regal gently rolling green hills on a misty morning. We cut through the S curves past stately homes overlooking valley farms and stables marked by white picket fences and wrought iron gates and over stone bridges spanning gently flowing clear creeks until we reach the Visitor’s Center, where we see a well made documentary about life and times of this great American.
After pausing for a brief photo-op with his bronze statue, we head up through the maple and oak forested 700 foot hill and for the first time see this architectural marvel.
The first thing I notice about notable American residences in general is that, aside from the modern day robber barons of Wall Street, they’re actually fairly modest in scale and in scope, especially compared to European royalty (who had unlimited budgets and a flare for decadence that the Founders never quite got the hang of) and Jefferson’s triumph is no exception to that rule. The home itself exudes a kind of quiet dignity that lends itself perfectly to the tranquility of the 5,000 acre estate that surrounds it, and, far from overwhelming its hilltop setting, majestically makes a point that size, at least in architecture does not matter nearly so much as proportion and balance.
The handsome red brick structure, topped by America’s first residential dome, and flanked by two long wings running perpendicular to the axis of the main dwelling, is 3 stories tall, although Jefferson made use of visual artifices to trick the viewer into believing it was only a single floor, albeit a tall one. Every detail of the building, from the slope of the roof, to the artful cornice moldings, to the materials used in the paint were carefully thought out, to the point that the overwhelming impression is one of a singular triumph of understated architectural majesty combining the best of European and domestic forms into one man’s dedicated obsession with a perfection not normally realized in mere mortal terms, but which here is represented as a timeless masterpiece in a bucolic yet grand setting which leaves no doubt that Jefferson was, first and foremost, a lover of the land, and that which the land produced.
The interior of the home is no less innovative and shows the inventive genius for which our 3rd president was so justly famous, from the dumbwaiters flanking the dining room fireplace to the revolving serving door to the seven day clock in the main hall. The library’s original 7,000 volumes was one of the largest in the New World at the time and stood testament to the fact that Jefferson’s was a particularly curious mind capable of an incredible range of intellectual pursuits, from archaeology, agriculture, astronomy, and art to paleontology, philosophy, physics, and zoology.
I should also note here that, although Jefferson has been tagged as a Deist, there are 3 paintings from the Bible, including Christ on the Cross, in the main parlor of the home. That and his regular attendance at church services would normally render such arguments groundless, but in these times I guess academics find it politically expedient to reinvent history in a manner more to suited to their own theological bent.
Walking through the home, you can feel his presence everywhere, and I don’t think any sentient being can leave the place unimpressed by the real sense of historic gravity that is almost a physical presence in the estate. We were and are incredibly lucky that such a man ever walked among us, and that he coexisted with such legendary and noble figures as Washington and Madison is almost beyond belief, and lends credence to the idea that America was more than mere lucky; that divine providence was somehow involved in her formation.
“We hold these truths to be self evident”, Jefferson once wrote in his own hand. He gave us a gift, but a gift which requires sacrifice. What do we hold as self evident today? Do we deserve the mantle of liberty that was bestowed on us some 250 years ago? Can we hope that we will be served by such men as this again? It saddens me to think of what we once had. We had a free country of real men who accepted nothing less than liberty, and we had leaders who were men of consequence and grave intelligence who were willing to risk everything for the cause of freedom. Where are those leaders now? We could sorely use them.
So it’s with a sense of loss that I approach the new Washington, DC, the one that we are pouring money into. You can see entire square mile sections of Alexandria that have been built in the last ten years (your tax dollars at work) and the armies of people who are busily interfering in the lives of everyday folk like you and I who no doubt they think they’re doing something good and noble to help their fellow men (of course as long as they’re well compensated for it). They’re planning, and regulating, and ruling on this statute or that clause, and making policy and wars in every corner of the globe, and I’m sure they are nice enough folk that go home just like the rest of us and kiss their children good night. But I can’t help wondering as I survey the clean new brick streets, the neat rows of expensive colonials, the freshly planted trees in the medians, and the expanding office plazas where these people labor in the name of government what ol’ Thomas Jefferson would think of them, and I’ve got to believe as a farmer he’d like for them to be put to some good productive use, like tending to their own gardens, or even perhaps minding their own business, and that maybe the world and the USA would be a whole lot better off for it if we listened to him, because God knows we’re a long way from liberty, and that the seeds of tyranny are sown when good men fail to shed blood in the name of freedom.