Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (Part 1)

To read the previous essay in this series, Click Here: Visiting Madison's Montpelier & The Big Woods

I’ve been writing here about the recent trip my two sons and I took to historic Virginia. On the first day we visited the National Firearms Museum. On day two we went to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Day three was James Madison’s Montpelier. On our fourth and final day we went to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

I have mixed feelings about Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand, I admire him. How could I not admire the man who wrote “The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America,” otherwise known as the Declaration of Independence.

At one time in my life I decided I would memorize the document. I made it as far as these two awesome sentences:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
The Declaration in its entirety is a powerful arrangement of words and ideas. Jefferson deserves a lot of credit for not only composing the words, but putting his name to them. He and the 55 other men who signed that piece of paper mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. They did this, as Jefferson put it, with a "firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence".

Every one of those brave men were committing treason against their country (England), and every one would, as a result, be wanted men. Some of them did lose their lives and their fortunes by signing that document. But none lost their honor.

And I admire Thomas Jefferson’s sagacious vision for America. He believed the new form of government he helped to found was best supported by a population of independent yeoman farmers. In other words, he believed America’s best hope for the future was as an Agrarian Republic. With that thought in mind, here are some pertinent quotes from Jefferson:
”Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”
I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural.”
”It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.”
”Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if he ever had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”

Yes, there is a lot to admire about Thomas Jefferson. But, unfortunately, Jefferson disappoints me with his deistic haughtiness. He wrote a book, commonly referred to as Jefferson’s Bible, in which he retells the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. But Jefferson removed references to the deity of Christ, the miracles he performed, and His resurrection.

As I learned about Jefferson’s bible I found myself feeling sorry for this man who was gifted with so much intelligence and talent, yet was so ignorant and foolish in the most important matters of life. To die without believing and fully knowing the salvation of Providence, as explained in scripture (that scripture which was not edited by Jefferson), is a tragedy.

Then there is the Sally Hemmings story. Did Jefferson father children by his almost-white mulatto slave? Recent evidence shows that at least one of Sally Hemming’s children had Jefferson DNA. But some say the father may have been Thomas Jefferson’s brother. In any event, it is reported that Sally’s boys looked like Thomas Jefferson. And of the six slaves Jefferson freed (two in his lifetime and four in his will), all were of the Hemmings family. We may never know for sure, and it really doesn’t matter.

In the final analysis, Thomas Jefferson was a truly remarkable man but he was only a man. He was prone to commit the same sins that have beset all men in all ages. I am not one to idolize any man, but I do have my favorites in American history. Washington and R.E. Lee rank up there higher than Jefferson. Nevertheless, I do not hang framed images of any “famous” man on the walls of my home.

But that is just me and, once again, I have strayed off the path with this discourse. It is supposed to be about my vacation. So here is a picture I took of the east front of Jefferson’s home.

The west front is the more popular view of the house. It is the side that you can see on the back of a nickel. Here is another view of the west side.

There is a walkway that surrounds the west lawn (you can see part of it in the foreground of the picture. Jefferson’s flower gardens were located all around the walkway.

Do you know what other piece of American currency (besides the nickel) bears Thomas Jefferson’s likeness? It is the two-dollar bill. It so happens that two-dollar bills are still printed by the U.S. mint but they are no longer in general circulation. The only place you can get them is at Monticello.

Which makes me wonder what the purchasing power of two dollars is now compared to Jefferson’s day. Probably a nickel.

In my next essay, I will share some more pictures of Monticello. I’ll also tell you about Jefferson’s “seed press,” his daughter, Patsy, and the little-known crisis he faced later in life.
To read the next essay in this series, Click Here: Visiting Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (Part 2)


Rob said...

I too have been completely overwhelmed by the lives these men had lived. Thomas Jefferson was my favorite while growing up, and I was disappointed to know that many of these men followed after the deistic tradition as was prevalent during that time.

I had always wondered, 'How do such men who write so often on relying on the grace of God become such deists?' some even questioning the validity of Christs heavenly geneology, but I guess just as you say, as men we are all prone to sin. As was stated, 'but for the Grace of God, there too I also go.'

rob said...

Oh, and great post by the way. I can't wait for part II. It must have been quite something to visit the estates of these great men of renown.

Patrick Lee said...

From one who has studied and portrayed Thomas Jefferson professionally for 18 years, there is far more to admire than dispute.
While not a Chrstian, neither was he a deist of the "clockmaker" persuasion. He held to a far more personal and benevolent deity. The "Jefferson Bible", so-named by others and not him, was a strictly private devotional, specifically for studying the teachings of Jesus. While Jefferson denied the deity of Jesus, he regarded him as the greatest moral teacher who ever lived.
It's too lengthy to discuss here, but there are no facts to support Jefferson's paternity of Sally Hemings' children.
Monticello IS a marvelous place, isn't it?

Herrick Kimball said...

Thanks for your comments Rob & Patrick.

Thanks, Patrick, for pointing out that Jefferson's Deism was not outright athiesm.

As an aside, I read that when Jefferson went to France with Patsy as a young girl, he placed her in a Catholic convent school, even though they were Protestants. But when Patsy decided that she wanted to be a nun, her father promptly took her out of the school.

And thanks too for pointing out that, though there is some evidence, there is no factual proof of the Hemmings/Jefferson realtionship. Historians are divided on the matter.

Anonymous said...

Christianity is a religion which is Near Eastern (Jewish) in origin and as such it can NEVER meld completely with people of Western/European origin.

Deism is far preferable to weak Christianity -- the role of Christianity in the early founding of America (both amongst the Founding Fathers and early settlers) is vastly over-rated. Most of the earliest settlers were non-religious unless they came here to America to specifically escape religious persecution in Europe.

rob said...

I always find that 'anonymous' is constantly giving insight he/she is neither courageous enough to defend, nor insightful enough to explain.

An opinionated dialogue with a ghost is just plain annoying.

Just my two cents.