Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

The hilltop estate of Monticello is not easy to reach. The current owners allow foot traffic but most visitors prefer buses. When clouds cover the sky, access is denied for fear of lightning strikes. The lush vegetation and old majestic trees seclude the manor, making it invisible from the bottom of the mountain.

Monticello’s storied existence was advertised in 1921 as a “dignified country home” overlooking Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1923 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation purchased the estate from Jefferson Levy for $100,000 in cash and a note of $400,000.

The winding roads and highways to Charlottesville are flanked by beautifully-manicured farms that appear to grow nothing other than luscious green grass on which riding horses graze lazily. The occasional vineyard bears witness to the rich soil soaked with the blood and sweat of thousands of Americans encamped in Virginia or crisscrossing the land during the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. Several battlefields are clearly marked but far away from the road unless a die-hard amateur historian does not mind stepping in knee-high grasses and muddy ditches.

Thomas Jefferson, the builder of Monticello, was a remarkable Renaissance man with a resume that nobody can match today. The principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), first Secretary of State (1790-1793) under President George Washington, second Governor of Virginia (1779-1781), third President of the United States (1801-1809), diplomat (U.S. Minister to France, 1785-1789), Continental Congress delegate representing Virginia, second Vice President (1797-1801) under President John Adams, Thomas Jefferson oversaw the purchase of Louisiana from France (1803) and sent the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804-1806) to explore the new west.

Although President Jefferson signed into law a bill in 1807 that prohibited the importation of slaves into the United States, he owned hundreds of slaves at Monticello, Shadwell, and Poplar Forest. None is more famous than Sally Hemmings (1773-1835) who, at the age of 14, was daughter Mary’s maid and accompanied her to Paris. Sally’s duties were to care for Jefferson’s chamber and wardrobe, his children, and to do light work such as sewing. A newspaper reported in 1802 that Jefferson had a “concubine” named Sally. Based on “documentary, scientific, statistical studies and oral history,” many historians believe that Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemmings’ children, years after his wife’s death. Sally lived as a free person in Charlottesville after Jefferson’s death.

Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. (1768-1828), married Jefferson’s daughter Martha. He loved botany and agriculture as much as his father-in-law. He helped Jefferson run the plantation business and the often-mismanaged Shadwell mill.

On the Shadwell side of the Rivanna River, Jefferson had built two mills beginning in 1796, in the transition from farming tobacco to growing wheat. The project took ten years and $20,000 for a canal, a dam, and the two mills. One ground grain for home use and the other one was rented out to millers to grind wheat for the market. The commercial mill had the most modern machines in existence at the time for automated milling. The Rivanna River traversed the plantation and transported agricultural products to market and brought other necessary goods to the plantation.

Jefferson had a life-long friend, Adrienne-Catherine de Noailles, countess of Tesse (1741-1814) and aunt to marquis de Lafayette, with whom he shared his love of botany. They exchanged letters long after he left France. Packages containing magnolias, tulip poplars, mountain laurels, red cedars, sassafras, persimmons, and dogwood were sent to her estate in France. She reciprocated with a golden-rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) for Monticello.

Thomas Jefferson thought agriculture to be “the most useful of the occupations of man.” He said in 1787,”Agriculture… is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.”

Jefferson owned four farms, Shadwell, Lego, Tufton, and the Monticello home farm. Overseers supervised 30-40 enslaved men and women who lived near and worked in the fields, at first cultivating tobacco and then switching to wheat.

Tobacco was the staple of farming in the 18th century Virginia. It began to shift to wheat towards the end of the century due to soil depletion and changes in European markets.

Wheat cultivation was more difficult than tobacco; it required crop rotation, machinery such as threshers, fertilizers, draft animals, mills, and plowing. The change did not deter Jefferson who was an innovator and enjoyed a challenge.

Thomas Jefferson was determined to have an American wine production and struggled over many years to plant and replant imported and native vines. He started two vineyards on the south-facing slope below the garden terrace in order to have a Monticello wine. In 1807 he planted 287 rooted vines of 24 of the European table grapes (Vitis vinifera). His incursion into viticulture is evidenced by his desire to have an American winemaking industry. “I am making a collection of vines for wine and for the table.” (1786)

To succeed, Jefferson brought Philip Mazzei (1730-1816), an Italian merchant and horticulturist, and laborers to Virginia in 1773 to help with the cultivation of grapes, olives, and other Mediterranean fruits. The venture failed and Mazzei returned to Europe after a stint in the Revolutionary War effort. They remained lifelong friends.

The daily fresh vegetables came not just from the Monticello’s experimental gardens. Jefferson, but especially the women in his household, his wife, daughter, and granddaughters, often paid cash to slaves for “garden produce, poultry, and eggs” raised by slaves on their own time. Monticello account books show that “Enslaved gardeners sold cucumbers, potatoes, melons, cabbages, simlins (patty-pan squash), apples, tomatoes, and salad greens.” Slaves used underground pits to store hardy produce which they later sold to the main house.

The longest overseer at Monticello was Edmund Bacon (1785-1866) who was responsible for leveling of the beautiful garden terrace, bursting with vegetables, delicate flowers, and aromatic spices. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1811)

Through his 82nd year, Jefferson attempted to grow plants from around the world. He stayed in touch with botanists, nurserymen, and fellow gardeners, farmers in Virginia and abroad. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.”

Wormley Hughes (1781-1858) was the trusted gardener who planted seeds, bulbs, and trees. He cared for both the flower and vegetable gardens. Martha Jefferson Randolph freed him upon her father’s death but his wife and eight children were sold at the 1827 dispersal sale.

Even though Jefferson applied the latest knowledge and technology to all his ideas and business efforts, allowing slaves to acquire a variety of skills, to have a self-sufficient farm, the plantation was never profitable. He accumulated so much debt throughout his life that the family was forced to sell the land, the house, the household contents, and the enslaved families upon his death.

The 5,000 acres Monticello plantation, covering the big house on top of the little mountain to Mulberry Row and other outlaying farms, necessitated the labor of enslaved field workers, craftsmen, domestics, free overseers, and members of the Jefferson family who had specific daily duties.

Jefferson supplied food, clothing, blankets, and occasional cash payments to enslaved tradesmen. Enslaved people purchased other belongings from local merchants with earnings from growing and selling garden produce, craft items, cash from additional tasks, and gratuities from visitors.

When he married Martha Wayles Skelton (1748-1782), she brought with her wealth, slaves, and possessions. She was in charge of all domestic activities at Monticello. During her marriage to Jefferson, she gave birth to six children, but only two survived to adulthood. Thomas Jefferson described their marriage as “ten years of unchequered happiness.”

One of Martha’s most valued house help was Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings (1735-1807) who came to Monticello after the death of Martha’s father, John Wayles. Wayles was thought to be the father of one of Betty’s six children. The daughter of an English sea captain and an enslaved African woman, Hemings was the head of the largest enslaved family at Monticello. Hemings’ 70 descendants lived in bondage at Monticello as servants and craftsmen.

Jefferson inherited 3,000 acres at Shadwell from his father Peter, a surveyor, county justice, and member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Shadwell was located across the Rivanna River from Monticello, the mountain in the sky. Growing up at Shadwell afforded Thomas Jefferson an educated childhood surrounded by wealth, books, scientific and drafting instruments, time for curiosity and exploration, travel, and contact with the elite society of those times. His mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson was the daughter of one of Virginia’s most prominent families.

During his five year diplomatic mission to France (1784-1789), Jefferson paid careful attention to technology, commerce, agriculture, and the arts. “I am constantly roving about, to see what I have never seen before and shall never see again.” He would take a month long “botanizing excursion” in 1791 through New England with James Madison and other trips with his 12 year old daughter Martha to visit the northeastern communities that he would be representing in France.

Jefferson studied classical architecture for inspiration to build and remodel his Monticello home. Each room is an example of the five orders of symmetry as written by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). Andrea Palladio published his treatise on the history of architecture, I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura (The Four Books of Architecture), in 1570, with beautiful illustrations of the Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite styles, including his own versions of Italian country homes and estates. Jefferson studied them and used them as inspiration for Monticello.
“…It may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.” (Francois-Jean de Beauvoir, Marquis de Chastellux, 1782)

Jefferson rented a townhouse in Paris, the Hotel de Langeac, with a main floor for entertainment and separate private spaces for his family’s bedrooms. Infatuated with the elegance of Parisian homes, he built Monticello in that style, adding Palladio’s Corinthian order. Chastelleux noted that the ground floor at Monticello was “chiefly a large and lofty salon,” decorated entirely in the antique style.

Monticello was initially a six-room home with a parlor, dining room, and chamber on the main floor and a study and two bedrooms on the second. In 1775 Jefferson changed the plan, adding “bow” rooms to the north and south and an octagonal bay to the parlor. Ever the innovator and inventor, Jefferson designed a roof that would improve “water shedding.” Benjamin Henry, an architect, credited Jefferson with the innovation called the “zigzag” roof.

Jefferson became the architect and builder of his home. He made the drawings, the detailed list of materials, the quantities needed, and hired 69 brick makers, brick masons, carpenters, joiners, painters, blacksmiths, and other skilled craftsmen. Nine months of the year he served his country and then he tended to his labor of love, his beloved Monticello.

Many letters record the construction process entrusted to James Dinsmore, the principal joiner, an Irishman from Philadelphia whom he hired in 1798. Dinsmore taught his trade to enslaved joiner John Hemmings who created much of Monticello’s fine woodwork. Dinsmore and John Neilson (1805-1809) worked on James Madison’s Montpelier and the University of Virginia after Monticello was completed in 1809.

John Hemmings (1776-1833), the son of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, became such an accomplished craftsman, he replaced Dinsmore as head joiner and trained other slaves. Hemmings “could make anything that was wanted in woodwork,” fine furniture, a landau carriage, and much of the interior woodwork at Poplar Forest. John Hemmings was freed in Jefferson’s will and received all the tools of his shop but he continued to “live and work for Jefferson’s family for several more years at Monticello with his wife, Priscilla.”

Monticello was hard labor for many people, including the enslaved workers who harvested raw materials from the surrounding plantation and fashioned them into building materials. “They dug red clay for making bricks and quarried limestone to make lime for mortar and plaster. They also felled trees, oak, pine, tulip poplar, black locust, cherry, beech, and walnut, that were hewn and sawn into lumber for framing and woodwork.” The names of the workers, freed or enslaved, were found in documents, letters, and account books.

We will never know the true cost in planning, preparing, time, money, materials, hard labor, sweat and tears that built Monticello, a witness to our past. We are grateful that this important piece of history still exists today to teach valuable lessons in perseverance, dedication, love of the land, botany, agriculture, viticulture, American ingenuity and entrepreneurship, success, failure, bondage, and of human foibles.

Source: Visit to the Monticello Plantation and Museum

One thought on “Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

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