Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
THOMAS JEFFERSON
3rd President of the United States, 1801-1809
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AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

Monticello
Virginia
 


Monticello
Monticello
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello


Monticello, “Little Mountain,” was the home from 1770 until his death in 1826, of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States.  It is also an architectural masterpiece.  Jefferson was one of America’s first and finest architects and he created, rebuilt, and revised the house throughout his long life.  No president’s home than Jefferson's Monticello better reflects the personality of its owner.  Jefferson, a true Renaissance man, was a giant among the Founding Fathers.  His deeply-rooted disputes with Alexander Hamilton created the two-party system in the United States and launched two competing visions of what the United States should be that dominated 19th-century politics and still survive today.  He was also a complex man, made up of penetrating intelligence, insatiable curiosity, high ideals, and deep contradictions.  The author of the ringing assertion that “all men are created equal” was also the master of 200 slaves.  The political theorist who saw the small-scale farmer as the bedrock of American democracy was himself the owner of many thousands of acres of land and a proud member of the Virginia plantation aristocracy.

In 1769, Jefferson began building his house on the plantation that he inherited from his father, Peter Jefferson. He located it on top of a hill he explored as a child.  The main house was still not finished two years later. When he married Martha W. Skelton in 1772, he brought her to the South Pavilion, his bachelor quarters, because the house was not yet habitable. The newlyweds arrived on horseback during a blizzard.  The original eight-room house was apparently still incomplete in the 1780s, but even so impressed European visitors with the sophistication of its design.  At this stage, Jefferson knew architecture only through books, and his house closely followed the designs of Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio.

Educated at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson was “the penman” of the American Revolution.  His pamphlet, A Summary View of the Rights of British America, written at Monticello and published in 1774, demonstrated his knowledge of the law and his ability to write clearly.  By the time Virginia sent him to the Second Continental Congress two years later, everyone recognized him as a fluent writer and superb legal draftsman.  The committee appointed to draft a declaration of independence in June 1776 selected him to write it.  He submitted his last draft on July 2.  Two days later, Congress adopted the final version of the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson served as governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781.  During this time, he drafted the important Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, although it did not become law until 1786.  Driven from his home by the British and heavily criticized during his last year in office, he decided to abandon politics and retire to Monticello.  The death of his wife in 1782 changed his plans. Although he lost his wife at a young age long before residing in the White House, Thomas Jefferson never remarried. They had six children, but only two survived to adulthood. Returning to politics, he served briefly in Congress under the Articles of Confederation, where he laid the foundations for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that established the framework for westward expansion.  In 1784, he went to France as a member of a trade commission.  A year later, he succeeded Benjamin Franklin as minister to France.

Jefferson's office at Monticello
Jefferson's office at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello

Jefferson’s five years in France had a dramatic impact both on his life and on his house.  He thrived on the Enlightenment principles he encountered in France and was smitten with the new Neoclassical architecture that he saw.  He witnessed the early days of the French Revolution, which he called “the first chapter of the history of European liberty".

When Jefferson returned to America in 1789, George Washington asked him to serve as his secretary of state.  He held that position until 1793, when he resigned after a series of bitter disputes with Alexander Hamilton, secretary of the treasury.  Hamilton generally distrusted the common man and favored a strong federal government that would encourage the development of industry in the new nation.  Jefferson, on the other hand, had an abiding faith in the ability of the people to govern themselves and saw no need for a strong central government.  His vision of America was of an agrarian nation of educated small farmers.  The Constitution made no provision for political parties, but the new Federalist Party soon coalesced around Hamilton and his allies.  Jefferson was at the heart of the Democratic-Republican Party.

In the election of 1796, Jefferson finished second to John Adams, the Federalist candidate.  Under the Constitution at that time, Jefferson became vice president, although the fact that the two men were from different parties guaranteed conflict.  In 1800, Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, received the same number of electoral votes, throwing the decision into the House of Representatives, which finally chose Jefferson in February 1801.  The two confused elections led in 1804 to the adoption of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution, which corrected the problems by providing for separate voting for vice president.  Many Federalists feared the onset of mob rule in America after Jefferson's election in 1800, but this first transition from one political party to another passed smoothly.

The greatest achievement of Jefferson’s first term was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, more than doubling the size of the United States.  Jefferson immediately dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the new territory and to continue to the Pacific Coast.  Easily re-elected in 1804, Jefferson had to deal with the effects of the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France. The Federalists tended to support the English, while the Democratic-Republicans generally leaned towards the French.  In 1807, Jefferson sought to avoid war by instituting an embargo prohibiting Americans from trading with both nations.  The embargo turned out to do more damage to American traders than it did to the British and the French.  It was so unpopular that Jefferson wisely decided not to run for president again in 1808.  At the end of his term, he happily retired to Monticello.

Dumbwaiter to wine cellar at Monticello
Dumbwaiter to wine cellar at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello

By 1809, Jefferson finished the rebuilding of Monticello begun in 1796. He transformed the original eight room Palladian villa, with its tall two-story portico, into a 21-room house designed in the fashionable Neoclassical style he saw in France.  The front elevation was a deceptively low horizontal composition centered on a pavilion dominated by a columned portico and a low dome.  The renovation kept most of the rooms of the original house, but more than doubled its depth.  By moving the front wall forward, Jefferson provided space for two new rooms on either side of a much larger two-story entrance hall.

The interior incorporated many examples of Jefferson’s ingenuity: dumbwaiters, disappearing beds, unusual lighting and ventilating arrangements, a duplicate-writing machine, folding doors, bookshelves that become storage boxes, and an extraordinary clock, which still runs by a series of weights and pulleys.  Closet-like alcoves hid two steep staircases that led to low bedrooms above the high first floor and to a “ballroom” under the dome.  The house lay at the center of a U-shaped plan that embraced two sunken, terrace-covered service wings set into the hillside.  House slaves could do their work in these wings out of sight of the public rooms.  Small temple-like pavilions sit at the ends of the wings.

Vegetable Garden at Monticello
Vegetable Garden at Monticello
Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello


Jefferson, an avid horticulturist, also created the gardens at Monticello, which were a botanic showpiece, a source of food, and an experimental laboratory of ornamental and useful plants from around the world. He experimented with plant species brought over from Europe and was particularly interested in developing vineyards.

Jefferson spent most of his retirement at Monticello writing and pursuing his political interests.  Continuing his life-long commitment to education, he established the University of Virginia and designed the buildings surrounding its “yard.”  Debts inherited from his father-in-law, the cost of entertaining his many visitors, and his inability to curb his lavish tastes contributed to serious financial problems at the end of his life.  Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and only a few hours before his old friend and rival, John Adams. His tomb is in the family cemetery at Monticello.

Deeply in debt after her father’s death, Jefferson's only surviving child sold Monticello and 550 acres of land for $7,000 in 1831.  Uriah Levy, a wealthy naval officer who revered Jefferson, bought the neglected property three years later.  He renovated the house and apparently kept it and the grounds in good condition until his death in 1858.  After a long dispute over Uriah Levy’s will, his 27-year old nephew, Jefferson Levy, acquired full possession in 1879.  He again restored the decaying house, opening it to the public.  He also enlarged the estate to about 2,000 acres.  After resisting all efforts to buy the property for many years and after the Federal Government waived the opportunity to acquire it for the nation, he finally sold Monticello and 650 acres for $500,000 to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923.  The Foundation has meticulously restored the house, grounds, and working plantation landscape to their appearance when Jefferson lived there.  Visitors can gain a unique insight into the life and character of this multi-faceted man.

Plan your visit

Monticello, located in Albemarle County in the Piedmont region of Central Virginia, has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Click here for the National Historic Landmark registration file: text and photos.   Monticello is also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Monticello is on Va. Route 53 near the intersection of I 64 and Va. Rte. 20, approximately two miles southeast of Charlottesville. Monticello’s street address (for mapping purposes only) is 931 Thomas Jefferson Prkwy., Charlottesville.  The house and grounds are open daily, March-October from 8:00am to 5pm; and November-February from 9:00am to 4:30pm, except for Christmas. Entry is permitted until the posted closing time. The grounds are closed approximately one hour later. There is an admission fee. A variety of tours and activities are offered.  For more information visit the Monticello website or call 434-984-9822.

Monticello has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.  Monticello is also featured in the National Park Service Journey through Hallowed Ground Travel Itinerary

 
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