A visit to Monticello offers insight into one of America's great problem solvers

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comJune 28, 2013 

The view of the west-facing side of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello might seem familiar to you -- it's depicted on the back of a nickel.

STAFF PHOTO

Since I was a young boy, I've admired Thomas Jefferson -- though my respect for our third president didn't solidify until I read the entirety of the Declaration of Independence, a document Jefferson was largely tasked with writing on his own and remains my favorite thing ever written in English.

The Declaration of Independence is a testament to the power of the written word. Not only did it formally separate the colonists from the rule of the British throne, but it cemented the unprecedented notion a true government relied on the consent of the governed to function properly.

So it was in this spirit that I made my pilgrimage earlier this week to Monticello, the home near Charlottesville, Va., that Jefferson spent nearly 40 years building and where he lived until his death on July 4, 1826.

I was not disappointed.

Putting aside the incredible efficiency of the operation being run by The Thomas Jefferson Foundation -- which is something of a requirement given that more than 500,000 people trek to Monticello each year -- visiting the home and the grounds felt like something of a religious experience.

The curators and researchers have taken great care to preserve Monticello and present it to the public in a way that makes one of the country's most famous residences feel less like a museum and more like a home.

One walks through the home and gets a sense for Jefferson's vision, eccentricity, curiosity and ingenuity, such as the small dumbwaiters he designed into the sides of a fireplace near the home's tea room. He was, we were told repeatedly by our guide, a fan of conserving and making the best possible use of space.

Every square inch of the home offers its own fascinating glimpse into the minds of one of our country's greatest thinkers.

And then there's the grounds themselves, which are immaculately maintained by an army of gardeners and offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.

As you'd hope, the foundation does not sidestep or sugarcoat the glaring contradiction between a man who wrote that "All men are created equal ..." and a slave owner who once owned more than 200 human beings, freeing only two in his lifetime and granting a meager five more their freedom in his will.

The picture painted at Monticello is one of Jefferson as a conflicted slave owner, who believed the practice of slavery to be a pox on the new nation but lacked the confidence to believe that abolishing it would be possible in his lifetime.

The tours also make several references to Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello with whom Jefferson is believed to have fathered several children following the death of his wife, Martha.

All in all, visiting Monticello was a solemn and fascinating experience and one well worth the $24 admission fee and eight-hour drive from Beaufort to Charlottesville.

If you're looking for a good summer roadtrip, you could do a lot worse.

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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