Thomas Jefferson has been dead for nearly 200 years, and yet he is still alive in the country and people to which he gave a voice during the Revolution.
Jefferson’s spirit in America emanates most strongly from his mountaintop home in Charlottesville, Va. — Monticello. Meaning “little mountain” in Old Italian, Monticello reflected the multifaceted interests and breadth of knowledge that its master possessed.
When you enter the plantation mansion, you are immediately struck by its uniqueness compared to the expectations of a Southern colonial home. The entrance hall is grand in size and presentation, but it lacks the distinguishing feature of plantation homes of the day, a grand central staircase.
Instead, Jefferson opted for a mezzanine-style inside porch. The entrance hall is set up like a museum. One side of the wall is adorned from floor to ceiling with Native American artifacts, mostly brought back from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The opposite wall is covered with antlers of numerous different American animals that most Americans of Jefferson’s day had never seen.
He also had the bones of a prehistoric juvenile mastodon and paintings from nearly a dozen old world artists on display.
As a popular public figure, Jefferson’s home had many guests, and he wanted to educate them in this room while they waited on his welcome.
On the south side of the home is Jefferson’s personal apartment, which a guest famously declared his “sanctum sanctorum.” The apartment consists of four rooms — a book room, greenhouse, cabinet or office and bedroom.
Jefferson had three libraries in his lifetime, amounting to nearly 10,000 books in all. His second library, which he would sell to restart and replenish the burned Library of Congress, was most likely the finest private collection of books in the country.
His library consisted of books on nearly every subject in the seven or more languages that Jefferson could read. He used his greenhouse for horticulture experiments, enjoying the shade and as a house for pet mockingbirds.
Jefferson’s cabinet contained his writer’s set up, a rotating table desk, a rotating book stand of his design, a whirligig armchair with candle sticks for late night writing and a Windsor bench to rest his legs. From this station, he wrote north of 17,000 letters in his lifetime.
His bedroom featured an alcove bed — a bed cut into the middle of a wall to save space — and closet space. One of Jefferson’s known morning habits was rising with the sun and plunging his feet into a bucket of ice water for a footbath each new day, which he thought benefitted his health.
Out of his bedroom and on the west front of the house is Monticello’s most elegant room, the Parlour. Jefferson had the floors handmade of cherry and beech parquet floors. The room was called his “hall of worthies” because from floor to ceiling, he filled the room primarily with portraits of great men from the past.
Jefferson hoped that all his wall ornaments and portrait busts would stir and elevate conversation to history, politics, science, mathematics and other subjects of higher learning. The room was used for after dinner family hours, for the playing of musical instruments and even for his daughters’ weddings.
The dining room was on the north end of the house, the coldest side, and as such Jefferson took architectural precautions to capture the day’s heat. He had a double-pane triple sash window, folding pocket doors that connected to a semi-octagonal tea room and blazingly vibrant golden yellow painted walls underneath a skylight that he hoped would combine to retain the warmth of the sunlight.
Jefferson’s dinners were a combination of American and French dishes and style. He did not have a long traditional dining room table but several unfolding tables that could be set up as needed to accommodate visitors. He felt these small tables facilitated greater conversation and allowed for everyone to have a voice at the tables.
The room also had a special feature built into the fireplace — one of America’s first, if not the first, dumbwaiter. The room was built over the wine cellar and an enslaved servant could load the dumbwaiter with bottles of wine and via pulley send them up to the dining room.
Jefferson also had small rolling carts that were set up throughout the dining area so that food was self-service, cutting down on the amount of enslaved servants that would have to come and go from the room during dinner conversation.
In the front of the houses north wing is one of the house’s most curious architectural features, an octagonal bedroom. Jefferson’s grandchildren nicknamed it Mr. Madison’s room because it was frequently occupied by Jefferson’s best friend James Madison who lived in neighboring Orange County and often visited his friend at Monticello. The room, as all the bedrooms throughout the upstairs of the house had a traditional alcove bed cut into the wall. As a result of the octagonal shape, the room has a triangular closet.
On top of the three-story mansion with underground cellars is the dome room, which is the famous view of Monticello on the back of the nickel. Like the mind of Thomas Jefferson atop his still standing mansion, his spirit and thoughts emanate from the mountaintop and his ideas still persist in the American consciousness.
I encourage people reading this, no matter your opinion of the man, to go and visit this historic American home and landmark. Embedded throughout the architecture and landscape are hidden lessons of knowledge on virtually every subject conceivable.
Monticello displays Jefferson as a man of enlightenment and progress. He was profoundly optimistic despite the trying realities of his world. He never doubted that humanity could improve and that America could lead the world forward by holding high the light of liberality and knowledge.
Jefferson believed that a faith in the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” could accomplish and overcome anything humans turned their efforts to. Monticello is a living monument to his enduring faith in America.