icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Living and Writing in the Natural World

Visiting Mt. Vernon and Monticello: different homes, different men

The home Jefferson designed and built atop his hill

With the Autumn Equinox approaching, I’m remembering the summer’s activities, particularly when Tammy and I visited the preserved homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson during a trip to the East coast. In some respects the homes are similar: owned and operated by private groups (the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association since the 1850s; the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1923), complemented by a museum, education center, and gift shop; and hundreds of thousands of visitors escorted through the homes every year. Beyond this, though, the visits were strikingly different experiences, which in some interesting ways reflect on the men they celebrate.

Mt. Vernon is only 16 miles from Washington, D.C. and everything is on a larger physical scale: number of visitors, size and sophistication of the museum and grounds, even the provision of a “Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant” (the ballyhooed Peanut and Chestnut Soup was disappointing, but more than compensated by the fancy Colonial Hoecake laden with ham and crabmeat, and the plain but satisfying cornbread with honey butter, and side-order grits).

Visitors are parceled into groups and run, assembly-line fashion, through the large, boxy home (whose wooden exterior is clad, interestingly enough, in a sandy mixture to protect it from the weather, now as in Washington’s time). In each of some dozen rooms, a docent for the room delivers a one to two minute spiel, asks hurriedly for questions as they eye the exit door, and indicates the next room of the tour, to which the visitors dutifully shuffle. There, another docent delivers another talk, and so forth throughout the house. The rooms are all nicely refurbished, but—well, very square, enlivened by little more than paintings and plain furniture.

I tried to engage some of the docents in conversation beyond their memorized comments, with but little success: there was always the next group coming along, after all. In a few instances where there was a hiatus before the next group, in the kitchens, for example, the docent was markedly uninterested in discussion beyond “the spiel”. I found the same to be true of the docent stationed at the gardens below the house, who seemed mainly interested in retiring to the shade and resting. Only at Washington’s tomb, halfway down the hill stretching to the Potomac river, did the docent seem genuinely interested in imparting information about Washington and his plantation.

But boy, did they keep the steady flow of visitors moving, itself no small feat.

The beating heart of every public institution of this sort—the Gift Shop—was fabulous, both in its size and the variety of its offerings. Strangely enough, though, and perhaps due to the afore-mentioned nature of the tour offered, I was not seriously tempted to purchase anything to commemorate our visit beyond a small tea cup and saucer.

In some ways Washington the man is reflected in his preserved home and the visitor experience. Consider his scale: George Washington was a large man with a huge impact on the young nation. Though no military genius, he almost single-handedly kept the ragtag colonial army together and functioning, and exhibited a practical cunning in his surprise Christmas Eve crossing of the Delaware to attack the Hessians warming around their fires.

No one questions Washington’s basic decency. His word was true coin. He navigated the young nation through its early vicissitudes, even asking his attorney general to devise regulations and sufficient punishments to keep early settlers from appropriating lands given in treaty to native Americans. He ran his Mt. Vernon plantation efficiently and profitably (in considerable part due to the whisky distillery he established there).

Much is made of Washington’s freeing his slaves in his 1799 will (the same year he died, from complications after riding around the plantation all day in a cold winter rainstorm). The details are more complex. The majority of Mt. Vernon’s several hundred slaves were tied to Martha Washington’s estate from her first husband, and could not legally be freed, but passed upon her death to her descendants.

Concerning the slaves that Washington himself owned, he did stipulate that they be freed, but only upon the death of his wife—while she lived, the slaves must serve her and be owned by her. It evidently did not occur to Washington that this stipulation might encourage the slaves to consider the premature death of the widow Washington as a desirable event. It quite quickly did occur to Martha after her husband’s demise, however, and it alarmed her considerably. She hurriedly freed all the slaves within a year, evidently more from self-preservation than any burning moral fervor against the institution of slavery.

The episode suggests that Washington, while not stupid by any means, perhaps lacked imagination. That he was stiff and dull is widely acknowledged. Though he was shrewd and practical, as demonstrated by his plantation’s profitability, his interests rarely ranged beyond practical considerations. No problem, there. He was exactly the right man with the right talents and abilities to pursue and win an unlikely war against the world’s greatest power, and shepherd the new nation through dangerous shoals in its first several decades. The nation’s debt to him is huge, and Mt. Vernon rightly honors that.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and our visit to it, is another world altogether. To begin, it is more work to get to Monticello, sequestered as it is deep in the Virginia countryside, on the top of a large hill to boot. During my first several visits to Monticello, four decades ago, one drove up the hill and parked beside the home; no longer. Now visitors park and assemble at the base of the hill, where a museum and visitors center (and gift shop!) are located. All are nicely done, though on a scale far simpler than their Mt. Vernon counterparts. A “grill” rather than a restaurant is here, though in fact it resembles a snack shop more than a grill.

So far, everything is simpler, on a smaller scale.

As the tour shuttle delivers you atop the hill, though, the differences with Mt. Vernon are immediate and striking. Monticello is, architecturally, gorgeous and interesting, designed by Jefferson after the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. A dome enlivens the entrance and breaks the lines of the modest wings to either side, with four graceful columns fronting this east-facing portico. The entrance hall (indeed, the whole house) is filled with busts of men Jefferson admired (Voltaire, Newton, Washington, Franklin, Lafayette, Napoleon, even Hamilton, many by the French sculpture Houdon), mastodon bones and antlers of moose, elk, and deer, mementos of the Lewis and Clark expedition (animal skins, Indian pipes and artifacts), various scientific instruments, and maps galore, one by native-Americans on a bison hide. The ceiling stretches high to the dome above, with light flooding into the room.

Here at Monticello, each group is given to one docent, who escorts the visitors through the home. Our guide was knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate about Jefferson. She presented us with innumerable anecdotes and did not shy from controversies about Jefferson. She asked frequent questions for her visitors to venture guesses on, and welcomed our own questions. Passing from the entry rotunda to his library, his living quarters, the octagonal parlour, the dining room, the tea room, and finally the North Terrace walkway, we were treated to a fascinating tour of the man’s tumultuous life and wide-ranging mind.

Scheduled to dovetail with the end of the house visit were tours of the slave quarters, and of the extensive gardens. Tammy took the former, I the latter. Both were excellent, with the respective guides evincing the same passion and knowledge for Jefferson, and the same encouragement of questions and participation by the visitors.

Everywhere, from his library (including books read by Jefferson in their original French, Italian, Latin, and Greek) to his many inventions throughout the house (folding doors that open in tandem; a revolving coat rack; dumbwaiter from cellar to dining room; pivoting doors; a polygraph for making copies of correspondence), evidence of Jefferson’s astonishing mind leaps out at you. This was a man who could survey his lands, graft fruit trees, make bricks and instruct their proper placement in building, critique the Epicureans and Stoics of ancient Greece, distill the essential arguments of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hobbes, and Locke, and write the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and the Declaration of Independence. Oh yes, he also loved to play the violin accompanying his beloved young wife on the harpsichord in their parlour (before her tragic death after birthing their sixth child, only three of whom survived infancy).

Visiting Monticello is an intellectual and historical adventure, touching you (and your docent) on many levels; it cannot fail to leave you stirred. And eager to purchase mementos when you arrive back at the bottom of the hill and its gift shop. Who wouldn’t want to remind him/herself of this fascinating, flawed man? We departed laden with books, plates, and a replica of the famous Houdon bust of the man.

Jefferson early made clear his opposition to slavery, sponsoring a bill for its phased abolition in Virginia’s House of Burgesses (which never made it out of committee), and declaring publicly that the institution degraded both master and slave. Yet, like Washington, Jefferson’s income was inextricably tied to the slaves he inherited on his own and from his previously-married and widowed wife. Jefferson, again like Washington, would be a pauper without slaves to work his land. He would be relegating his daughters and grandchildren to poverty were he to free his slaves upon his death.

Jefferson’s complex relationship to slavery is compounded, for many, by the widely shared view that he fathered children from one of his slaves after his wife’s death—a claim whose purported evidence is not persuasive to me (but that’s another tale).

So our judgment as to whether Jefferson “should” have freed his slaves upon his death, then, is a tough call. It is pertinent that Jefferson’s long absences from Monticello’s fields (as Governor of Virginia, then envoy to France, then Secretary of State under Washington, then two terms as President) resulted in a continuous slide into indebtedness. By the time he died, Jefferson owed large sums to a variety of creditors. His assets? His land, and the slaves who worked it.

I cannot cast any stones at Jefferson, nor at Washington. The men were not saints, nor is it fair for any of us today to demand that they should have been saints. They were two very different men who, in their different ways, were instrumental in the unlikely creation of a nation founded upon the startling concept that all men (and later, women) are created with equal opportunity and rights to life, liberty, and happiness. They are to be appreciated and celebrated—different though they, and their homes, may be.

Post a comment