Friday, August 21, 2009

Monticello – A Giant’s Little Mountain

Monti-cello, an Italian word that means literally “Little Mountain”, is the name of Thomas Jefferson’s 5,000 acre plantation home in Charlottesville, Virginia, a two and half hours driving southwest of Washington D.C. Just in case you are not familiar with who Thomas Jefferson is, he is one of the seven key “founding fathers” of U.S. (the other six are Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton.). He was the 3rd president of U.S., preceded by George Washington and John Adams, serving two full terms from 1801-1809. He was the 1st Secretary of State (under George Washington), 2nd Vice President (when President and Vice President were not in one ticket) and the 2nd Governor of Virginia from 1779-1781. Of course, he is most well-known for his drafting of the American Declaration of Independence in July, 1776, at age 33! Where were you when you were 33 years old?

A visit to Monticello and the mountaintop house Jefferson had designed and built over a period of 40 years from 1769 to 1809 affords a unique experience to get a feel and glimpse of the life of this great American intellect and statesman. Exactly two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson completed his 2nd term of presidency and returned to his beloved Monticello home, a plantation that he inherited from his father at age 14.

As one enters the hall of Thomas Jefferson’s house from the east side, visitors are greeted with artifacts of American Indians on the south wall, sent by Lewis and Clark from their famous 1804-1806 exploration of the west for which Jefferson had championed. On the opposite wall, game trophies including moose, elk, etc. from the west are displayed. Both serve a vivid reminder of Jefferson’s vision of westward expansion of America, began with his Louisiana Territory Purchase from France in 1803. Above the entrance, there is a large wall clock, including a hand for seconds that Jefferson had designed. Day of the week can be read off the wall as fifty pound of cannonball weights traversing downward through the markers, reaching the floor on Friday and into the cellar during the weekend before it is rewind and ready for the new week.

Jefferson must have a very curious and inquisitive mind. Clever gadgets can be seen throughout the house for little but practical tasks like closing the double French door with one hand. A polygraph machine on his desk duplicates his writings letter by letter as he wrote. That explains why there are such good documentations of his letters and memos. His thirst for knowledge is evident as there are shelves of books overflowed beyond his library. He supposedly have owned over 9,000 books through his life time that translates to reading about 150 books a year if he had read them all just once and never read others’ collections. One of his famous quotes was “I can’t live without books”! He is a diligent man; he always got up before daylight and work long hours. He had his single bed fit right in between his chamber and cabinet with a clock above the feet position. That is, he practically slept in his study with just few steps away from his desk.

As one walks outside to reach the west lawn, the white dome tops the center of this 21 rooms 4 stories house in Jefferson's design based on Palladio's architecture is clearly visible. As a self-taught architect, Jefferson had done a magnificent job. Not only had considered the energy efficiency (e.g., double windows on the north side of the house), he had made the connection of his political belief of a young American republic with the Roman republic. It is one of the most elegant and inspiring private house although it is modest and is only a fraction in size compared to opulent mansions like Vanderbilt’s in Newport, Rhode Islands . By the way, if you look at the back of your 5 cent nickel coins, you can see a simple illustration of this Monticello house.

Strolling down the Mulberry Row on the south side of the house, little remains and artifacts of the slave quarters and workshops can still be seen. As a major plantation owner, Thomas Jefferson owned quite a few slaves (at peak, about 600), although he apparently preferred not to engage in buying or selling slaves. In fact, he wasn’t a shrewd business man and barely kept his plantation going with the grains (mostly wheat) it grows. His estate including slaves had to be auctioned at his death as he had cumulated over a hundred thousand dollars of debt. Note a slave can be purchased at the time for low hundreds in average and up to say one thousand dollars (equivalent of approximately $20K of purchasing power of today) depending on their skills and “values”. As a great American who championed the principles of personal liberty and equality during the founding of the nation, did he mean to apply those principles only to the white European immigrants and descendants like himself?

While he had called slavery an "abominable crime," a "moral depravity”, etc. early in his political career before 1785, Jefferson himself never freed any of his slaves if you don’t include members of the Hemings family. The total would have been 9 (including three run-away who were not pursued deliberately), all are children or grandchildren of Betty Hemings, concubine and a slave of Jefferson’s father-in-law. Among the nine, six are believed to be fathered by Jefferson with Sally Hemings (a daughter of Betty Hemings) who is a ¼ African American. There is no question that there were many contradictions in Jefferson’s words and actions regarding slavery. Was he a hypocrite? Did he compromise for political and economic stability, the same issues and conflicts that took the bloody Civil War to settle half a century later?

Political considerations aside, it appears that Jefferson’s racial and generally elites attitude have a lot to do with his positions and approach to slavery. Perhaps his view on issues with Native American Indians shed some lights as well. He believed American Indians should give up their own cultures, religions, and lifestyles to assimilate into western European culture, Christian religion, and an agricultural lifestyle. If they resist, he advocated the removal or in extreme measures, extermination. The net result was the passing of the 1930 Indian Removal Act under President Andrew Jackson. Regarding to slaves, he recognized the impossibility of removal of blacks from the land, he probably ended up with “rationalizations” of slavery using excuses like “not time yet”, “can’t survive without adequate skills”, “needs protection”, with a biased view (but common at the time) that blacks are inferior. Although he was supposed to be a fairly “benevolent” slave owner compared to his peers, his lack of contributions in abolishing slavery remains to be the biggest disappointment to many.

Another possible explanation is related to his political believes. One of the critical debates in the young nation was the balance of power of state vs. federal, sometimes referred to as Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian or Anti-federalist vs. Federalist. The former was led by Thomas Jefferson who had always been concerned about concentration of power and interference of government. The latter was led by Alexander Hamilton of New York, another key founding father and nation’s first Secretary of Treasury under George Washington’s, who believed in a strong federal government which can manage effectively fiscal, military and foreign affairs, built on industrial productions, trading, and commerce. It is conceivable that Jefferson might not be eager to see a federal law of abolition imposed on states, despite his own moral values. Note that his contribution of the Virginia stature of Religious Freedom of 1779 was motivated with the concern that without it, government might interfere on individual’s choice and practice of religion. By the way, although it is not clear the implied concept of “separation of state and church” was exactly what he had intended, Jefferson's religious freedom law certainly has put the country on a secular, more robust and rational path.

As one walks down the hill to the parking lot, quickly one reaches the family grave yard of Jefferson’s. On the 20ft tall tombstone of his, the epitaph records what he considered his top three contributions – “AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE, OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA”. We have talked about the first two. But discussion of the career of Thomas Jefferson would not be complete without mentioning his founding of the University of Virginia few miles away in Charlottesville. After he returned home from his two-term presidency service, Thomas Jefferson devoted himself to the establishment of the first public school of higher education completely separated from religious doctrine. He personally planned and designed initial buildings of the school including the Rotunda that share some architectural similarity with his Monticello house. Jefferson also created a curriculum inclusive of full electives, the first in America, that many of us still benefited today. It continues to be one of the best research and full universities in the nation.

America was blessed to have a few extraordinary men in its formative years. Thomas Jefferson had flaws but he has certainly earned his place in American and World history. On July 4th, the Independence Day of 1826, Thomas Jefferson passed away in Monticello. As one drives away from Monticello, his words of eternal truth written 233 years ago still echo through the valleys and hills loudly that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” More importantly perhaps, he did not stop there; he went on to say “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Thank you, President Jefferson!

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