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Dave and Jan's travels, day 12:
Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson was born in 1743, died in 1826.  His profession?  Let's see, lawyer, plantation owner, politician, gardener, architect, diplomat, designer of agricultural tools, mathematician. Not satisfied with that little lot, he also found time to stand as the United States' third president, and then of course there was the little matter of writing the Declaration of Independence.  All in all, a bit of a smarty pants.

The various exhibitions you encounter on a visit to his house, Monticello, tend to confirm the impression of an inveterate over-achiever. As an architect, perhaps his finest hour was the house itself, which has lots of features that impress to this day.  The house sits on a hill and pays homage to Palladio, the Italian architect, recalling his style with collonades and a domed roof.  The actual house itself appears compact: this is because all the paraphenalia of a large country house such as smoke houses, stables and kitchens are hidden on a level below the house at the edges of the hill.  All that shows of this subterranean support system are some fine wooden decks raised perhaps three feet above the exquisite garden.  The final touch is an underground passageway that allows Tom's Paris-trained slave chef to arrive at dinner with suitably unweathered food.

Slave chef? But isn't this the Jefferson that described slavery as an 'abominable crime'? Yes, but he didn't let that - and his impassioned support for the abolition of the slave trade - to infect him with any enthusiasm for actually freeing the poor bastards that he owned.  Even in his will, only five of the permanent staff (variously estimated at between 130 and 200) were actually freed - the rest were chattels to be bequeathed to his children.

Another bequest was $100,000 in debts, a sizeable fortune at the time. Attempts to pay this off lead first to the disposal of much of the estate, and later to Monticello's survival being funded by various well-wishers, including the Levy family who notably maintained the estate for many years. It's not entirely clear where Jefferson's debts came from. Some blame a lifetime of public service, others the actions of unscrupulous agents during Jefferson's stint as ambassador to Paris, but he died a much poorer man than he started.

Still, these are two minor flaws when set against the achievements of a true Renaissance man. He was one of the men that drove Virginia to oppose British rule, and later was a leader in the Continental Conference's decision to declare independence. We've already mentioned his authorship of the Declaration of Independence - but his other literary efforts included a well-respected work on the flora and fauna of Virginia. His breakthrough plough design got used over much of Virginia. As diplomat, cabinet minister and finally President he served the US government with distinction for many years.

He also found time to be a dutiful parent and later grandparent.  One letter to his daughter, setting out the 'disposition of her time' that would please him, perhaps revealed something of the self-discipline that enabled him to span such a range of activities. In this letter, he timetabled her day, hour by hour, to include French lessons, letter writing, musical practice, dancing, reading and only in the evening 'other activities'. Every hour between 9am and 5pm was spoken for, each and every day, with just an hour's time left free at lunchtime.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Monticello House