May 27, 2017
I only vaguely remembered the mansion at Monticello from a previous visit during elementary school. Decades later, this trip gave me the chance to dig deeper into the story behind the mansion and the lives of people who were enslaved, gaining a better understanding for the dynamics at play on this Charlottesville Virginia hilltop that was the setting for so much of Thomas Jefferson’s life.
The dirt and gravel trails around the visitor’s center provide routes to the mansion, as well as to the cemetery where some of those enslaved by Jefferson were buried. I found the proximity of parking lots to these graves disconcerting, although it appeared like the parking areas came first, discovery of the plots second. Regardless, it still felt odd especially as the tree-shaded trail wound up the hillside. That route, which of course was done in reverse so I could avoid the direct-to-mansion shuttle, passes by the official cemetery for the Jefferson and Randolph families. Their larger tombstones, fenced off plots, and quietly curious visitors continued to highlight the differences between the human lives that came and went within the same time and space.
This duality continued all around Monticello.
You can’t help but compare the mansion to the reconstructed homes of those enslaved as well as the workshops where they crafted and labored along Mulberry Row. I’m certain more stories wait to be told and there is more work to be done bringing the history of those men and women who lived under slavery to the forefront, but I appreciated the focus and obvious effort to represent the situation as it had been in the late 1700s and the docents speaking to attentive crowds who put the estate in context and connected it to the complex racial foundations of the nation.
Those racial undertones are juxtaposed against the inventive and curious nature of Jefferson apparent in his architectural choices and agricultural experiments. You can’t forget that all of his interests were undertaken by people who could be sold off or beaten, and his freedom to be so curious is based on his gender, economic wealth, and social status. But you also can’t miss Jefferson’s effort to explore different plants and vegetables, again extolled by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, to learn more about the lands and tribes to the west as seen in artifacts sent east by Lewis and Clark, and his desire to incorporate European styles that countered early American Georgian architecture.
An exhibit back in the visitor center provides scale models and plans, showing Jefferson’s changing mind when it came to what his home would look like and how it would function. It makes the influence of his trips readily apparent. A parallel exhibit on the Declaration of Independence highlights his use of language, and how the words this slave-owning world traveler crafted have been used as a source of inspiration for subsequent revolutions across the globe and centuries.
The whole experience provided a striking reminder and a visceral example of the complexities and inequalities that can sometimes be overshadowed by celebrated historical figures, and yet link inexorably to modern day circumstances and challenges those figures had a hand in building.