Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Ivory Tower

After our slog through the highlights of the Civil War, it was a delight to inhale the fresh mountaintop air of Monticello, the retirement home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, third president of the United States, architect, gardener, scientist, founder of the University of Virginia, champion of religious freedom, plantation owner, slave owner, and man-about-the-town.

However, you can’t climb the steps to the summit of this ivory tower. You have to ride a tour bus.

And you can’t go it alone. You have to moo along with a herd of other tourists.

But it’s worth it. That is if you like hanging out in what amounts to a giant bachelor’s pad. Behold the main visitor’s entrance, replete with cool mastodon fossils and trinkets scored from the Lewis and Clark expeditions.

Of course, Jefferson’s daughter and her 11 children lived in the house, too. But he squirreled them away safely upstairs and forbade the meddlesome kids to enter his inner sanctum, which is just off the visitor’s entrance.

As you can see, all that’s missing are the neon beer signs and a flat screen TV. To be fair, and not to confuse our 3rd president with our 43rd, Jefferson’s personal library is the foundation of the famed Library of Congress. I also find it telling that one of Jefferson’s favorite books was Don Quixote, which he read in the original Spanish. Generally regarded as the western world’s first true novel (its author, Miguel Cervantes, was a contemporary of Shakespeare), Don Quixote is essentially one long and ridiculous road trip story. It is also the story of a man who so rejects the encroachments of the modern world that he casts himself in the role of a heroic errant knight and undertakes a great quest to right all that has gone wrong, and maybe even save a fair damsel in distress.

So. Back to Monticello. This hilltop retreat was the center of Jefferson’s world. Said the man himself, “all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello.”

True to his words, he goofed around with his house, his “essay in architecture.” He wrote letters. He entertained guests. He cultivated every plant imaginable, be it tree or flower or fruit or vegetable. He tinkered with astronomy at night, then during the day trained his spyglass on the grounds of the University of Virginia to supervise its construction (built from his design) from afar. History does not say whether or not the women’s dormitory was completed prior to the old man’s passing.

Of course, none of Jefferson’s great labors would have been possible without the help of his father’s fortune, which included vast land holdings and a veritable army of slaves.

At Monticello, the slaves lived on a sort of ring road, affectionately called “Mulberry Row,” which from the main house is conveniently sloped just out of sight down the side of the hilltop.

Jefferson, a man of his time, had no compunction about owning slaves and profiting from their labors. But he also wasn’t afraid to offer them education and opportunities, suitable to their station in life. He brought his best slaves with him wherever he went. Some learned the fine arts of French cookery. Others became masters of the skilled trades. His common slaves could learn to read and write, should they so desire. Unlike other slaveholders, Jefferson wasn’t threatened by any of this. And why should he be? The more educated his slaves, the better his own life would be. Besides, he was always the smartest man in the room.

Today, Monticello is a clean and quiet place. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay and we recommend that anyone who has the inclination and opportunity should visit. It provides fascinating insights into the interests, talents, ideals, and realities of this creative and complex American icon.

Back down in the thoroughly modern town of Charlottesville, VA and strolling through its noisy, car-choked streets, I missed the quiet of Jefferson’s hilltop retreat. On the hilltop, back in Jefferson’s day, the air was clean. The water was pure. The dark earth was untainted with toxic chemicals. And only the gentle blur of wind rustled the skies.

My ire up, I was ready to slip on my silk knickers, snug down my waistcoat, powder my wig, and get back to nature. But then Diane suggested we duck into a tavern for an ice-cold beer and a giant cheeseburger, and my resolve melted. For she knew what I had temporarily forgotten—that no matter the sounds or the odors, every era has its own troubles in its own way. Even on a hilltop retreat.

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