Monticello – Jefferson’s essay in architecture

History Facts

Where: Staunton, Virginia, Southeast USA
When: 18th century
History: Explore life for America’s early European settlers with a recreation of historic farms and crafts including quilting and barn dancing
Remember to bring: A pair of clogs for the hoe-down

Monticello, two miles southeast of Charlottesville in Virginia, is the home of Thomas Jefferson – third President of the United States of America and one of the nation’s founding fathers.

Who was Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson – the son of a planter – practiced law and served in local government until he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence which has been regarded ever since as the charter of American and universal liberties. The document – still often-quoted today – states that all men are equal and that the government is the servant, not the master, of the people.

In 1800 Thomas Jefferson became the President, the first peaceful transfer of authority from one party to another in the history of the young nation. His purchase of Louisiana Territory from France’s Napoleon nearly doubled the size of the United States and he steered his country away from involvement in any more damaging wars. Although remembered more for his intellectual achievements than his term in office, the estate epitomises its ingenious and eccentric owner who shaped Monticello over a period of 40 years, calling it his ‘essay in architecture’. Jefferson incorporated his own ideas into the design which you can explore today on a tour of the estate, which was acquired and preserved by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1923.

Things to See and Do in Monticello

Jefferson spent many years in France on diplomatic service and so loved the Parisian architecture he saw that he spent most of his life recreating in Monticello. French features include the dramatic dome over the parlour (the first American home with one) and the external appearance that the three-story building was only one-story tall – modelled on the Hotel de Salm in Paris.

Jerfferson’s inventions

Monticello is filled with many of Jefferson’s innovations designed for greater convenience. In his bedroom there are prominently placed clocks, space-saving alcove beds, a light maximizing mirror, and a ‘turning machine‘ – a revolving wardrobe. He organised his chamber so he would get out of the right side of bed to write (he wrote 20,000 letters in his lifetime) and the left side to dress.

Other gadgets here include a concave mirror in the hall so visitors appeared to be standing on their head, Lewis and Clark expedition fossils, a floor painted the exact same shade of green as grass, a two-pen polygraph (a pre-carbon copy way to produce two copies of a letter at once), and a compass attached to a weather vane outside to show wind direction. Jefferson was a scientifically-minded man who recorded the temperature and the speed and direction of wind methodically every day and kept records on climate, bird migration, and flora with the hope of creating a national meteorological database. He carried with him many pocket-sized observation and measurement instruments earning him the reputation of being a ‘travelling calculator’.

The Great Clock

A picturesque feature of the estate is the Great Clock, designed by Jefferson and built by Peter Spruck in 1792, which still works today. One face of the clock faces the house’s interior with hours, minutes and seconds; the clock face on the outside wall dictates only the hour, which was accurate enough for outdoor laborers. A Chinese gong chimes the hour so loudly that slaves in the fields could hear it three miles away. This is a seven-day clock, displaying a marker on the wall from Sunday at the top down to Saturday which drops so far down that the marking for the end of the week is only visible in the basement (the clock was originally designed for a taller house). Every Sunday the clock is wound, raising its weights to the ceiling.

Mulberry Row

The remains of Mulberry Row, the old slave quarters, reflect the darker past of Monticello. In its day, Mulberry Row would have been a thriving, working street with a washhouse, dairy, a blacksmiths, and a carpentry. Jefferson was opposed to slavery – he called it “an abominable crime,” – yet he owned more than 200 slaves, one of whom he was reputedly romantically attached to. The film Jefferson In Paris forced the American public to reckon with the possibility that the Father of Independence kept a slave mistress for more than 35 years. Most biographers have ignored or dismissed stories of a liaison with his daughter Mary’s slave-child while in Paris. At the time, he was a widowed father with two girls who had promised his dying wife he would never re-marry. The slave-girl was 14-years-old and the half-sister of his wife. When they returned from Paris she was pregnant. To some this was a serious passion, to others she was a slave-child who had no choice.

Thomas Jefferson’s Grave

Jefferson died at Monticello, aged 83 and in debt, on July 4 1826 – exactly 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. As modest in death as he was in life, it was Jefferson’s wish that his tombstone reflect the things he had given the people not the things that the people had given him. It only states: ‘Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and father of the University of Virginia.’ You’ll notice one glaring omission form his epitaph – there’s no mention that he was once president.

More Information

Monticello Museum
Open daily until 5pm, 4.30pm in winter. Admission $14 for adults, $6 for children.

By Susi O’Neill

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