Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Vacation: Monticello

The centerpiece of this vacation was to be Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. Indeed, Tuesday we had a behind-the-scenes tour, a house tour, and plantation community tour. Just a few observations of my own and three tour guides:

Thomas Jefferson was more introvert than extrovert. Surprising because of his public life, renowned hospitality, and ambitious travels and undertakings. One of our guides said, however, that T.J. was uncomfortable in crowds; he preferred small groups of close friends. In fact, at least one year when he was president, he mailed in his state of the union address so that he could avoid making the speech. Another of our guides said that his quiet correspondence came first each day. Visitors would just have to wait in the entry hall until T.J. finished writing letters.

One guide said that T.J. is thought of as an inventor, but he was actually more of an adaptor. I am not sure which clever items in Monticello were inventions and which were adaptations. One item was a dumb waiter for wine bottles in the sides of a fireplace. Another was a clock with hour, minu
te, and second hands, connected to a ball-and-chain contraption that told the day of the week. Another was a double-pen apparatus that automatically copied anything he wrote with one of the pens. He favored Palladio architectural concepts he observed in Europe and incorporated them into his design of Monticello.

The simplicity of the place struck me. Nothing was fancy. Fine, yes. Fancy, no.

T.J. was conflicted on the subject of slavery. He owned slaves, but he treated them with respect and kindness. If one was injured, he immediately sent into Charlottesville for the finest doctors. He informally educated some slaves. Although laws at the time were harsh for runaway slaves, T.J. is known to have protected one man who ran away to be with his "wife" at the White House; not only did he send him back to Monticello, he promoted him to supervisory positions among the slaves there. He believed in this man and understood why he had run away. Apparently, T.J. proposed a law that would educate slaves, free them, and send them to Liberia. He believed they wouldn't be really free unless they were educated and away from the inevitable bitterness resulting from the experience of slavery. Because other slave-owning legislators adamantly clung to the comforts their slaves provided, T.J.'s proposal was not enacted into law. Several years later, a law was passed forbidding owners to educate slaves. Ugh.

In Jefferson's "cab
inet" (his home office), he had a bed and sitting room. The sitting room contained the fireplace to heat both rooms, so his cabinet would have been fairly chilly in winter. And he'd put huge windows in his personal quarters. Our guide pointed out that in designing this, he had made a conscious choice of light over heat.

I wish we had a choice of light over heat! :-) Virginia in July, there's just no escaping this heat. Scalding sweat stings your eyes. Steam clouds your vision. Nothing is dry enough to wipe the steam off your glasses. No matter ~ what good are glasses when your eyes are swollen shut? You wonder if bugs have gotten inside your clothes to tickle you, but no, just perspiration rivulets trickling down your sides. When we get into air conditioning, we laugh about it, but out in nature's sauna, man, we're in survival mode. Just pick up one foot, Jane. Put it down. Now pick up the other foot ...


Anonymous said...

why would sending them to Liberia be better for the slaves if he wanted to educate them? hmm..

AquaJane said...

Dear Anonymous,
The impression I got from the guide was that Jefferson worried about freed slaves' quality of life here in the country where they had been enslaved by people who often did not treat them with the respect they deserved. I think he worried about bitterness on both sides. The slave owners might (selfishly) resent the government or the slaves themselves for the slave owners' lower quality of life once their slaves were freed. And the freed slaves might retain bitterness for generations of cheap labor and fewer human rights and in many cases, cruel treatment. (We learned at Madison's home that slaves sometimes murdered their masters.) I'm just surmising from what our Monticello guide said. I haven't read Jefferson's position on this myself. Basically, the education Jefferson wanted to give them would raise their standard of living, and being out of this conflicted country would give them greater emotional freedom, fewer painful memories, etc. At least that was my take on the guide's comment.