Spring was in the air, as it should be, when we visited Monticello. Strange how we have trouble correctly pronouncing the name of Thomas Jefferson’s home and not the word for that stringed instrument that a musician holds between his knees. Cello and Monticello should sound the same.
Rings of daffodils in tiered gardens circled the “beautiful mount” with the domed residence on top. In the gift shop at the hill’s base, you could purchase bulbs and other floral reminders of your brush with history, genius and greatness.
The residence itself offered a map room with giant charts suspended under the dome. Everywhere were touches of brilliance like a bed built into a wall separating two rooms to save floor space. There was the gazebo set in the garden where Jefferson would sit and read and observe.
You could also learn of Jefferson’s dietary quirks. Not a true vegan, Jefferson preferred using meat to season or flavor his vegetables. He seldom ate large portions of red or any other kind of meat.
Only one thing seemed to be missing from the house of our third President, but let’s save that for the end.
One must pause in awe at the vaulting intelligence of the Revolutionary generation. Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson and Adams stood at the head of the line. “A gathering of demi-gods,” Jefferson said when they assembled to write the Constitution without him.
You may have noticed Washington was not included among the intelligentsia. Washington was certainly not dumb, but his contribution was leadership, determination and an indomitable will. I firmly believe the United States would not exist if it had not been for George Washington, but the supreme commander knew how to utilize brilliance – much like Eisenhower in World War II – without the burdens of being the smartest person in the room.
Jefferson, of course, held his own in the world of letters, but was a giant fan of Thomas Paine, who he sponsored and promoted at every turn. Certainly, Paine could pen a phrase, “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and fair weather patriot will, in this crisis, fade from the service of their country.” Jefferson will be the one we quote on this day for the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
In our Declaration, Jefferson’s penetrating logic persuades and inspires not just 13 colonies, but the world. Officially, the July 4 resolution was the work of a committee that did manage to keep Jefferson from referring to Scottish troops as foreigners. The inspiration, the reasoning, the heavy lifting of what Americans believed, why they fought and what they fought for belonged to Jefferson.
Much can be gained from reading Jefferson today. In a 1791 letter to his political enemy, John Adams, Jefferson wrote, “I have a dozen times taken up my pen to write to you, and as often laid it down again, suspended between opposing considerations. I determine, however, to write from a conviction that truth, between candid minds, can never do harm.”
Jefferson even wrote his own Bible, giving rise to campaign mud that he was an atheist. “It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian,” Jefferson wrote a friend, “that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” Jefferson clipped text from the Gospels and pasted the pieces of paper onto the pages of a blank book. The selected scripture contains the narrative of Jesus’ life and teachings, but few of his miracles. Jefferson’s intellect was such that he could realize this Jesus was the son of God without the need of demonstrations. The little book was beside his bed when he died.
You probably already know Jefferson’s last words, “Adams survives.” Without the convenience of modern communication, Jefferson could not know that his old opponent and friend, John Adams, died earlier that day – July 4, 1826.
Jefferson’s birthday, April 13, was once a cause for celebration, particularly among Democrats. At a Jefferson birthday party in 1830, President Andrew Jackson raised his glass while looking at Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina who was among a group advocating secession if tariff policies did not change. “To the Federal Union,” Jackson declared, “it must be preserved.”
President John F. Kennedy also held Jefferson in high regard. JFK noted at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
A woman’s touch was what I found missing from Monticello. Jefferson’s daughters assisted in the running of the house, but he ruled the dome atop the hill. With the early death of his wife, Martha, and his relationship with Sally Hemings not one of social equality, no personality or intellect in the house was capable of standing up to him. Jefferson got his domestic way, but I think he suffered for it.
When Alley and Urquart founded this village on the banks of Cypress Bayou and the name of Jefferson was chosen, they picked a high standard for their descendants and followers to achieve. A Jeffersonian community would be known for its valued labor, rewarded capital and perceptive, intelligent citizenry. Perhaps this is a worthy goal for our current village to continue to press onward for this July 4.
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