The closest many Americans will get to seeing Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home is by viewing the back of a nickel. However, those who are fortunate enough to actually visit the home of our third President, located two miles southeast of Charlottesville, VA, discover that Monticello is more than historical architecture. In fact, the entire estate, all 5000 acres of it, truly embodies the personality of the man and his strong belief in Enlightenment – a philosophy driven by reason and practicality.
When we set out to visit Monticello, I was armed with some of the basic Thomas Jefferson facts that almost every student who made it out of the sixth grade knew: he wrote the “Declaration of Independence” and he was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase, which almost doubled the size of the United States at the time. However, as soon as I saw Jefferson’s face staring back at me on the two-dollar bill I received as change from my ticket purchase, I realized the power of his influence on all my surroundings.
Even the tours themselves reflected Jefferson’s love of efficiency. The two-hour wait for our designated time of the house tour was easily filled by touring the plantation ground’s famed Mulberry Row where more than 30 artisans composed of slaves and freemen once busily carried such trades as blacksmithing, basket weaving and barrel making. In addition, visitors could tour Jefferson’s expansive gardens and learn about the numerous varieties of plant-life Jefferson cultivated or wander through the underground walkways that housed the “dependencies” such as the kitchen, the ice house and the privies that Jefferson chose to enclose to preserve the natural beauty of the hillside.
The house tour offered further insight into Jefferson’s personality. He was a man who appeared to be in a constant state of building and learning. In fact, the structure was under some form of construction for 40 years and what originally began as an 8 room home expanded into 21 rooms. Even in his “retirement” from public life, Jefferson continued to serve his country by donating his personal library of over 6,700 volumes to the Library of Congress in 1815, and founding the University of Virginia in 1825. Jefferson’s love of education is also apparent the moment you step through the doors, as the entryway to Monticello is filled with many unusual and exotic artifacts of the era designed to educate visitors while they waited.
In history books, Jefferson is often portrayed as a “larger than life” figure. In fact, his six-foot-two inch frame was considered large for his era. However, Jefferson’s human side was also thoroughly explored during the tour. It was noted that despite that fact that he was known to stutter, he became one of the most prominent public figures of all times. The high probability that he fathered six children with his slave Sally Hemings (still a heavily debated and controversial topic) was also discussed, as well as some of his unusual habits such as sleeping in the sitting up position and beginning each day by soaking his feet in ice water. Each fact seemed to add one upon the other to reveal the complex nature and unique character of the man. Even Jefferson’s death was filled with symbolic significance as it occurred on July 4th, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Today, we are fortunate to be able to visit this historical site, which could have easily been lost forever as the entire estate, once the home to over 150 people including slaves and free tradesmen, was auctioned off – a truly sad ending for such an accomplished man. However, thanks to the efforts of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and other generous supporters, Jefferson’s beloved Monticello has been restored to its former self for future generations to enjoy. From its beautiful setting to its inventive architecture, Monticello offers something for everyone from history buffs to avid gardeners. The tours are designed to “enlighten” visitors of all ages. Even the most hard to entertain guests will find something of interest from the rotating closet, to the one-handed clock. A day spent on the “little mountain” guarantees a treat for the eyes as well as the mind.
Hours: Monticello is open year round but the activities and tour offerings change with the seasons.
Admission: $13.00 for adults and $6.00 for children ages 6 – 11
Directions: Take I-64 East and get off at Exit 121A. Just after the first stoplight, turn left onto Route 53, the Thomas Jefferson Parkway and follow the signs to Monticello.
Dining: There are several options for lunch during your visit - Picnic areas are located near the ticket office, as well as a seasonally-opened luncheonette that offers sandwiches and other light fare. However, if you want to further immerse yourself in the colonial era, you may wish to drive a half-mile to historic Michie Tavern where period costumed waitstaff serve traditional southern cuisine.