3. Thomas Jefferson

Shadwell That Ends Well (3/12/08)

I was driving through Charlottesville on a Saturday, within miles of the Thomas Jefferson birthplace. Since I once drove 2 hours to see a field with a picnic table where Millard Fillmore was born, I didn't have much choice. In for a penny, in for a pound.

BEHOLD THE GLORY!

It's a sign. On the shoulder of US-250. The only thing my head is blocking is a great view of some weeds. I think there's an empty field somewhere with an archaeological dig where the house used to be, but I don't think you can go there.

So congratulations, Millard Fillmore. You have something on Thomas Jefferson. La'Chiam.

Monticello (March 14, 2007)


Things I learned on my class trip to Monticello: 1) Thomas Jefferson was our nation's greatest redhead. The end!

Jefferson was born in 1743, not far from where Monticello sits. (He's buried on site, see picture below.) He inherited 5,000 acres, a bunch of slaves and pretty decent social standing from his folks; went to William & Mary (captain of the cheerleading squad), read law, served in the House of Burgesses (for the EVIL British); when the Continental Congress rolled around he had gained some renown as a thinker and was asked to help write the Declaration of Independence. From there things really steamrolled: Virginia House of Delegates, Governor of Virginia, U.S. Minister to France, first secretary of state, second vice president, third president.

And in his spare time, he was a farmer, inventor, architect, archaeologist, book collector, master karate fighter, university founder, Albemarle County karaoke champion, anchor of the Founding Fathers bobsled team and author.

And that SOUNDS impressive, but you tend to have a bit more spare time when you have 140 slaves to chip in around the house. Slaves definitely explain part of the Jefferson mystique. He was a revolutionary farmer, right? At Monticello Jefferson experimented with hundreds of fruits and vegetables, taking detailed notes on all his yields and developing a new kind of plow. But it's easier to be a brilliant and prolific farmer when you don't have to actually FARM. Staffing out the grunt work to your unpaid employees really frees up your day.

But on the other hand, opportunity doesn't equal greatness. History is filled with men born to similar lots who did nothing. Jefferson was by any standard a genius, and a motivated one. Free to live a life of almost total leisure, he instead chose to shape the future of humanity. My life of almost total leisure has led mostly to watching "Scrubs" in syndication 4 times a day.

Jefferson's Grave at MonticelloThese are the kinds of arguments that you should have after six beers, preferably with sexually frustrated grad students. The staff at Monticello is a little less receptive, because they're mostly busy herding you from room to room before the next tour group shows up. It's a shame, because Jefferson's is probably the coolest of all the presidential homes: he designed it himself, and almost every detail of the estate in some way reflects aspects of his character and philosophy. There's a ridiculous amount of information on the man (he saved copies of all 20,000 letters he wrote in his lifetime), but all you really get from a trip to Albemarle County is factoids, a few quotes and some cute stories. Of course if you're not me, you don't really care what the choice of ceiling board in the dining room says about Jefferson's undying faith in meritocracy, so by all means plan a visit.

  • Died on July 4, 1826, the same day as John Adams, making it the best day in recorded history for presidential death pools.
  • Jefferson was married once, to the widower Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772. They had six kids, only two of whom lived to adulthood. Martha died in 1782, and Jefferson never remarried ... though he did make time (and babies) with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves at Monticello. Jefferson had acquired Hemmings in his marriage to Martha; she was actually Martha's half-sister, as Jefferson's father-in-law (also a plantation owner) fathered her right before he died in 1773. Family traditions are weird, huh?
  • Jefferson called slavery a "stain" on the nation, but he owned 140 slaves and freed only seven, mostly because it's the job of the help to get stains out.
  • Among Jefferson's inventions at Monticello are the gravity-powered clock, the wine dumbwaiter, and the XJ-4000 Annihilo-Ray, which really came in handy during that whole Barbary Pirate thing.
  • TJ used a lithograph to make simultaneous copies of all his letters, which is why we have detailed records of "Things I Want Sally to Pick Up at the Cheese Shop."
  • A prolific collector of books, Jefferson sold his collection to the government to start the Library of Congress. Congress was horrified months later to realize that most of the collection was erotic romance novels.
  • Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in nearby Charlottesville as a way of promoting a meritocratic society, and also as a great way to hang out around hot co-eds.
  • The original draft of the Declaration of Independence described the rights to "life, liberty and rocking hard."
  • As president, he would often greet White House visitors while wearing a dressing gown and slippers. His decision to wear a "F*** the King" t-shirt to a state dinner in 1808 led directly to the War of 1812.
  • Oversaw the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of America. Also tried to auction off New Jersey. There were no takers.
  • Jefferson Was good friends with James Madison, who lived 30 miles away and would often spend weeks at Monticello. He was slightly less friendly with James Monroe, who lived 2 miles away and kept on borrowing his lawnmower without asking.
  • Jefferson wrote his own epitaph for his Monticello grave and specifically left out any mention of the presidency, due to his firm belief that it was all a dream!

Mr. Poplarity (8/7/09)

One of the great disadvantages of being president is that sometimes, when you want to get away from your giant taxpayer-funded mansion, your private mansion on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere just isn't private enough. We've all been there.

Thomas Jefferson's brilliant solution was Poplar Forest, a quaint little home nestled away on 4,000 acres just outside Lynchburg. A sweet little place where he could escape a few times year and relax: just Tom, his grandchildren, and 50 to 70 slaves. Cozy!

TJ came into the property through marriage, the way we all aspire to become rich, and it was one of his choicer financial assets: he needed the income from that plantation so that he was only severely crippled by the debt racked up his other plantation. And privacy? You bet! He had used the place as getway in the past -- he stayed there when the British tried to capture him at Monticello during the Revolution (he was the governor of Virginia, and apparently the British didn't have the military intelligence to find out where his OTHER huge plantation was) -- but during his second term as president he actually got down to business and started work on this fine little structure:

It's like a mini-Monticello, a vanity project that actually turned out to be ... well, sort of nifty. Because it's an OCTAGON. Jefferson toyed with getting octagons into Monticello, settling for some half-octagons on the wings and an octagonal dome chamber up top. But at Poplar Forest, freed from the demands of polite society, he was able to finally make an octagonal home that could properly harness the the dark energies of the hoary netherworld. And when the eighth son of an eighth son stands under the dining room skylight under a full moon on August 8, and makes some disparaging remarks about John Adams, then LO, THE PROPHECY SHALL BE COMPLE ...

Whoops. Can't give away the secret. Or take pictures of the inside. Their rules. Sorry.

The house is in the Palladian villa style -- a big, 20x20 square dining room in the center with huge high ceilings, surrounded by four octagonal rooms and a few more corner spaces to round out the exterior octagon. That should be enough octagons, right? Right?

WRONG! That's one of the crappers, and it's octagonal, because Jefferson wanted you to know how clever he was, even when you were taking a dump. But oddly enough, for all the intriguing flourishes (and the big honking dining room), Poplar Forest wasn't really a public, showy place. There are just two bedrooms, so he wasn't packing in the guests. Jefferson built Poplar Forest for Jefferson, and to me, that makes it neat.

He started building the place in his 60s. He had decades of experience messing around (and screwing up) with other projects, so he knew what worked (the wing of dependencies on one side of the house and the half-sunken basement are a straight lift from Monticello). He didn't have to satisfy the demands of public use or plantation culture. Basically, he had fun with it. Following all the big rules of the Palladian style, he was still able to cherrypick his favorite elements from all kinds of sources, and the result seems quirky, cozy and suprisingly modern. After a lifetime of studying architecture, managing construction projects and touring the gardens of England and France, this is what one of the best minds in American history came up with. That's worth seeing.

And even without furnishings or decoration (they're in the process of undoing 150 years of changes from various private owners), you can get a definite idea of Jefferson's personality. Obviously, he valued privacy. But beyond that, consider the back yard: to suit his design, he needed a sunken yard allowing access to the basement rooms and the dependencies. But rather than pick a hillside to build into (and they have them on the property), he paid slaves extra to dig out the whole yard in their spare time.

It took a few years. The guy wanted things the way he wanted them, and despite being almost famously practical, he'd ignore sane impulses to get what he wanted. Plus he bought almost everything on credit! And maybe, just maybe, that makes him the most American president of all. USA! USA! USA!

POPLAR FOREST FACTS!

  • Most of the property was sold at the time of Jefferson's death to help repay his crushing debts, which might have been party caused by BUILDING TWO FANCY HOUSES IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AT THE SAME TIME. I mean, duh.
  • The dining room table was octagonal, and Jefferson would insist on eight-course meals off eight-sided plates, with prayers to the Spider Queen Loth between each course.
  • As a fan of the "lazy susan," Jefferson had several tables with rotating tops at Poplar Forest. This inspired one woman on my tour to let us know that Jefferson had INVENTED the lazy susan, giving me instant PTSD flashbacks to a Mount Vernon tour where someone insisted Jefferson had invented the mimeograph in Washington's office. Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson was not an inventor. He made some kind of plow, and that's about it. He borrowed lots of ideas from other people, in everything from architecture to the Declaration of Independence. His skill was as an aggregator and presenter of knowledge, and in the traditional sense he was not a brilliant creative mind. To sum up, SHUT IT, lazy susan lady.
  • Jefferson hated staircases, and included them in his designs only when attempts to breed a race of wall-climbing slaves failed.

Tomas esta en la biblioteca (5/15/08)

The British, never the reading type, rudely burned Washington D.C. to the ground in the war of 1812, taking with it the original congressional library. Thomas Jefferson, who needed the cash to fund his lavish ... uh, book-buying habit, sold his personal library (something like 6,000 books) to the country. This seed grew into the new Library of Congress.

A lot of those books have been destroyed by time, fire, or jerks who never returned them, but everything that's left is now on display at the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. It's all part of their new tourist initiative, which includes hot new video displays and exhibits: "2008 Visitors in 2008 -- It Could Happen!"

I got to check out the display the other weekend with my brother, and it's sort of a kick to see the private collection of our nation's most beloved nerd. The books are arranged in a circle, arranged in Jefferson's personal classification system; that means all French erotica is at eye-level and everything else is just sort of tossed on the shelves at random.

Anyhow, if you have an obsession with the presidents, go check it out. If you're not me, you still might enjoy the display on the other side of the building -- old maps. They have the first map believed to use the word "America." That's cool because ... uh ... well ...

It's just cool. The west coast of the the New World says "Incognita" and for the interior of Africa, the guy just gave up and drew an elephant. A few years later the same dude drastically revised his worldview to something less accurate, so it's not like he was a stickler for detail. But hey, old map.



One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White