Happy Birthday, Abigail Adams!

Abigail Adams, the earliest known image of her painted near the time of her marriage in 1764

Abigail Adams, born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was wife and chief advisor to John Adams, American founding father and second president; early advocate for women’s rights and opponent of slavery; self-taught intellectual; mother to many children including another American president; and a savvy and successful financial speculator. One reason why she remains among the most well-known figures in American history is the voluminous, well-preserved, witty, erudite, charming, highly personal, and utterly fascinating correspondence between her and her husband John. While she remained at home raising the children and managing their home, John was frequently away for extended periods on matters of revolution and state. Their letters are famous: they were loving and forthright with one other on a rare level, and the ideas and advice these two brilliant people shared with one another illuminate and inspire readers still.

Learn more about our wise and indefatigable founding mother Abigail Adams at:

Abigail Adams ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Abigail Adams ~ by Bonnie Hurd Smith for the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail website

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818) ~ bio for the Adams National Historical Park, National Park Service website

Abigail Adams: American First Lady ~ by Betty Boyd Caroli for Encyclopædia Britannica

Abigail Adams: Revolutionary Speculator ~ Liz Covart interviews Woody Holton for Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History

Abigail Smith Adams ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum website

Correspondence Between John and Abigail Adams ~ Transcripts of over 1,100 letters, transcribed and digitized by The Massachusetts Historical Society

First Family: Abigail and John Adams ~ by Joseph J. Ellis for the Philadelphia Free Library

How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly Wrong About Slavery ~ by David A. Graham for The Atlantic

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Abigail Adams!

Abigail Adams, the earliest known image of her painted near the time of her marriage in 1764

Abigail Adams, born on November 22, 1744 in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was wife and chief advisor to John Adams, American founding father and second president; early advocate for women’s rights and opponent of slavery; self-taught intellectual; mother to many children including another American president; and something I just learned today, a savvy and successful financial speculator. She is one of the most well-known figures in American history because of the voluminous and well-preserved correspondence between her and her husband John. While she remained at home raising the children and managing their home, John was frequently away for extended periods on matters of revolution and state. Their letters are famous: they were loving and forthright with one other on a rare level, and the ideas and advice these two brilliant people shared with one another illuminate and inspire readers still.

Learn more about our wise and indefatigable founding mother Abigail Adams at:

Abigail Adams ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider for The History Chicks podcast

Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818) ~ bio for the Adams National Historical Park, National Park Service website

Abigail Adams: American First Lady ~ by Betty Boyd Caroli for Encyclopædia Britannica

Abigail Adams: Revolutionary Speculator ~ Liz Covart interviews Woody Holton for Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History

Abigail Smith Adams ~ by Debra Michals for the National Women’s History Museum website

First Family: Abigail and John Adams ~ by Joseph J. Ellis for the Philadelphia Free Library

How Abigail Adams Proves Bill O’Reilly Wrong About Slavery ~ by David A. Graham for The Atlantic

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Sixth Day in Paris Following Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

Crossing rue de Richelieu on a drizzly day in Paris, France

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

It’s a rainy morning, wet enough to drive away the otherwise intrepid kids at the little alleyway skate park across the street, though not quite enough to drive away the hardworking construction crew renovating the building next to it. I take advantage of the inclement weather by catching up on my writing and research, and the clangs, buzzes, and shouts from the workers only adds to the feeling of productiveness, and don’t disturb me at all. By late morning, the rainfall lightens up, so I head out for the day. Along the way, I pop into several passages, covered pathways lined with shops and cafes: Passage des Panoramas, Passage Jouffrey, la galerie Vivienne, Passage des 2 Galleries, and more. It’s a great way to duck out of the rain while discovering some of the most charming little spots in Paris.

BNP Paribas offices, about where Hôtel Landron and cul-de-sac Taitbout used to be

On my way to my main destinations of the day, I quickly follow up on two sites from earlier in my trip. Last evening, I visited 95 Rue Richelieu, the actual site of James Monroe’s first house in Paris when he arrived to take over the ambassadorship from Governeur Morris. It’s now occupied by a Mercure Hotel (hotel in the modern sense), and I follow the desk clerk’s recommendation from yesterday, to see if the day manager can help me find more historical information about the building, but no dice. Upon inquiry, the lady in charge at the front desk stopped me with an abrupt ‘no’, as if to say, ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense, I have a hotel to run.’ Fair enough. I move on.

I swing over to Boulevard des Italiens, where Thomas Jefferson had lived at Hôtel Landron, aka Taitboit, for the first year of his sojourn in Paris. It stood on cul-de-sac Taitbout, which used to run north off this street right across from the back side of the Theatre des Italiens. I have since confirmed the site in additional sources, but I was right the first time: the building, and the cul-de-sac it was on, no longer exists. This place is now occupied by a large, much more modern building which houses the offices of BNP Paribas.

Then I head for 30 rue Richelieu, where Thomas Jefferson stayed first for a few days when he arrived in Paris, at one of the two hotels he stayed at named Hotel d’Orleans; this is the first of them. It’s a smaller and simpler building than many that Jefferson stayed at, which might explain why he stayed there such a short time, being used to more luxurious quarters. I find that it’s right down the street from the house where one of my literary heroes, Moliere, died, and there’s a monument to him right across the street. The statue is wearing a scarlet blindfold, just like another statue I saw on another day. I wonder what it means….

30 rue Richelieu where Thomas Jefferson stayed at one of two Hôtels d’Orléans, and 40 rue Richelieu, where the great playwright and actor Molière died

Galerie de Vivienne, behind approximate site of White’s Hotel, aka Hôtel de Philadelphia, at passage des Petits-Pères

Next, I swing by the site of the former White’s Hotel, where Thomas Paine stayed several times while he was in Paris and where Mary Wollstonecraft visited him, to confirm its actual site. As I mentioned at the opening of the story of my second day in Paris, part 2, it was listed as 7 passage des Petits Pères in three separate biographies I referenced (two of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of Thomas Paine). However, in the U.S. State Department paper I just discovered, it’s listed as 1 rue des Petits Pères. Turns out the place I had gone to on the first day was half right: putting two and two together, it seems that White’s Hotel, later Hôtel de Philadelphia, stood at the intersection of passage des Petits Pères and rue des Petits Pères, which join at an angle. Paine also lived in a place across from the hotel at 7 passage des Petits Pères, hence the confusion.

Building where James Monroe and Robert Livingston signed the Louisiana Purchase, rue des Petits Champs

Historical plaque on the building where James Monroe and Robert Livingston signed the Louisiana Purchase

So on with the story of the day: on the way to passage des Petits Peres, I stumble upon a Jefferson site quite by accident! It’s at rue des Petits Champs and rue Vivienne, the next block over from the White’s Hotel site, and it’s the place where James Monroe and Robert Livingston signed the Louisiana Purchase treaty on April 30th, 1803.

Jefferson had authorized them to purchase the crucially important port city of New Orleans and the area surrounding it so that U.S. trade could not be hampered by European quarrels. But when Napolean offered the entire Louisiana territory for $15 million, vastly larger than what they were prepared to purchase, Monroe and Livingston jumped at the chance, since they had also been instructed to use their best judgment. This was sort of going over Congress’s head, because though the President has the power to negotiate treaties, they don’t have the power to make land purchases, strictly speaking, and Jefferson had not received funding or the permission from Congress. For all his strict constructionism and anti-government-debt rhetoric, Jefferson at times operated more in accordance with a ‘great man theory’ of government like Theodore Roosevelt did. After all, if you have the vision and the power coupled with the proper concern for the wellbeing of your country, at times it just seems incumbent upon you to take such bold and decisive steps, even if they’re not strictly legal. And Jefferson was right: the Louisiana purchase was an opportunity like no other to increase the prestige, population, and power of the young United States, and had to be done almost regardless of the price.

Palais Royal, Paris, France

Front Gate of the Palais Royal / Conseil d’État, Paris, France

On my way to my next destination, I pause to snap some photos of the front of the Palais Royal, which I had neglected to do on my second day in Paris, in favor of staying under the shady walkways of its rear enclosure and tree-lined gardens. 

229 – 235 Rue Saint-Honore, former Home of Abbé André Morellet

The next site I swing by is the former home of Abbé André Morellet at 229 – 235 Rue Saint-Honore in the 8th Arrondissement, north of the Jardin des Tuileries at about its midpoint at Rue Castiglione. Morellet was an economist and contributing writer to Diderot’s Encyclopedia of the Sciences, Arts. and Crafts, and close mutual friend of Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. It’s a tall narrow house, over a macaron shop between a cafe and a luggage shop, on a touristy and expensive section of the street. Jefferson, as we have seen, was an avid collector of knowledge, and Morellet’s learned, witty, and sarcastic brain was an excellent one for picking.

Jefferson was also a frequent guest of Geoffrey Chalut de Vérin at 17 Place Vendôme, between the Opera metro station and the Jardin des Tuileries. He was a customs official and another close friend of Benjamin Franklin, though I can’t find that much information about him with a brief internet search, The collected Franklin papers contain some notes from him. Many of the opulent buildings surrounding the Place Vendôme are being restored, and some are being converted to a Ritz Hotel; 17 Place Vendôme is one of these. The column in the center of the place is also being reconstructed: the Paris Commune pulled it down in the revolution of 1871, the same revolution which saw the destruction of the Tuileries Palace.

A view of the Place Vendôme. The printed screen is shielding the monument under repair

17 Place Vendôme, behind the printed screen, at or near the site of the home of Geoffrey Chalut de Vérin

Returning to my lodgings to meet up with my husband Bryan, hopefully rested enough from riding Paris-Brest-Paris to spend a day touring Paris with me, I pass by the Palais Garnier Opera, whose spectacular beauty really knocks your socks off as you enter the square. It’s not the opera house that Jefferson attended, however, as it was built many decades after his time there.

Palais Garnier Opera House, Paris, France

When I meet up with Bryan, it turns out he’s still too exhausted to take much of a walk, so we go out for a delicious meal at a little gastropub just down the street from my place on rue Montmartre. After he goes in for a nap, I take the metro nearly as far west as it goes to Auteuil, which once was a suburb of Paris, and now in its 16th Arrondissement.

Hôtel de Verrières, 47 Rue d’Auteuil, former residence of John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams, Paris, France

Histoire de Paris sign and view of the Hôtel de Verrières, 47 rue d’Auteil, former residence of the Adamses

Plaque on the wall in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Verrières, 47 rue d’Auteuil

Jefferson stayed here at John and Abigail Adams’ place for awhile in 1784, probably not long before he signed the lease at the Hôtel Landron at the cul-de-sac Taitbout that fall. The Adams’ former residence is at 43 – 47 rue d’Auteuil, about halfway between the Seine and the southeast corner of the Bois de Boulogne, at rue Michel-Ange, near the Monoprix grocery which is near the metro stop. The house at 47 rue d’Auteuil has a historical marker identifying it as the Hôtel de Verrières, where many famous people lived. It’s on a sweet little street, which still feels like central Paris but much mellower. The house is cute too, with rounded corners and sweet little garden area. There’s a plaque on the wall above the front garden with both John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams’ names on it, but try as I might, I can’t make out the small print or capture it on the basic camera I have with me. A young boy with a little black dog and thick blue glasses, which give him oversize Keane eyes, looks at me like I’m crazy as he goes to let himself in the front gate which I happen to be blocking. He doesn’t speak English, but I’m able to communicate with gestures that I’d just like to take a picture real quick. He lets me in and I do so. Nice kid.

Near 59 Rue d’Auteil, the former site of the salon of Madame Helvétius

In 1784 and onwards, Jefferson also often hung out at the famous salon of the fabulous Madame Helvétius just down the street at 59 rue d’Auteil. The rather puritanical Adamses were often shocked at French manners and dress, loud, lots of makeup, exposed bosoms, frank conversation, and these were to be found in abundance at Madame Helvétius’. (There are great scenes from the John Adams miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, of their unease in Parisian society and discomfiture at Madame Helvetius’ salon.) Aside from her own accomplishments and outsize personality, she was famous for Ben Franklin’s being so smitten with her that he asked her to marry him. The building I find is not old, quaint, or lovely, but an aggressively sleek, square building of concrete blocks and smoked glass, all angled corners. The suburb of Auteuil was very fashionable in Adams’ and Jefferson’s time, and the neighborhood I find myself in today still is, full of elegant buildings, cute expensive shops, well-dressed people, and families with one or two likewise well-dressed children. it looks like a postcard or realtor’s advertisement of the perfect neighborhood and reminds me a bit of Noe Valley in San Francisco, Paris-style.

Corner view of Benjamin Franklin’s house at Hôtel Valentinois, Passy

The last site I visit today is in Passy, also in the 16th Arrondissemont, also a former fashionable suburb of Paris which is now one of its outer wealthy neighborhoods. Thomas Paine lived somewhere in this neighborhood near Ben Franklin, who befriended him during Paine’s first stay in Paris in 1781 as he helped negotiate a loan from the French government to aid the American Revolution. Though I couldn’t find the exact site where Paine lived, Franklin lived at Hôtel Valentinois at 62-70 rue Raynouard at Avenue de Lamballe. There’s no doubt that Paine visited here often. The Hôtel Valentinois stands on a hill overlooking the city, and the view must have been particularly spectacular in Franklin and Paine’s time, with an uninterrupted view of the city since this is way out in the outskirts of Paris. Passy was an outlying village or suburb at the time, but highrises galore have sprung up between the Valentinois and central Paris since then. The view has still got to be pretty great from the upper floors, since it towers seven tall stories from the hill it’s on.

A view of Benjamin Franklin’s house at Hôtel Valentinois, Passy, Paris, France

Benjamin Franklin’s image on the corner of the historic Hôtel Valentinois

It was Franklin who wrote letters of introduction for the young Paine to his friends in the American Colonies, which enabled him to find a job and make connections with other young thinkers, movers, and shakers, eventually involving Paine in the burgeoning independence movement, which led to the publication of Common Sense… and the rest, as we have seen, is history!

As I walk back towards the Seine to meet my husband at rue Saint Dominique for dinner (just down the street from where we honeymooned seven years before, how romantic!), I’m treated to the most beautiful views, quite changed since Franklin’s, Paine’s, Wollstonecraft’s, and Jefferson’s time, but no more or less breathtaking, I’m sure. Just different.

A view from Avenue du President Kennedy, Passy, Paris, France

A View through Pont de Bir-Hakiem, Passy

A View From Pont de Bir-Hakiem, Paris, France

 
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Sources and Inspiration:
 
Adams, William Howard. The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson. New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1997.
 
André Morellet‘. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
 
Bell, David. ‘5 Myths About the French Revolution‘, New York Post, Jul 9th, 2015.
The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert‘, Collaborative Translation Project website.
 
French Revolution‘. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Gordon, Lyndall. Vindication:  A Life of Mary WollstonecraftNew York: Harper Collins, 2006. 
 
 
Hôtel de Verrières‘, Structurae website.
 
Jacobs, Diane. Her Own Woman: The Life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.
 
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
http://us.macmillan.com/freethinkers/susanjacoby

Louisiana Purchase, 1803‘, U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian website.
Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.
 
O’Brien, Kristin. ‘Madame Helvétius‘, The Salonniere blog.
 
Paris Residences‘, from the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Monticello.org
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000 
Tomalin, Claire. The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1974. 
 
Williamson, Audrey. Thomas Paine: His Life, Work, and Times. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Thomas Jefferson Sites, Part 6: Charlottesville, and Last Day in D.C.

John and Amy Cools at Monticello, 2015 by Amy Cools

I’m at Monticello with my dad, John Cools! I’m one happy gal

Sixth day, April 24th, 2015.

Today, I’m heading south of D.C., and have only two destinations for the day, and that’s a good thing: it’ll take every hour I have to explore them, and make me wish I have more to spend. These places tell the story of what Thomas Jefferson’s all about more than any of the other sites I visited, with the possible exception of the Library of Congress (though he never visited the building, of course, since it was built decades after his death).

And this time, I’m pleased to say, I have a travel companion, that very special person I told you I was meeting yesterday: my darling Dad, John Cools! He’s one of my very favorite people in the whole world, and I can’t imagine a better person to go on a history tour with. He’s also handsome, like his big brother Bob, who lives in nearby Falls Church and took me on the little driving tour on the first D.C. day of this trip.

Groves Store, Somerville Post Office, farmland in Fauquier County, Virginia, image Emridou via Wikimedia Commons

Groves Store, Somerville Post Office, farmland in Fauquier County, Virginia, photo by Emridout via Wikimedia Commons

Groves Store and Somerville Post Office, surrounded by farmland in Fauquier County, Virginia, is itself the self-described “Downtown Somerville”. Photo by Emridout via Wikimedia Commons

We drive to Charlottesville via the smaller highways that take us through the beautiful Virginia farmlands, lush and green and still colorful with wildflowers. We lose a few extra minutes getting out of town, since we’re so busy chatting and laughing that we miss a couple of turns. After these brief false starts, we’re on our way.

Since I’m driving and absorbed in conversation with my Dad, I forget to ask him to be my photographer, and have no photos from the drive to share. However, I find a great one online that’s in the public domain; thank you, Emridout! Remove the hay bales, and you’re seeing more or less what we see during our drive.

Thomas Jefferson's final site plan for Monticello on display at the visitor center museum, 2015 by Amy Cools

Thomas Jefferson’s final site plan for Monticello on display at the visitor center museum

We arrive at Monticello, Jefferson’s stately home on the hill in Albemarle County, Virginia, just a few miles away from where he was born at Shadwell. (Monticello is Italian for ‘little mountain’.) His childhood home burned down when he was in his mid-twenties, and though I was tempted to find the site, I think it’s best to first see the main places we came to to see, and stop by Shadwell if we have time later. Turns out, we don’t.

First, we head to the ticket machine for the house tour.We’re scheduled for a tour a few hours later, so we start with the museum. It’s an excellent one.

Tools like these would have been used in the building of Monticello, on display at the visitor center museum, 2015 by Amy Cools

Tools like these would have been used in building Monticello, on display at the visitor center museum

We start with the exhibit which shows how Monticello was designed and built in stages. In fact, it was never really finished. Jefferson was an experimental architect, and I guess he’d be considered an amateur, in the sense that although he designed buildings, he wasn’t paid to do it for a living and he wasn’t formally trained. It was one of his lifelong interests, however, and at Monticello, he’d often build up part of the house, only to see a building or illustration which gave him a better idea. So, he’d tear part of it down from time to time, redesign, and rebuild it.

Thomas Jefferson's standing desk, in the Monticello museum, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Thomas Jefferson’s standing desk, in the Monticello museum. Doesn’t look like it would have been quite tall enough for his six-foot-two-inch self!

My Dad is a construction superintendent and started out in his professional life framing houses and building room additions; he’s also built or assisted in building many houses from the ground up. He used to take us kids with him to work sometimes, usually one or two at a time, and we would play with the wood scraps and little round metal cutouts from electrical boxes (which make perfect coins for buried treasure). Dad often says how much he misses building with his own hands, but a superintendent commands a much better salary and he had a family to support, so a superintendent he became. If Jefferson were here, they’d have a lot to talk about.

This exhibit is right up my Dad’s alley, and he pores over the displays in great interest. I’m interested too, but I’m more drawn to Jefferson’s standing desk displayed in the center of the room, as antique furniture is a little more my forte. It’s both elegant and practical; I would love to own it. With its tilt top and pull-out additional work surface, it’s just as great for the laptop and reference books I’m working with as it was for Jefferson’s pen and paper. My day job is in a medical office, and I often regret the number of hours I spend sitting down. This would be a perfect solution.

Bust of Thomas Jefferson at the Monticello museum, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Bust of Thomas Jefferson by Jean-Antoine Houdon, 1789

We head for the gallery across the hall whose displays focus on the daily lives of all who lived and worked at Monticello. There’s a handsome bust of Jefferson at the front of gallery, and I find I like the face. It’s very expressive, a little handsome, with hair that looks awkward to my modern eyes, swept outward from either side of his face.

Thomas Jefferson portrait by Mather Brown, at Washington DC portrait gallery, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown (original), at Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery

I recall a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Mather Brown, the first known portrait of him painted in London in 1786, which doesn’t look that much to me like the man portrayed in this bust or most of the other portrayals I’ve seen. A copy of this portrait hangs here at Monticello somewhere; the original is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.

I’ve heard the Brown portrait described as more handsome than Jefferson in real life: he was tall, lanky, with red hair and freckles and a long nose. But I like the face portrayed in the bust much better: it looks a bit patrician but with rough edges, the face of an energetic man who spends a lot of time outdoors or doing something else interesting. The Brown portrait looks stuffy and a little haughty in comparison, and I never did like the powdered look.

Thomas Jefferson tools and gadgets on display at Monticello museum, 2015 by Amy Cools

Thomas Jefferson’s pocket tools and gadgets

A project-oriented, outdoorsy man like Jefferson needed a toolkit, and we see a nifty one in this gallery. There’s a pocketknife, drafting instruments with a little silver case, architect’s scale, and most interesting to me, a sort of tiny notebook made of ivory. It fans out like a lady’s fan, and what’s nifty about it is that you can write notes on it in pencil, and then erase the marks by rubbing them off with your finger, making it available to use again. I use the Pages app on my mini iPad in sorta the same way during my travels.

The gallery has many, many more great exhibits, way too many to picture here!

The graveyard at Monticello as seen from the path from the museum to the house, 2015 Amy Cools

A view of the graveyard at Monticello, as seen from the path from the museum up to the house

Completing our tour of the museum, we grab a bite to eat at the cafe (they actually have very tasty, reasonably priced food, sometimes even serving vegetables raised in the restored Monticello gardens) and then head up the hill toward the house. It’s a nice little stroll, I think preferable to the shuttle, since it gives you time in nature to refresh yourself between the mental effort of taking in all that history; interesting as it is, it’s fatiguing after awhile, and the break is welcome. The path winds through a pretty little patch of woods, and it’s spring, so the leaves are still small and bright green, and you can see quite a ways through the trees and get a pretty good view of the lay of the land.

A closer view of Thomas Jefferson's obelisk-tombstone at Monticello, 2015 by Amy Cools

A closeup of Thomas Jefferson’s obelisk-tombstone, listing the three self-selected accomplishments he was most proud of

The Jefferson family graveyard is about halfway up the hill to the house from the welcome center, and Jefferson, his wife Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson, his mother Jane Randolph Jefferson, his sister Martha Jefferson Carr, and her husband, his brother-in-law and best friend Dabney Carr. Carr and Jefferson studied law together and both were members of the Virginia House of Burgesses. They were very close since childhood, and would hang out on the hill that would later become the site of Monticello, often reading and talking under the shade of a favorite oak tree. They promised that whoever died first, the other would bury him under that oak. Carr, sadly, died at the early age of thirty, so it was up to Jefferson to fulfill that vow.

Dabney Carr's grave, first to be buried at Monticello, photo 2015 by Amy Cools.jpg

Dabney Carr’s grave; he was the first to be buried at Monticello

This graveyard grew up around that first burial, and over the years, his mother-in-law, nieces, nephews, cousins and other family, his wife Martha 38 years later, and finally Jefferson himself, were buried.

The obelisk that is Jefferson’s tombstone towers high above the rest, and besides his name and birth and death dates, it’s carved with a list of his three proudest accomplishments: author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and founder of the University of Virginia. Not the presidency of the United States, or his diplomatic service to France, or any of his other achievements in politics, scholarship, law practice, legislation, agriculture, science, architecture, invention, or philosophy, none of these made it onto that stone.

Whatever his flaws, the fact that he directed only these three to be carved on his tombstone increases my respect for him quite a bit. Rights-based government; freedom of conscience; public access to a liberal education: it’s hard to come up with a list of three more valuable social goods. Jefferson did more than most to promote these in his lifetime; even where he didn’t carry out his goals or conceive of better ones, he helped lay the groundwork so that others could implement his ideals of a more enlightened, rational, humane society more fully.

Mulberry Row path and gardens at Monticello, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Mulberry Row path and gardens at Monticello

Dad and I pause, gaze, and reflect a little while here, then we continue up the hill. We arrive next at the gardens and Mulberry Row, where many of Jefferson’s slaves and hired contractors lived and worked, including his slave, departed wife’s half-sister, and mistress of 38 years Sally Hemings. The gardens and the Row run side by side to the south of the house.

The gardens are fully restored, laid out in the same way as in Jefferson’s time in accordance with his notes and drawings, and as much as possible, grow what Jefferson’s farm grew, and are as carefully tended.

Chimney and foundation of the joiner's shop on Mulberry Row, 2015 by Amy Cools

Chimney and foundation of the joiner’s (woodworker’s) shop on Mulberry Row

Mulberry Row is a fascinating place: there’s been extensive archaeological work done, with many of the foundations of the original structures laid bare and described by signs, interspersed by a few reconstructions. Most of the buildings on the Row burned down or were pulled down when they fell into disrepair, but there are a few structures still standing that are original.

On the west end of the Row stands the chimney and bits of the walls of the joiner’s shop, where the fine woodworking was done: wood molding, furniture, carriages, doors, windows, and so on, from wood that had been imported or felled on the plantation and cut into lumber elsewhere, then brought here. If he needed skilled work done, the practical Jefferson would hire an expert, often from Europe, then apprentice one of his slaves to him so that they could provide the same services in the future. For example, Sally Heming’s half-brother John Hemings became Monticello’s master woodworker after acquiring the skill under the tutelage of David Watson, a hired Scotsman.

Uriah Phillips Levy's mother's gravesite on Mulberry Row, Monticello, 2015 by Amy Cools

Uriah Phillips Levy’s mother’s gravesite on Mulberry Row

One creative and lovely use of one of the crumbling structures on the Row is Uriah Phillips Levy’s mother’s gravesite wall. Levy believed that great people’s homes should be preserved in their memory, and as the first Jewish naval officer in the U.S. who also advocated for religious liberty and against flogging, was a great admirer of Jefferson’s. So, he bought Monticello in the 1830’s to restore and preserve it. When his mother died here, Levy buried her here in this site overlooking the gardens and vista of the woods and green farmlands below.

Textile workshop on Mulberry Row, Monticello, 2015 by Amy Cools.JPG

Textile workshop on Mulberry Row

There are two buildings on Mulberry Row that are original and still more or less intact: the workmen’s house which at some point became a small textile factory, and one of the stables.

Remaining section of stables on Monicello's Mulberry Row, 2015 Amy Cools.JPG

Remaining section of the stables on Mulberry Row

The workmen’s house / textile workshop was first built in the 1770’s, and the stables in 1808. The latter was originally a larger, L-shaped building; this is what’s left.

We’re so absorbed in exploring Mulberry Row that we almost don’t notice those that the few hours we had to wait to tour the house had quickly passed. We scurry on over to join our tour group.

Monticello is preserved and run by a private non-profit, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, and many of the artifacts contained in the house are on loan by private collectors. The tour guide explains that since the Foundation has not received permission from the owners of all the artifacts, no photography is allowed inside. So I contact the Foundation and receive permission to use a limited number of the Foundation’s images of the interior.John Cools and tour group at Monticello, 2015 by Amy Cools

This may sound like heresy to many, but while Monticello is a very interesting and even impressive house, I don’t consider it particularly beautiful or graceful. It looks just like what it is: a concoction of an experimental architect who loves all things classical and equally loves invention and values practicality, constructed in a piecemeal fashion so that these two aspects of Jefferson’s taste are never reconciled. There are beautiful details and fine craftsmanship throughout the house, even some lovely rooms. But many of the elements don’t fully harmonize with one another and overall, it just doesn’t hang together. That’s fine by me: because it’s such a quirky place, very much a product of an individualist, I find it all the more interesting to explore, and I think it’s a really… well, nifty place.

Monticello Entrance Hall © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello 2, photo by Robert Lautman

Monticello Entrance Hall © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello 2, photo by Robert Lautman, used by permission

We enter the front of the house through a large portico with a pointed lintel, topped with a large weather vane. While the weather vane looks rather funny with the neoclassical design, it pierces the roof and attaches to a dial on the portico ceiling so that the detail-oriented Jefferson could step out onto the front porch and see which way the wind was blowing just by glancing up.

There’s also a giant clock over the inside front door of the entrance hall, which tells not only the time of day but the day of the week, again, somewhat awkwardly. Since the weights suspended from overly long chains hang down through holes cut in the floor, he’d have to go down to the basement to check the day of the week on Saturdays and Sundays if his calendars hadn’t already alerted him. Again, over-the-top tech nerdy gear, still in the process of development, for the 18th century gadget-head.

Monticello Entrace Hall South Wall 2, © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Monticello Entrace Hall South Wall 2, © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, used by permission

 As we enter the entrance hall, Jefferson’s fascination with the natural world and the history of local cultures is manifest in the beautifully presented and preserved fossils and Indian artifacts that fill the room. Painted animal skins hang from the interior balcony, shields, spears, pipes, clothing, and the heads and skulls of animals hang on the walls, fossil remains of animals cover tables. Jefferson was an innovator and pioneer in many fields, including archaeology; he’s credited with directing the first scientific archaeological dig in the Americas.

Among the busts and portraits that ring the room, his own is placed across the room from Alexander Hamilton’s, Jefferson’s ideological foe and political nemesis. While he long thought Hamilton’s political beliefs would spell disaster for the new republic if carried out, he ended up using some of Hamilton’s methods to accomplish his own goals as President, such as taking on more national debt to pay for the Louisiana Purchase. Hamilton was a Federalist, and believed that a strong central government, a standing army, industry, and a national debt were necessary for any nation’s success and the liberty and well-being of its inhabitants; Jefferson believed that a small national government, largely independent agrarian states, no standing army, and freedom national debt would accomplish these ends much better. Let that be a lesson to us, as I’m sure it was to Jefferson; it’s always important to remember that others many have insight we haven’t yet had occasion to see clearly for ourselves, and to be ready and able to change our minds when the circumstances reveal that we’re wrong.

Monticello Book Room © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Monticello Book Room © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, used by permission

We pass thorough a pretty, small blue parlor to the next room that really represents something that Jefferson’s all about: the book room. You may be surprised that Jefferson had such a large library as this in his later years considering he’d sold all his books to Congress in 1815. But as he wrote to John Adams, he couldn’t live without books, so he promptly resumed accumulating more debt by building a new library.

The book collection here is composed of only a few from Jefferson’s actual collection; the rest are identical titles that others had owned. The room does hold one of Jefferson’s actual high-backed easy chairs and an original portrait of Jefferson in profile by Gilbert Stuart, which Jefferson’s friends and family said looked more like him than just about any other portrait.

Monticello Jefferson Cabinet © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Monticello Jefferson Cabinet © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, used by permission

Then through a beautiful, plant-filled, well-lit greenhouse and hobby room to Jefferson’s ‘cabinet’, or personal office, connected to his bedroom by two passageways. He was a busy man, disciplined in his reading, writing, and keeping of accounts, and wished to be able to get right back to what he was working on as efficiently as possible. So he devised two ways to get from one to the other: one, the standard little hallway which is the one we walk through and two, his alcove bed was set into the dividing wall, so he could roll out of bed to the left into his bedroom, or to the right straight into his office. It’s also the bed he died in, so there would have been plenty of space for his loved ones to bid him goodbye from whatever direction they came. I feel, for a moment, a little like an intruder, since Jefferson was a very private man in many ways, especially concerning matters of the bed, so to speak. But as he said, the world belongs to the living, not the dead, and we the living are here to learn from what he left behind.

Jefferson’s office is an especially interesting and revealing room. It’s full of scientific instruments, an orrery (model of the solar system), a polygraph (a mechanical device which makes a copy of the letter you’re writing while you’re writing it), and gadget-y furniture, including a revolving bookstand which allowed Jefferson to quickly consult several volumes at once, an adjustable-top desk which could be raised, lowered, and angled to suit the needs of the moment, and revolving chair and table. My good friend Alex, who simply must to have or at least try out every new invention that comes along, would drool over this room.

Like the entrance hall, it’s also ringed by portrait busts and images of his friends and influences, including George Washington, James Monroe, and, like Hamilton, a Federalist, but unlike Hamilton, a friend, John Adams. Adams and Jefferson met at the Second Continental Congress in 1775 and became close friends. While they shared a commitment to the Revolution and to the cause of political and personal liberty in general, they differed sharply in some particulars in how this could best be accomplished. Adams held a more pessimistic view of human nature, and thought that a free people needed a stronger government, stricter laws with greater social accountability, and a more aristocratic, pomp-and-circumstance-orientated leadership to inspire and impress. Jefferson held a more optimistic view of human nature, and thought that the people could be trusted to govern themselves if mostly left alone, with government interference only when people infringed on one another’s natural rights. Both emphasized the importance role of education, believing that an uninformed and uneducated populace would always remain vulnerable to exploitation and oppression. Adams thought it should be fully financed at public expense, and Jefferson was a founder of the American system of public higher education (more on that shortly).

At Monticello with my Dad, John Cools, photo 2015 by Amy Cools.JPGWe pass through many other interesting and handsome rooms, including the parlor, lined floor to ceiling with portraits, again of Jefferson’s friends and influences. If I were to describe all the rooms in detail, this account would go on far too long, so I refer you to Monticello’s website’s excellent virtual online tour, or better yet, go see it in person! I assure you, you will not be disappointed.

Leaving the house, we chat just a little with some other tourists. Since we all want photos of ourselves and our companions in front of the house, we oblige one another in turn, and I pose with my handsome Dad and favorite travel buddy. We pause for a little break outside, and take in the view looking down from the hill at the scenery all around. Peering through a little break in the trees, we can see, far off in the distance, our next destination after Monticello.West (rear) entrance of Monticello, photo 2015 by Amy Cools.JPG

 But we still have some exploring to do here. Monticello is also composed of an L-shaped wing on either side of the house, with the long ends extending past the rear portico. These wings are set below the house, built into the base of the hillock the main house is on with the entry doors facing out, and connect with the basement on either side; the roofs of each these wings form a terrace. At the tail end of each L, there’s a two-story brick building, or pavilion.
View north from Monticello's west lawn, 2015 by Amy Cools

View north from Monticello’s west lawn. If you look hard, you can just make out the University of Virginia through the trees

The south pavilion was the first finished house structure at Monticello, composed of two rooms, a combination bedroom and sitting room over a kitchen. Because Shadwell had burned two years earlier, Jefferson moved into this building in 1772, before schedule, with his new wife Martha and his infant daughter, also named Martha but called Patsy. They lived in this little house for nearly two years, until the main house was built up enough to be habitable in 1794.

We head on down below the terrace. The basement and both lower wings of Monticello house more slaves’ quarters, the smokehouse, the dairy, the kitchen, the wine cellar and brewery, the ware room, stables, the wash house, a privy, and numerous other rooms, all full of interesting exhibits showing how a large plantation community raised and produced food, ran a great house, manufactured goods for sale and for consumption, and so on. Again, I very, very highly recommend a visit!

After thoroughly exploring this fascinating place, we realize that a couple more hours had flown by and we needed to skedaddle if we were to reach our next destination in time to tour it in daylight.

Students attending festivities in The Lawn at the University of Virginia, 2015 Amy Cools.JPG

Students attending festivities winding down on the Lawn at the University of Virginia

Long porch of student housing at the Pavilion, University of Virginia, 2015 by Amy Cools

Long porch of students’ quarters at the University of Virginia. The Academical Village was designed to place students and teachers in close proximity and therefore, frequent discourse

We wind our way down the hill toward the University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded in 1819. As aforementioned, you can see the domed roof of the Rotunda between the trees from Monticello looking northwest. I’d bet he kept the trees trimmed from time to time in that direction so that he could look upon what he considered one of the most important accomplishments of his life.

As were so many of Jefferson’s brainchildren, the University was an innovative institution. It was nonsectarian; it was among the first to adopt the elective system; it focused on educating students qualified entirely on the basis of merit, not wealth or social standing; it emphasized the study of the sciences as well as the humanities; and it was built as an ‘academical village’, which emphasized a close association between instructors and students but with private lodgings for the latter, facilitating peaceful study and healthful rest. When we arrive, it’s not exactly peaceful: it appears we’ve caught the tail end of a daytime festival, with tents and booths scattered around, groups of students standing or lolling on picnic blankets, and a live band playing.

A pinnacle of Merton College Chapel tower, erected 1451, in the gardens at University of Virginia, 2015 Amy Cools

A worn pinnacle from Merton College Chapel tower, erected 1451, in one of the University of Virginia’s gardens

The center of the University is arranged around a grand rectangular Lawn, where the festivities are winding down, with the Rotunda Building at the head. It’s a very handsome building, modeled after the Pantheon and exactly half its height and width, where Jefferson much more successfully married the local red brick look with classical design than at Monticello. Jefferson not only designed the Rotunda (with help), he designed the Academical Village, many of the other buildings, the overall layout, even, as I discover on a plaque on one of them, the whimsical wavy garden walls.

The University is a lovely place to stroll, built on hilly green grounds with lots of trees, enchanting little gardens tucked behind student buildings, many containing interesting sculptures or old architectural relics. One has at its center an original ancient, heavily weathered stone spire from Merton College at Oxford dating from 1451. It’s about to turn Friday evening, and the students are out in droves to start off their weekend dressed to impress, laughing, chatting, and jostling their buddies.The Rotunda at the University of Virginia, undergoing extensive renovation, 2015 Amy Cools.JPGUniversity of Virginia stands on site of James Monroe's first farm, historical marker, 2015 Amy Cools.JPGMy Dad and I wander and chat, discussing what I had learned before the trip of the history of the University and its architecture. It also works out well that our visit coincides with the Rotunda building’s restoration, since, as aforementioned, my Dad has spent his life working in construction. Even though we can’t see the interior, we can observe the process of restoration as well as see many of the Rotunda’s underlying structures exposed, which he finds very interesting.

We learn various other interesting facts as we explore; there are historical markers aplenty throughout the college grounds. Part of the grounds of the University is located on the site of Jefferson friend and colleague James Monroe’s old farm, one sign explains. Another informs us that Edgar Allen Poe attended for one term in 1826, dropping out because his adopted father would not pay all of his debts. Imagine becoming so famous that briefly attending and dropping out of a prestigious university would earn you a historical marker there!

Dusk arrives, and it’s time to seek out dinner before the two-hour-plus drive back. It’s been an excellent day, and I couldn’t ask for better company. If you couldn’t tell already, I’m a bit of a daddy’s girl.

Thomas Jefferson's lap desk, on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence, 2015 by Amy Cools

Thomas Jefferson’s lap desk, which he designed himself and on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence

Seventh day, April 25th.

The last day of my trip is dedicated to visiting museums with my Dad, and I put my project on hold for the time being. However, I return to the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress with my Dad to show him around because I know he’ll absolutely love it. (He does.)

Presidential Souvenirs at the Smithsonian, including a Jefferson snuffbox at upper left, 2015 by Amy Cools

Presidential Souvenirs at the Smithsonian, including an early 1800’s snuffbox painted with Jefferson’s portrait at upper left

In the course of the day, we visit the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian, where I make sure to visit the American Presidency gallery. I find some Jefferson artifacts among the collection, including the original portable desk on which he wrote the Declaration of Independence (which I already know is here, having visited the Smithsonian some years before), and a great little snuffbox from the early 1800’s painted with Jefferson’s likeness, which I don’t remember from my earlier visit.

There’s one more stop I do have to make before I finish my Jefferson tour. Of course, that’s the White House.

Amy Cools with father John Cools in front of the White House, photo 2015 by Amy Cools.jpgWhile he didn’t list his Presidency among his proudest accomplishments, Jefferson’s time in the White House significantly influenced the way the United States government would function in the future. Though he downsized the size of government following Washington and Adams’ Federalist administrations and reduced the national debt, he increased it again with the Louisiana Purchase and adopted Federalist (or in today’s terms, big-government) policies when he deemed it necessary for national security or the well-being of the nation as a while. He insisted on entertaining foreign dignitaries in a egalitarian and casual manner, with everyone free to seat themselves where they liked rather than being seated according to importance, and insisted on being addressed like any ordinary citizen, without honorific. The latter innovations, while initially shocking and offensive to European sensibilities, helped set the tone for American cultural egalitarianism as well as the spread of democracy in the centuries ahead, even if only in their tiny way.

While Jefferson stooped to some shady political back-handedness during his bid for the presidency (estranging his friends John and Abigail Adams in the process), he struck the right tone in his First Inaugural Address in 1801 when he said ‘…Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle… We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.’ We could all use a little more of Jefferson’s rational, conciliatory idealism amidst the partisan bickering, conspiracy-theorizing, extremist, unkind rhetoric that over-saturates our public discourse today.

So ends the account of my Jefferson travels. But in following in his footsteps, learning more about his life and thought, and putting it all together in a narrative, many questions arose and trains of thought were initiated. There will be many more reflections on Jefferson to come in future essays, you can be sure of that.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes. 

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Sources and Inspiration:

Brandt, Lydia Mattice. ‘The Architecture of the University of Virginia’
http://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/University_of_Virginia_The_Architecture_of_the

Founders Online: Correspondence and Other Writings of Six Major Shapers of the United States,
Website. http://founders.archives.gov/

‘Gilbert Stuart’, article, National Gallery of Art website.
https://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2005/stuart/washington.shtm

Hirst, K. Kris. History of Archaeology: The Series. About.com.
http://archaeology.about.com/od/historyofarchaeology/a/history_series.htm

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
http://us.macmillan.com/freethinkers/susanjacoby

Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Compiled by The Library of America, New York: Penguin Books.
http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=67

Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.
http://www.jeffersonhour.com/listen.html

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
http://www.jonmeacham.com/books/thomas-jefferson-the-art-of-power/

‘Short History of the University of Virginia’, University of Virginia website.
http://www.virginia.edu/uvatours/shorthistory/

‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/timeline-jeffersons-life

Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015
http://books.wwnorton.com/books/In-Defense-of-a-Liberal-Education/

 

Thomas Jefferson Sites, Part 4: Washington, D.C., Second Day

Fourth day, April 22nd

I wake up a little late, having not gotten much sleep the day before, and spend the morning going through countless photos I’ve snapped so far, jotting down notes, and writing up some of my reflections from the memorial tour on my first day visiting sites in Washington, D.C..

Then, I take the Metro to L’Enfant Plaza station, and walk south towards my first destination.

By the way, DC has a very good subway system: comprehensive, easy to use, clean, and safe. Driving in DC, by contrast, is kind of a drag: the streets and freeways form a big tangled spiderweb, so it’s easy to get lost. As a nearsighted person, I also find the street signs too small, nearly impossible to read when the only one there is located all the way on the opposite side of the intersection, especially when it’s dark or raining.

I’m heading to G Street between 9th and 10th, where a man named Notley Young owned a house that Thomas Jefferson visited in the fall of 1790. Young owned a large plantation which bordered on the Potomac and extended northeast from the river. His land, along with neighboring plantations, was obtained by an act of Congress to build the new capital city on. Jefferson, Secretary of State to President George Washington, was appointed to help with planning out the city, and the 1790 visit was part of the trip to visit landowners in the area in preparation. The first stone formally marking out one of the new capital’s boundary lines was laid the following April, 1791. There’s a promenade parallel to 10th St which, according to a sign I find here, covers the original site of the Young house.

The promenade ends at Benjamin Banneker Park, which overlooks the river and is named for another Jefferson connection.

You know, you could easily play a sort of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game around here, but for this trip, we could change it to, say, Three Degrees of Thomas Jefferson.

In case you hadn’t heard of it, the Kevin Bacon game challenges you to link him to any given movie in the smallest number of steps via the actors who co-starred in them. For example, challenged with the movie Excaliber, you might answer: ‘Gabriel Byrne played Uther Pendragon in Excaliber and he also appeared in The Usual Suspects with Benicio Del Toro; Benicio Del Toro appeared in Things We Lost in the Fire with Halle Berry; Halle Berry appeared in Cloud Atlas with Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks appeared in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon’. (Excalibur being a campy early 1980’s movie, I bet a real movie buff could make the connection much more quickly.)

Similarly, if you took any public landmark associated with any historical person from 1750’s – 1820’s America, you could make the connection with Jefferson using very few links every time, as he had an even longer, more prolific career in public life than Bacon has had as an actor. If I were to follow every Jefferson connection, my trip and my account of it would go on interminably, but since Banneker’s link to Jefferson is an especially interesting and illuminating one, it’s well worth exploring.

This park named for Banneker, by the way, is a rather un-parklike-park, all concrete, with a dry fountain and some sparse-looking trees. I can see there’s some construction work going on around it and it’s still spring; if the trees fill out, the work is done, and the fountain turned back on, it might be very nice. It used to have a good view, I’m sure, but now it’s marred by the freeway.

I had heard of the famous letter Benjamin Banneker once wrote to Thomas Jefferson challenging his views on race; back to that in a moment. What I learn doing further research is what prompted the letter in the first place.

Banneker, a largely self-educated man of impressive mathematical, scientific, mechanical, and other accomplishments, accompanied Major Andrew Ellicott in 1791 to help survey the land in preparation for building Washington DC. Ellicott was working on this project with Jefferson, who, as we discussed, was another of these city planners. Someone at the time noticed, and having read Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, editorialized the story, pointing out the discrepancy between Jefferson’s stated view that black people possessed inferior intelligence, and Banneker’s accomplishments in all manner of skilled and intellectual pursuits.

So Banneker took the opportunity to use this as a teaching moment, writing to Jefferson himself. In the letter, he points out the incongruity between Jefferson’s demanding that Britain give the American colonists their freedom while he’s denying this to his own slaves. While he compliments Jefferson on his past as a champion for the rights of black Americans, he shows the inconsistency between Jefferson’s recent stated views on the innate inferiority of intelligence of black people, and the evidence, that black people can achieve as much as any white person so long as their capacities are nurtured by education. Banneker even offers to send a manuscript of his work written out in his own handwriting, in case Jefferson is distrustful. As a fellow man of science in the age of Enlightenment, he knows that Jefferson can’t just ignore evidence that’s right in front of his eyes.

Jefferson writes a polite and rather evasive response, saying that he’s glad to see that Banneker presents a challenge to ideas of inferiority ‘which have been entertained of’ the intellectual capacities of black people. Notice how he uses the passive voice, as if he wasn’t among those not only ‘entertaining’, but very publicly voicing such ‘doubts’! I think Jefferson responds this way not only because he’s scrupulously polite in most circumstances, but because he knows he has no good response. Most of the arguments Banneker makes regarding the universal longing for freedom, the commonality of the cause between slaves and the colonists, and the evidence that slavery generally equates to enforced ignorance, are the same or similar to arguments Jefferson himself made as a young lawyer and politician, even as he wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Since Jefferson can’t defend himself in this case, he’s silent. (I’ll soon write a piece about Jefferson and slavery, stay tuned.)

I head back, via the promenade, towards the east end of the National Mall, and pass the Capitol Building through the park. The clouds are blowing in, and the predicted rain which leads me to select this day as perfect for my next destination, appears imminent.

As you can see, the Capitol dome is surrounded by scaffolding as it’s being restored. It’s made of cast iron, and in the mid-1800’s, replaced the original one, disproportionately small since the building’s many expansions. The first part of the Capitol Building was finished in 1800, the year the United States government moved to its official new home.

Jefferson and President George Washington held a contest for the design, but none of the original entries won. A later entry by a doctor was approved, and many of Jefferson’s classical design elements, especially those inspired by the Pantheon, were included.

I pass by the Capitol without going in. (Who wants to compete for space with several hundred schoolkids on field trips anyway?)

My main and final destination for the day is the Library of Congress. The LOC is founded on Jefferson’s original library of 6,487 books, purchased by Congress in 1815 from Jefferson at a discount, its original collection having been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement: Congress needed a new library, and the idealistic, projects-oriented, often impractical Jefferson needed some debt relief (he was always in debt, he loved to live large).

It’s fitting that the largest private book collection of Jefferson’s time would become the seed collection of what’s now the largest library in the world. As for me, the LOC is my go-to source for published images in the public domain with which to illustrate my essays, as well as material for research.

And oh my goodness: the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, the first and still main building, is one of the most beautiful works of architectural art I’ve ever been in in my life. I might place it next in line to Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, in fact. There may very well be more beautiful buildings than these, and if so, I look forward to visiting them!

The floor and ceiling are covered with intricate mosaics, in lovely shades of rose, soft green, golden maize, gray, and white, of neoclassical decorative elements and the names of great authors and scientists, interspersed with gorgeous neoclassical and Art Nouveau paintings, allegorical and representative, representing moments in history and fields of inquiry.

After my first good, long gaze at the atrium and first floor hallway, a sign caches my eye, and I follow it to an exhibit which features the first published map of the United States.

It was drawn by Abel Buell, and published in 1784. As you can see, the western sides of the states follow lines of latitude past a certain point, and end at the Mississippi River. Much of the land was as yet unsettled by colonists, and not thoroughly explored by non-native people; lines of latitude, then, was a practical way of defining state borders beyond the areas originally colonized.

The gallery at the southwest corner of the second floor is really what I’m looking for, and I head upstairs.

I see a sign at the entrance of the Jefferson gallery announcing a special exhibit. It covers the history leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I’m particularly interested in the history of civil rights movements, so I’m excited to see it.

Among countless fascinating artifacts and the accompanying historical accounts, I’m struck by one which directly relates to the subject of my trip. It’s a contract between Jefferson and James Madison, drawing up the terms of a slave sale. There’s something extra disheartening about the fact that it was drawn up in 1809, after both men had served so many years in public office.

This is a fascinating exhibit with so many significant artifacts, including the anti-lynching flag that used to fly over New York City from the windows of the NAACP office in the 1930’s, each time a new one occurred. Reading simply, ‘A Man Was Lynched Yesterday’, they had to stop hanging it at a certain point or lose their lease. Isn’t that amazing? Make a simple statement of fact, and get kicked out. But then again, think of how Billie Holiday was hounded until she died, persecuted by government officials just for singing ‘Strange Fruit’.

The Jefferson Gallery holds what remains of the original Jefferson collection; about two-thirds of it was lost in a fire in 1851. The LOC is currently rebuilding the original collection, seeking out original copies, in sufficiently good condition, of the same books in the same edition that Jefferson originally collected, if they can be obtained.

The collection is beautifully arranged, in a wide open spiral of shelves walled by glass, in the same order that Jefferson arranged them on his own shelves. Instead of an alphabetical system, he used a system modeled after that of Francis Bacon, organizing them by three broadly defined subject categories. For Bacon, it was ‘Memory’, ‘Reason’, and ‘Imagination’; Jefferson personalized it as ‘History’, ‘Philosophy’, and ‘Fine Arts’. The books are marked with little colored ribbons tucked into them like bookmarks: green means it’s from the original Jefferson collection, gold means it’s recently been purchased to replace the original, and no ribbon means it’s been replaced by a more or less identical book Congress already owned in another collection. There are little book-size boxes too, with the names and descriptions printed on their ‘spines’, of books that have not been located to replace the originals yet. Jefferson was a meticulous, some might say obsessive, record-keeper, so knowing exactly what needs to be replaced is pretty straightforward. Not only did he write down which books he owned, he described them in detail, with notes about their contents, even their measurements!

I love to find connections between the ideas of thinkers I admire, as well as between various theories and historical people and places. So, I search the shelves for books that he would have read, especially by people who have been featured in one of my traveling philosophy series, or will be. I know that Jefferson was very critical of David Hume’s history of England, describing it as too ‘Tory’, but I wonder if he ever read any of Hume’s philosophy, and if so, what he thought of it. (More on this shortly.) I find he owns work by Baruch Spinoza, Condorcet, and Voltaire, along with books on women’s rights, anti-slavery books, and of course, much, much more: the classics, science, philosophy, government, art, you name it. The man, as we’ve discussed before, was well-read.
I pore over the shelves for a good long while, then decide I needed to take a break and look at something purely decorative for a moment again while I walk around. I see a little crowd gathering and think, oh, yes, whatever it is, I’ll look at it too. It turns out it’s the line to get to the balcony that overlooks the Main Reading Room. Great. It was my plan all along to find out more about how I could access the collection and do some research. So I stand in line, get onto the balcony, and see a vaulted, domed library room, the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. Through thick protective plexiglass.

So I think, well, that’s where I’m going next. I’m here to do research, so research is what I’ll do, and it will be in that beautiful room.

I go back down and ask the lady at the front service desk how I go about this. She looks at me doubtfully, repeats several times that the room is just for doing research, and finally directs me to the Madison Building across the street to sign up. So that’s where I go, and find, as I expected, it’s very like the process of signing up to do research in the National Library of Scotland’s rare books room, takes some time, must have the proper ID, and so on. I go through the process, grab a cub of coffee, and prepare for a lovely and informative evening.

I return to Jefferson Building through the tunnel which shortcuts under the street (there was a little rain falling when I had left it earlier) and turn in all my things, except writing materials, to the coat check.

Guided by what I had discovered in the searchable guide accompanying Jefferson’s collection, I gather up a volume of the annotated complete catalog of the Jefferson collection, a collection of his papers, and his correspondence with Abigail and John Adams. In the catalog, I find more evidence that he had, in fact, owned some of Hume’s essays, but the notation, unusually, is incomplete, so there doesn’t seem to be evidence of which exact essays he read. Then I turn to his letters and find that he wrote to his son-in-law Thomas Mann Randolph, in May of 1790: ‘In political oeconomy (sic) I think Smith’s wealth of nations the best book extant. In the science of government Montesquieu’s spirit of laws is generally recommended. It contains indeed a great number of political truths; but also an equal number of political heresies: so the reader must be constantly on his guard. … Locke’s little book on government is perfect as far as it goes. Descending from theory to practice there is no better book than the Federalist. … Several of Hume’s political essays are good also…’ (p. 449) While this isn’t a ringing endorsement, compared with his often harsh criticism of Hume’s History, it’s almost fulsome praise. But however I search in the time I have, I can’t find any mention of whether he read Hume’s philosophical work, or what he thought of it.

So this might, now, be the second most beautiful room I’ve ever been in in my life. (Still doesn’t top Sainte-Chapelle.) I do get some research done, but not as nearly as much as I might considering the amount of time I spend here; I happen to be there on a day the Reading Room is open late, and I stay for a few hours all told. Between my reading, I gaze, marveling and a little drop-jawed, at the loveliness around me, made more intense by my awareness of how vast the records of human inquiry and inventiveness are contained within its walls.

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes.

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Sources and Inspiration:

Benjamin Banneker‘, Africans in America, PBS.org, Letter to Jefferson, and Jefferson’s responseHistory of the Library‘, Library of Congress website.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.

Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. Compiled by The Library of America, New York: Penguin Books.

Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson HourPodcast.

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Volume 16, 30 November 1789 to 4 July 1790. Ed Julian P. Boyd. 1961 Princeton, New Jersey

Moore, Joseph West. Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches of Its Scenery, History…, 1884.

Timeline of Jefferson’s Life‘. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

U.S. Capitol‘, Washington D.C.,  National Park Service website.

‘Washington, D.C.: Sites Associated with Thomas Jefferson’. Monticello.org. Wiki, Thomas Jefferson Foundation. http://wiki.monticello.org/mediawiki/index.php/Washington,_D.C.