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Birney Imes: The genius of Monticello


Birney Imes



We are among the last to leave Monticello on this rainy July afternoon. For the past three hours we've been inside the head of Thomas Jefferson, as we explored his house, gardens, slave quarters and burial ground. Walking back to the visitor center with us is a well-read couple from Oregon. 


We're all in the thrall of this American genius, whose enthusiasms ranged from ... well, just pick a subject in play in the 1700s and chances are Mr. Jefferson was all over it. 


The son of a Virginia planter and surveyor, Jefferson spoke five languages, read seven. Governor of Virginia, third president, philosopher, scientist, farmer, horticulturist, Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence -- the sentence "All men are created equal" is his.  


And yet he owned slaves, about 600 over his lifetime. 


For that Jefferson has been vilified by some and defended by others. A sympathetic tour guide notes that two-thirds of the Earth's population was enslaved in the 1700s and compares the difficulty of abolishing slavery then with eliminating the Internet today. Slavery so infused the economic machinery of the South, life without it -- at least for the landed gentry --¬†was inconceivable. All said, slave life at Monticello very little resembled the harshness of slavery in the deep South. 


And then there is the matter of Sally Hemmings, the slave with whom Jefferson is thought to have fathered six children. Three generations of the Hemmings family lived at Monticello. Books have been written on the subject. 


Our tour guide for the house was an enthusiastic and thoroughly knowledgeable freshman from nearby University of Virginia (the design and building of which was Jefferson's "retirement" project), began by citing the famous JFK quote. Addressing a roomful of Nobel laureates dining at the White House in 1962, President John Kennedy said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House -- with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone." 


Monticello means "little mountain" in Italian. The top of the little mountain on which it sits -- part of Jefferson's 5,000-acre inheritance -- was removed to make way for this architectural project that lasted most of Jefferson's life. ("... putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.") The views in every direction are graceful, green and timeless. 


The foyer of the house, where uninvited guests could expect to wait hours for a handshake from the great man, is a small museum with maps of the Louisiana Purchase and relics collected by Lewis and Clark on their western expedition, two undertakings for which Jefferson was responsible. 


Jefferson was an endless tinkerer whose innovations -- some of them downright goofy -- can be found throughout his house: a polygraph, a device with two pens that makes a copy of letters, a lazy Susan that holds open five or six books, a bed 6 feet, 3 inches long (Jefferson was 6 feet, 2-1/2 inches) built in the wall between his study and bedroom, a dining area painted a startling canary yellow (See the Ralph Lauren color swatch, Monticello Yellow). He designed the tools workers used at Monticello, the carriages they rode in.  


The third president got up each morning when there was enough light to see the clock at the end of his bed (He slept sitting up, a practice thought to be healthy in his day). First thing each day he soaked his feet in ice water for 15 minutes. Whether that explains his longevity -- Jefferson lived to be 83, 23 years older than the norm for his time -- one can only speculate. 


It's no surprise that the man obsessed with the design of the world around him (He even edited the Bible to his liking.) would also be concerned by the manner of his death. On July 3, 1826, as Jefferson lay on his deathbed, his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, his doctor and family members were at his side. After giving directions for his funeral and uttering carefully considered "last words," he fell asleep. Later he awoke and asked his doctor, "Is it the fourth yet?" 


"Not yet, but it soon will be," the doctor replied. 


Just before 1 p.m. on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, as the church bells pealed in nearby Charlottesville, Jefferson died.  


Back at the visitor center we stand beside a life-sized statue of Thomas Jefferson. Tall, slight, he seems almost delicate. Yet what a robust 83 years he spent -- 40 of them in public service -- giving rein to an insatiable curiosity.  


Considering all this man was able to learn and do in one lifetime, you realize John Kennedy's comment wasn't far off the mark. 


Leaving Monticello, I felt oddly motivated and buoyed by the life of Jefferson. So much out there to learn about and do. 







Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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