Disapproving myself of transferring the honors and venerations for the birthday of our Republic to any individual, … I have declined letting my birthday be known, and have engaged my family not to communicate it.
President Thomas —Jefferson, 1803
CHARLOTTESVILLE , Va. — Thomas Jefferson had a thing about birthdays. He insisted that the nation’s, the Fourth of July, be commemorated instead of his.
In fact the public never discovered the date of his birth, April 13, until after Jefferson died. Once they knew, they made the most of it. At one public celebration — in 1830 at the Indian Queen Tavern in Bladensburg, four years after Jefferson’s death — the more than 150 present raised 24 planned toasts, and nearly as many extemporaneous ones, as they attested to “their love and admiration” for the third president.
Nowadays at Monticello, Jefferson’s mountaintop home just outside Charlottesville, the birthday is observed with a graveside ceremony featuring a presentation, a wreath-laying, and music by a contingent of the Fife and Drum Corps of the Army’s Third Infantry (the “Old Guard”), who will travel down from Fort Myer.
“Until about 20 years ago it was a fairly modest event,” explains Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the organization that owns and operates Monticello, “but the foundation wanted to do more. We have endeavored to get speakers who have a real Jeffersonian message.”
The speaker at next week’s ceremony is Daniel Meador, emeritus professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. The 11 a.m. birthday celebration is open to the public.
But every day at Monticello is a celebration of Jefferson’s birth and life. This spring is a particularly good time for Americans to reconnect with the author of the Declaration of Independence by touring his property.
“This is the most exciting time at Monticello,” Mr. Jordan says, “since Jefferson walked the grounds.”
That’s because ongoing restoration (most recently of the kitchen), new displays (among them a case of scientific instruments and an exhibit of artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition) and new tour options have made the historic property and its original master more accessible to visitors.
Today’s Monticello bears little resemblance to the original. The grounds were first owned by Peter Jefferson, the third president’s father. Thomas, born in nearby Shadwell in 1743, inherited the hilltop property, as part of 3,000 acres, at the age of 21. The name he gave to it, Monticello, is Italian for “little mountain.”
In 1768 his slaves began leveling the mountaintop to provide space for the house, its “dependencies” (the estate’s working wings, built into the hillside and separate from the house but connected to its cellar) and the adjacent Mulberry Row (the lane on top of the mountain where 40 to 50 of the slaves lived and worked).
That began a 41-year period of construction and remodeling that along the way, in 1796, saw the house converted from a two-story, eight-room home into a three-story, 21-room villa.