- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2016

Author, diplomat, autodidact, university founder, polyglot, governor, president — and also slaveholder.

The legacy of Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president, presents a complicated narrative when seen from the hindsight of two subsequent centuries of progress. How can it be that the same man who penned the almighty words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” could also, over the course of his lifetime, own hundreds of enslaved blacks at his estate but 120 miles from the nation’s capital?

It’s just one of the many riddles of this many-faceted man, whose estate of Monticello can be visited after a two-hour-plus drive from the District.

Monticello, which fell into disrepair in the decades after Jefferson’s death in 1826 — and was even visited by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, who respected its heritage — is now cared for by a private trust and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

From the parking lot of the estate’s location near Charlottesville — the home of the University of Virginia — visitors take a brisk bus ride up a short hill, where Jefferson’s mansion comes into view. From here, on a good day, you can make out both the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and the university a few miles to the north. Jefferson himself enjoyed peering at these mountains in his day, perhaps conjuring his next letter to frenemy John Adams over a glass of his favored French wines.

Our incredibly helpful and thoroughly knowledgable guide — who is, naturally, also named Tom — meets our group by the manor’s front entrance, where he imparts the story of the early life of this most famous Virginian. Stepping into the main foyer, the visitor is greeted by replications of many of the American Indian artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark on their expedition to the Pacific to explore the Louisiana Purchase, one of the many accomplishments of Jefferson’s presidency. Tom informs us that, were it not for the assistance and guidance of the tribes the explorers met on their journey, they would almost certainly have perished in the punishing Rocky Mountain winters.

The tour takes us through Jefferson’s study, the rooms where his grandchildren played and, eerily, the first-floor bed where the former president, by then too ill to get upstairs to his chambers, passed into history on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence (and, it must be noted, the same day his colleague Adams also met his maker in Massachusetts).

The library features a recreation of Jefferson’s substantial book collection. As he aged, and with substantial debts accrued, Jefferson sold off nearly all of his books. But being a lifelong student — he graduated from William & Mary in Williamsburg — he decreed that a university would be founded nearby in Charlottesville, with the same dome structure as atop Monticello to stand as the capital of the newfound University of Virginia.

Much of the house’s furnishings, and its architecture, bear the stamp of Jefferson’s time as ambassador to France during the 1780s — as did his wine cellar. Tom tells us that Jefferson tried to grow wine in the hills around Monticello, but without much success. Time would catch up to his vision, as the Old Dominion now ranks near the top of America’s wine-producing states.

Jefferson spoke several languages, including Spanish, which, Tom informs us today, it is rumored Jefferson learned on the passage to Paris by reading his own copy of “Don Quixote.”

For an extra fee, you can go behind the scenes and also climb the extremely narrow steps up into the dome itself, with its Parisian windows and echo, and where much entertaining and conversing took place. A few extra rooms are included, such as Jefferson’s personal bed chambers and his bed curtains, reminiscent of Scrooge’s.

On the grounds itself, you can also take the Hemings Tour, which pulls back the curtain on Jefferson’s liaisons with Sally Hemings, an enslaved African-American who bore him six children. On this tour you will learn how Sally’s brother, James, cooked and worked as a carpenter for Jefferson. More exhibits now pay tribute to the African-American population of Monticello, and a future slave cemetery is planned to honor their legacy as part of the fabric of early America.

Just down the hill from the manor, you can visit the final resting places of Jefferson and his family. A recreated obelisk stands atop where the former president, who died at age 83, is interred. On it are marked only three accomplishments: as author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and “father” of the University of Virginia. No remark of his presidency, nor of his many other achievements, is here mentioned, which we are told was at the request of the decedent.

Don’t forget to take photographs from the grounds, which offer pleasant views of both the manor and surrounding hills and valleys.

Tours are available year-round, and prices vary by the season. The behind-the-scenes tours cost extra, as does the Hemings Family Tour.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is open year-round and is located at 931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy., Charlottesville, Virginia, 22902. Tours are available by calling 434/984-9800 or visiting Monticello.org.

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