My pal Barbara and I met in Virginia for a few days to visit Monticello. An avid gardener and garden-planner herself, Barbara had wanted to tour Jefferson’s home for a long time. She was impressed with his horticultural work—he brought so many new plants to the to the US, selectively crossing one plant with another closely related species, making new hybrids. Jefferson dearly wanted to grow his own grape vines. He dreamed of the day that he could make wine there in Virginia, that was equal to the wines he had enjoyed in France. He tore his vines out and started over again something like nine times. And he never did succeed in making a wine he was happy with in his lifetime.
We had lunch just up the road at the Micie Tavern, (pronounced “Mickie”), an historical tavern. All the workers and hosts were dressed in period costumes. The food was great! I had no problem eating biscuits and gravy with my lunch, but it was a little creepy having the obsequious “servant,” who kept returning to our table every few bites to see if “we were ok, and could she bring us anything else?” And then promising to “be right back to check on us.” We couldn’t really even have a conversation, with all the interruptions. Dining here did set the stage though, for our visit to Jefferson’s home. It helped me to envision a world lit by candles and lanterns, and heated by hearth and wood stoves.
We went to Monticello over two days; feeling like it was too much to take in, in one day. The gardens, vineyards, and grounds, the exterior architecture, out-buildings, the lower level of the cellars, the kitchens and passageways that the Enslaved Africans would have used to deliver the cooked/prepared food from the kitchen to wherever the family and guests were eating. Everything I saw was colored by this knowledge, that the man who wrote about all men being equal was himself a privileged man who "owned" 150 other human beings. It was so difficult to wrap my brain around that incongruity. Yes, he was haunted by, and intellectually wrestled with the “problem of slavery,” but financially, he just couldn’t see a way out of it. So, he kicked that can down the road for some other generation to deal with.
The house is beautiful. The room under the dome wasn’t really used for anything much. It was just there so Jefferson could have a dome on his house. The exterior is truly impressive—we put it on the back of our nickel coin. Today, the house has 21 rooms. Ed and I got into a discussion about whether Jefferson ever lived in it in its “finished state.” Due to his failed architectural experiments, walls crumbling and falling down, enormous debt, etc. Jefferson and his family must have lived in the tiny one-room house across the yard for long stretches of time, the mansion was, one part or another, a construction zone for most of their lives. My brother’s info came from his extensive reading, research, and documentaries he’s watched, and probably from discussions with Richard—their business is design after all. After that phone call, I felt like I’d need to do a boatload of research before I published anything about it at all.
But, what I heard on these tours, and my feelings about that information doesn’t need any further research. I am not writing for a magazine or newspaper, but rather to make sense of my experiences. When the tour guide explained that young enslaved boys would have been carrying logs upstairs all night long, to put on the fires in the bedrooms, so the stoves wouldn’t go out, of course I thought of my grandsons, Jack, Ted, and Charlie, being forced to do that kind of work, and getting a whupping if they fell asleep and let a bedroom get cold, while the privileged occupants of those beds slumbered on. My heart was just breaking for those children, so ill-used!
I know, I know the history of the this country, of the world, where enslaved people worked their whole lifetimes, earning only their “room and board.” Child labor was the norm, and even paid laborers were abused and paid merely a pittance for their labor. I know the history that Jacob Riis documented about immigrant families and children working, making garments, cigars, or other goods all day, and far into the night. I can’t change the past. I can’t blame the past for being the way it was, but oh, how awful it makes me feel to be confronted with it!