Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson; drawing by David Levine

“He built for himself at Monticello a château above contact with man.”

Henry Adams

The Jefferson of political myth was a radical populist. He walked to his inauguration after eating at his boarding house. He received diplomats in his slippers. He seated guests at the President’s House “pell-mell,” without regard to social rank.

But if he did not seat people according to their station, he kept a complex calendar of invitations, circulating guests through the mansion in the order of the offices they held. And, once seated, the guests were given dazzling service. According to one observant guest, Margaret Bayard Smith:

His maitre-d’hôtel had served in some of the first families abroad, and understood his business to perfection. The excellence and superior skill of his French cook was [sic] acknowledged by all who frequented his table, for never before had such dinners been given in the President’s House, nor such a variety of the finest and most costly wines.1

Even the “dumb waiters” at guests’ elbows—private service trays—reflected a French fad, as did the reason Jefferson gave for their use. In the early days of the Revolution in Paris, it was best that servants hear as little as possible of their masters’conversation—a precaution as applicable at Monticello as at Jefferson’s lavish Paris hôtel. According to Mrs. Smith, Jefferson believed “that much of the domestic and even public discord was produced by the mutilated and misconstructed repetition of free conversations at dinner tables, by these mute but not inattentive servers.”2

The executive mansion Jefferson presided over was as elegant as only he could make it—far more stylish and expensively furnished than the mansions of his two predecessors in the office. John Adams’s building still had outhouses as the only toilets. Jefferson was not forgoing luxury when he stayed at a boarding house rather than in the crudely furnished president’s mansion where Abigail Adams hung her laundry in the East Room. Adams had time to spend only $5,000 of the $15,000 allotted by Congress to the new house’s furnishing. Jefferson quickly applied for $14,000 to be added to the $10,000 left him. He used the agent for the president’s purchases, Thomas Claxton, to help him acquire luxury items that would end up at Monticello. Wherever Jefferson stayed, even for a brief time, he acquired the most refined furnishings available, often rebuilding rented houses to fit his requirements. This had been true of his elegant palace (hôtel) in Paris and of the four houses he used as a government official in America—two as vice-president (first in New York, then in Philadelphia), and two as secretary of state (one inside Philadelphia and one in the Pennsylvania countryside).

As a provincial who had always aspired to the latest European developments in art, Jefferson went on a buying spree in France that was staggering in its intensity. At times it must have looked as if he meant to take much of Paris back with him to his mountain “château.” The eighty-six large crates of goods he shipped to the United States included sixty-three oil paintings, seven busts by Houdon, fortyeight formal chairs, Sèvres table sculptures of biscuit, damask hangings, four full-length mirrors in gilt frames, four marble-topped tables, 120 porcelain plates, and numberless items of personal luxury. Though he was in Paris during the exciting early days of the French Revolution, he let nothing deter him from his treasure hunt. When a mob broke into his hôtel in the aftermath of the Bastille’s fall and made off with silver candlesticks, Jefferson sent a sketch of the missing pair to the painter John Trumbull in London, so he could get exact replacements made.

At the salons of aristocratic liberals, Jefferson was a dandy in striped linen and powdered wig, wearing a large topaz ring. (His predecessor, Franklin, had been known for his plain attire.) Madame de Tessé, a fellow devotee of classical antiquity, gave Jefferson a green-marble column for holding his bust (a use to which it was put at Monticello). The column was ringed with cherubs’ heads in relief and with the twelve signs of the zodiac. It bore this inscription (in Latin):

To the world’s great Governor, who favored at last North American liberties and will favor the reputation of Thomas Jefferson.3

Though Jefferson, as secretary of state, held diplomats to the constitutional ban on gifts from monarchs, he was ready to find excuses when the gift was an artifact he liked. He kept the large engraving given him by Louis XVI, though he had the diamonds removed from its frame in Paris and used to defray diplomatic costs. Later the engraving hung at Monticello, and was entered into Jefferson’s own inventory as “a present from the King to Th.J.”4 When, as president, Jefferson received, from the American consul general in Russia, a bust of Czar Alexander I, he wrote:

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It will constitute one of the most valued ornaments of the retreat I am preparing for myself at my native home…. I had laid it down as a law for my conduct while in office, and hitherto scrupulously observed [he is forgetting the Louis XVI engraving], to accept no present beyond a book, a pamphlet, or other curiosity of minor value; as well to avoid imputation on my motives of action, as to shut out a practice susceptible of such abuse. But my particular esteem for the character of the Emperor, places his image in my mind above the scope of law.5

Another gift from his Paris days, a model of the great pyramid of Cheops, stood on the mantel in his entrance hall.

Jefferson brought with him from Paris some Sèvres work made for Louis XVI (it is unknown how he got it). He commissioned a fauteuil from Marie Antoinette’s own ébéniste. He was always on the alert for a new design. Sailing home from Paris, but intending to return immediately, he noticed in the captain’s room on the ship a table of unusual design. He commissioned the captain to have a replica made for him. As usual, expense was not to be reckoned: “The fitness of the mahogany to be more attended to than the price.” On reaching America, Jefferson was informed that Washington had appointed him secretary of state. He did not sail back, and the captain obviously thought the table was out of his mind. But he rarely gave up on a treasured item he wanted to possess. He spent years in the quest for a silver replica of a pot found at Pompeii (an askos). Some French art he brought home in the form of enhanced property. The “French chef” Margaret Smith praised at the White House was actually the slave James Hemings, whom Jefferson had apprenticed to his chef in France, so he could bring back that aspect of France sealed up, now, in his piece of living property.

The buying continued throughout his life. When a grandchild expressed an interest in an expensive English cittern, with the hope of learning to play the instrument, Jefferson surprised her with the present. He bought scientific instruments of a complexity and precision beyond his own uses. He continued to drink the finest wines imported to America. Yet all through these years of strenuous collecting he was, without any realistic hope of reversing the drift, going farther and farther into ineluctable debt. Only regard for his position kept him from losing Monticello to his creditors during his lifetime. He hoped a public lottery would save the house for his daughter. But he died over a hundred thousand dollars in debt. His daughter earned only a third of that by auctioning off his belongings—slaves and Sèvres china alike—except the house. That brought in only a third of what he owed. The empty shell of the house had to go, too. It was a last gesture to the bills of a man who owned rich treasures he never paid for or had a chance of paying for.

There is something eerie, then, about the great scholarly effort mounted by Susan R. Stein, Monticello’s curator of art, who has reassembled most of what is traceable from the auctioneer’s block that dispersed Monticello’s furnishings. To celebrate Jefferson’s 250th birthday, she has located and borrowed for this year roughly 150 artifacts out of the thousands that once adorned the mansion. The catalog to the exhibit gives not only the provenance of each item but a history of Jefferson’s acquisition and use of it, creating the best body of information we now have on his taste in china, fabrics, silver, painting, and sculpture. The book will be as valuable as the catalog of a 1976 exhibit, The Eye of Jefferson.6

When Stein undertook her heroic labor of recovery, she had a model of Monticello’s rooms built by the designer George Sexton, accurate to scale (an inch to the original’s foot), completely furnished with doll-house chairs, chandeliers, picture frames. Eye-level peepholes let one look at the room’s layout as if standing in it. As she tracked the house’s lost furnishings, from tax records, inventories, correspondence, descendants, she added facsimiles of them to the model, arranging them in their original sites (if they were known) or likely ones—or in a place demanded by the circumstances of the exhibit. Some of the lenders put restrictions on the way the item could be displayed. Some pieces found were considered too fragile to travel—at first, the Smithsonian Institution put Jefferson’s writing desk (on which he composed the Declaration of Independence) in that category.

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In her search for the hundreds of paintings and engravings from Monticello’s walls, Mrs. Stein sent inquiries to over one thousand collecting institutions, family heirs, and known purchasers of Jefferson material. The results could be frustrating. One museum has a painting Jefferson once owned, but considers it not worth restoring. As such, it can be neither displayed in the museum nor lent out to others. From private collectors she retrieved such rarely seen things as Benjamin West’s pen-and-gouache sketch for a Hector’s Farewell (given Jefferson by General Kosciuszko) and John Trumbull’s oil sketch for his Surrender of Cornwallis.

The result of her labors is to restore Monticello to some of its original air of precious clutter. When all the goods from a lifetime of buying were stuffed into it, the house must have resembled the most crowded parts of John Soane’s famous museum-house in London. It is hard, even with the borrowed artifacts now on display, to imagine what it would have been like to pick one’s way through the jumble of Jefferson’s collected prizes. The items are on loan throughout the birthday year (1993), except for his writing desk, which the Smithsonian lent for only a month.

The entrance hall, for instance, famous now for the clock that never left the house, had in Jefferson’s time twenty-eight black Windsor chairs, for visitors who waited to be given an audience with some member of the resident family. Sometimes Jefferson called this “my Indian hall,” since it had painted buffalo robes on display, along with moccasins (six), head dress, bone whistle, warrior dress, two leather maps, and two pairs of garters. It was also a museum of natural history, with specimens from the Lewis and Clark (and other) expeditions—mastodon bones, minerals, mounted moose and elk antlers. It was also his hall of maps—eight large varnished maps on rollers, reporting on the entire globe. It was a statuary hall—his reclining Ariadne was placed on the floor before the fireplace. The green marble column with Madame de Tessé’s inscription held Ceracchi’s larger-than-life-size bust of Jefferson (one of the mansion’s thirteen images of himself). Facing it, across the doorway, was a much smaller bust of Alexander Hamilton. There were eight paintings and several large engravings hung over or among these instructive treasures.

The rest of the house was also jammed with acquisitions. The formal parlor held fifty-seven works of art on its walls (fifteen “old masters,” thirty-five portraits). The rooms each had a basic plan of display, filled out with leftover purchases. The tea room housed a gallery of “American worthies”—thirty-five in all. A collection of presidential busts was in Jefferson’s “cabinet” (study). His books were neatly cased in every nook or cranny of his private quarters. Presses held papers. Books were stacked, files accumulated. The rooms so airy and echoing to the modern visitor must have seemed more like the Marx brothers’ stateroom in A Night at the Opera.

In order to keep expanding and improving his house and its belongings, Jefferson hired the best craftsmen he could find in the United States, and apprenticed slaves to them. Slaves baked the bricks for Monticello and Poplar Forest (Jefferson’s second home), worked the wood moldings, fitted the columns’ drums, and stored up precious skills in their community down the hill from the master’s exquisite showplace. John Hemings, sibling of the chef-slave James, became a joiner with great pride in his work. He made a writing desk for Jefferson’s granddaughter, one so fine that he was crushed when it was lost in transit to New York. Vergil, said Jefferson, could not have mourned more deeply had his Aeneid been destroyed.

What was Jefferson trying to achieve with his wildly expensive and self-indulgent project set atop a plantation that could not earn its own upkeep? His didactic purpose is registered in various ways. The house is one large teaching instrument. But whom was he teaching? What was the audience for this lavish show? He disliked having to put up with the numerous visitors who intruded on his busy life. He retreated to Poplar Forest, where he had the delight of raising another showcase building remoter from intruders. Yet he spoke of himself as acquiring artifacts for the improvement of national taste. He was doing patriotic service by his collecting: “I considered it as even of some public concern that our country should not be without portraits of its first discoverers.” In fact, in one of his more spectacular collector’s spasms, he bought the land on which the geological freak, the Natural Bridge, stood, because “I view it in some degree as a public trust, and would on no consideration permit the bridge to be injured, defaced or masked from public view.” This was one specimen he would share with the public, like the mammoth bones prominently displayed in the one public room of Monticello.

His collection of American “worthies”—six representations of Washington, four of Franklin, to go with the thirteen of himself—resembled Charles Willson Peale’s museum of revolutionary heroes. When an admirer sent him a victor’s wreath of pressed flowers to place on his own bust, Jefferson modestly placed it on Houdon’s bust of Washington. The house was a collection of revolutionary memorabilia. Certain acquisitions implied some later public use—the compilation of legal documents from every period of Virginia’s existence, or of Native American vocabularies (a compendium unfortunately lost).

He had a sense that his belongings would become relics from a sacred era. When his granddaughter expressed her sorrow at the loss of the writing desk John Hemings had made for her, Jefferson gave into her husband’s keeping his own writing desk, attaching an affidavit to authenticate its use for composing the Declaration of Independence.7 He explained his act this way:

If then things acquire a superstitious value because of their connection with particular persons, surely a connection with the great Charter of our Independence may give a value to what has been associated with that…. Mr. Coolidge must do me the favor of accepting this. Its imaginary value will increase with the years, and if he lives to my age, or another half century, he may see it carried in the procession of our nation’s birthday, as the robes of the saints are in those of the church.

Given this sense of the value to be placed on the objects he was collecting, it is surprising that he made no provision for keeping the collection together by bequeathing it to the nation, or to some custodians for the nation. He might have been unsuccessful in this effort, as Charles Willson Peale was in his attempt to keep his museum permanently intact—but at least Peale tried. There was something deeper at work in Jefferson the collector than any utilitarian fate for his favorite artifact. He had the artist’s urge to complete and perfect the complex masterpiece that he lived in and used and contemplated. He was a compulsive collector for the same reason that he was a compulsive builder (or, in rented quarters, remodeler). No visual detail around him was beneath his notice, study, and improvement. He designed curtains as well as a university. He melted the silver cups given him by his teacher, George Wythe, to recast them in a more stylish form. Henry Adams had such a sure sense of Jefferson because he saw that the most continuous and clamorous appetite in him was aesthetic:

His tastes were for that day excessively refined. His instincts were those of a liberal European noble-man, like the Duc de Liancourt, and he built for himself at Monticello a château above contact with man. The rawness of political life was an incessant torture to him, and personal attacks made him keenly unhappy. His true delight was in an intellectual life of science and art. To read, write, speculate in new lines of thought, to keep abreast of the intellect of Europe, and to feed upon Homer and Horace, were pleasures more to his mind than any to be found in a public assembly. He had some knowledge of mathematics, and a little acquaintance with classical art; but he fairly reveled in what he believed to be beautiful, and his writings often betrayed subtle feeling for artistic form,—a sure mark of intellectual sensuousness. He shrank from whatever was rough or coarse, and his yearning for sympathy was almost feminine.8

There was nothing self-indulgent about Jefferson’s aestheticism. In fact, it imposed on him a discipline of refining himself and his surroundings that was almost monastic in its liturgical rigors. He made himself and his family uncomfortable in order to perfect his vision. His regimen of daily observation and tasks, many related to the upkeep of his house or the planning of new beauties (on and off his own property), was laborious and absorptive of his energies. He was as much a foe of hedonism as a devotee of beauty. His draconian schedule—and the rigors of study he prescribed for young relatives—reflected a spiritual ideal as much as any need for getting things done. One of the evils of monarchy is that kings are such spoiled creatures:

Now, take any race of animals, confine them in idleness and inaction, whether in a stye, a stable, or a state room, pamper them with high diet, gratify all their sexual appetites, immerse them in sensibilities, nourish their passions, let every thing bend before them, and banish whatever might lead them to think, and in a few generations they become all body and no mind: and this, too, by a law of nature, by that very law by which we are in the constant practice of changing the characters and propensities of the animals we raise for our own purposes. Such is the regimen in raising Kings….9

Of course, some plantation owners became all body as they were served by slaves (who were also “animals we raise for our own purposes”). The quiet frenzy of Jefferson’s dedication to beauty and refinement reflected an urge to hover above the squalor and horror of the slavery that existed below him on his mountain top. His serene optimism, his ability to immerse himself in aesthetic problems and delights, his resolution to ignore unpleasant realities (his debts, his house’s imperiled future, the effects of his expenditures on his slaves)—all these show a will to suspend himself in the air out of sheer determination. That is why I find it psychologically implausible that he had a love affair with one of his slaves. He tried to suppress their existence, so far as that was possible, from his consciousness—he tried to reduce their presence in the dining room by his use of dumb waiters, or to hide their houses away from the grand views at Monticello.

Margaret Smith shows that it was a shock to discover the reality underneath that rosy summit. When Jefferson took her for a walk on the “roundabouts” descending the mountain, she noted:

The first circuit is not quite a mile round, as it is very near the top. It is in general shady, with openings through the trees for distant views. We passed the outhouses for the slaves and workmen. They are all much better than I have seen on any other plantation, but to an eye unaccustomed to such sights, they appear poor and their cabins form a most unpleasant contrast with the palace that rises so near them.10

This was one aspect of “sensibility” that Jefferson the aesthete could not allow himself to dwell on, or even to see with the same eye that removed slight irregularities from his beautiful table settings or art displays. Mrs. Smith noted his need “to secure himself the pleasure of a select and refined society” despite his isolation in acres of slave-tended property. As he communed with Trumbull on the right design of silver candlesticks during the French Revolution, he sought out aristocratic prisoners during the American Revolution to enliven the dinner table at Monticello. He presented this as a matter of humanity toward the imprisoned; but it was only the aristocratic officer who was taken up to the mansion, and Jefferson’s most admiring biographer admits he was consulting his own needs. He “liked to have them [the prisoners] near by—chiefly because of the officers, who added greatly to the joy and charm of life.11 He arranged for Baron Riedesel to tour the resorts of Virginia:

We are told that you set out for the Berkeley springs about the middle of this month. We fear that this excursion, necessary for your amusement to diversify the scenes of discomfort, may deprive us of the pleasure of seeing you when we come to Monticello the last of this month.12

Jefferson’s entertainment of the Hessians was known to Tarleton’s raiders when they captured Monticello. This may have had something to do with the fact that the mansion and all its fine furnishings were not disturbed by the occupying British.

Most people are understandably far more impressed by Monticello than by Mount Vernon. The site of Jefferson’s house is spectacular—no matter how impractical it was to run a plantation from a mountain top. When Margaret Smith went outdoors on her first morning there, she seemed to be on an island in a sea of mist. Jefferson told Maria Cosway he would look down into storms as they rolled around and under him—a fine symbol of his remoteness from the human unpleasantness buried below him. He could look up at night through the house’s skylights. I have been there at night, when all lights were off, and the mountain site, far from city illumination, makes the stars seem almost touchable from the upper rooms’ skylights.

The house communes with nature all around. Depending on what triplesash windows are raised, creating doorways, there are as many as fifteen exits for stepping onto the grounds from the first floor. The house is an observation post—Jefferson kept detailed (largely useless) meteorological information, maintaining a log almost as if on a ship sailing through the clouds.

The house adapted itself to the seasons. Its instruments registered the seasons, winds, hours, temperature. Jefferson was a devout admirer of David Rittenhouse’s orrery, that large and accurate model of the universe, considering it a wonder of the modern world. In a sense, Monticello is a big model of Jefferson’s universe—the parts he wanted to admit into his happy upper air of refinement. It was a great machine for living, for learning, for demonstrating. It was his teaching tool, his toy, his elegant confection. In Christopher Fry’s play The Lady’s Not for Burning, Jennet Jourdemayne asks Thomas Mendip, “Is that a world you’ve got there, hidden under your hat?” His contemporaries might have asked Jefferson, “Is that a world you have there, up on your mountain?” And it was.

Susan Stein’s immensely learned catalog of the known furnishings gives us a better picture than ever before of the care, taste, and love that went into each adjustment of the place’s every detail. The house is endlessly interesting. Why does it seem to lack something that one finds at the more modest Mount Vernon?

When Jefferson listed his Albemarle Country property for tax purposes in 1815, he included his pictures and mirrors and chairs. But the list begins with the big items:

  1. acres of land…
  2. slaves of or above the age of 12 years
  3. do. [ditto] of 9. and under 12. years.
  4. head of cattle
  5. horses, mares, mules and colts.13

When his daughter had to sell all the paintings and silver, she began with the big items, the slaves and cattle. There was no hope of freeing any but a handful of self-supporting slaves, since Virginia law required a financial guarantee for free persons’ maintenance, and Jefferson could not even maintain his own establishment free of debt. Washington, by contrast, had for years built up a fund to support the slaves he freed on Martha’s death—sums from that fund were still being paid in the mid-nineteenth century.14 Jefferson, for much or most of the time, could keep slaves off his mind. Washington couldn’t.

Washington’s farms, managed by black overseers, were productive. Yet when he committed himself to the revolutionary cause, he threw everything into the effort. Informed during the war that his relative Lund Washington had bargained with a British gunboat on the Potomac, giving supplies to the enemy in return for protection, he wrote to him: “It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins.”15 Contrast that with Jefferson’s care to have learned Hessian aristocrats available for polite conversation at Monticello during the war, and you will see why men were more willing to commit their lives to Washington than to Jefferson the aesthete war-governor.

Henry Adams, who understood Washington as well as he did Jefferson, takes the characters in his novel Democracy to visit the dilapidating Mount Vernon. These Gilded Age social butterflies are awed by the austere farm Washington returned to. Madeleine, the heroine, feels best the contrast with her own world. “Why do I feel unclean when I look at Mount Vernon?” A historian from Massachusetts has a similar reaction: “Suppose I heard his horses now trotting up on the other side, and he suddenly appeared at this door and looked at us. I should abandon you to his indignation. I should run away and hide myself on the [Potomac] steamer.The mere thought unmans me.”16

Those are not the reactions prompted by Monticello. Fascination, yes. Admiration of the mind at work everwhere, endlessly curious and creative. But not the sense of moral purpose. There are some things more serious than a well-cut curtain and a classical entablature. Put it this way: one cannot imagine George Washington playing games with the Constitution in order to keep an engraving of Louis XVI, or making his slaves the hostages for his fauteuils.

This Issue

August 12, 1993