The Aesthete

The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello

an exhibition at Monticello, Virginia,April 13–December 31, 1993

The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello

by Susan R. Stein
Abrams/The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 472 pp., $65.00
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…

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