Photos from Monticello in March

Back in March, my parents and I took a trip to Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. It was an interesting visit. My father had never been. I’d been once in 6th grade and didn’t remember much. My mother had been several times and great memories of it in the spring when the gardens are blooming. We were there a little too early in the season for blooms.

I took away a few interesting facts from this visit. Firstly, Thomas Jefferson–author of the Constitution, third President of the United States of America, and creator of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom–died in massive debt.

Secondly, the tour guide in referring to the ownership of Monticello said that it was owned by the Levy family for generations and then by the Confederacy and then again by the Levy family. That seemed like strange phrasing about the ownership. Well, the Confederacy didn’t “own” it in the legal sense. Commodore Uriah Levy–a Jew and admirer of Jefferson’s for his stance of religious liberty–purchased the property from James Barclay to whom Jefferson’s family had sold Monticello. Then the Confederacy seized the property from the Levys since the Commodore was a Northern Officer (and presumably the Jewish thing wasn’t cool either).

Having been through a few historical sites recently, I take away an impression different than I did as a child. When I was younger and toured through these historical sites, I always received the impression that the house had been preserved–like an insect in amber–in the state its principle owner left it. Obviously, this is not the case. But in my recent tours, I’ve become even more sensitive to the fact that those historical sites are arranged with greater editorial license than I’d ever have suspected. What I mean is: I walk through thinking, “yeh, right” as they tell me about the decorations on the walls.

Monticello’s “story” is worthy of some high skepticism. Whatever pains the Levy family took to preserve the house and property, they didn’t own it for the first 8 years after TJ’s death and only Kaballah Monster knows what the Confederacy did to it while they “owned” it. So what we tour through today is virtually a complete reimagining of what Thomas Jefferson’s house looked like on the inside. Was the desk in this room actually owned by Jefferson? Were those the actual paintings on this wall when he lived here? The guides gloss over those details saying things like, “Jefferson liked to hang paintings in this room for his guests to discuss, like this one of the Natural Bridge.”

At least that’s my impression. Perhaps there is some historical record of exactly where he hung the paintings. But I’m beginning to resent the impressionistic manner in which historical societies present the artifacts of their chief historical figure. I think I’d rather see a museum of Jefferson’s artifacts rather than a book room stuffed full of books that he didn’t own. It gets too close to being a diorama in a real historical location and to me that reduces the impact of the actual history.

They don’t let visitors take photos inside the house at all so I’m left with this limited gallery of the exterior and the grounds.

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