In addition to his actions and achievements that helped chart the path for the new country, Thomas Jefferson is also famous for his concern about education. He saw education as one of his legacies since he insisted that his epitaph also include the founding of the University of Virginia. He cared greatly about education on a more personal level. He insisted that his two (white) daughters get an outstanding education at a time when many women got little schooling. And, of course, Jefferson was renowned for his learning, a fame that has persisted through the centuries. John F. Kennedy memorably said at a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.”
Jefferson was a remarkable man. He did do great things that helped irrevocably shape the United States, but as I have learned more about him and have seen his house again, I can’t also help feel that he did not just serve mankind, but was also, at his core, selfish or self-indulgent. I could feel those undercurrents at Monticello.
I had known that Jefferson died in debt. He bought books and wines when he could not afford them, but his continual construction and reconstruction of Monticello was a chief cause of his indebtedness. Near the end of his life, he voiced concern about how his financial straits would affect others, but if he thought about this earlier, it did not affect his profligacy, and shortly after his death, because of his wanton spending, Monticello and his slaves had to be sold. Jefferson during his life tried not to break up slave families and even bought some slaves to reunite husbands and wives, but his debts at his death made sure that slaves would have to be sold and families ripped apart.
Jefferson’s home, upon which he spent so much time and money, is intriguing. It reveals his fascination with gadgets—the indoor-outdoor clock with its weights hanging through the floor, the machine to copy letters, the dumb waiter to bring up wine. But the home does not have a gracious, welcoming feel. Instead, it is a bachelor’s house primarily designed to feed the whims of one person. It does not show much concern for others who lived, worked, or visited the house. It seems self-indulgent. For me, the symbols of this were the staircases.
Jefferson’s study and bedroom were on the first floor. There seems to have been little reason for him to go to the upper stories. Jefferson thought that the grand staircases he had seen in Europe were a waste of space and did not design one for Monticello. Understandable. Instead, he had built two staircases in the house, but these are not the ordinary stairs that we are used to. Instead, they are both very narrow with a number of turns. They had to be hard to traverse. They would be especially difficult carrying a baby or a tray or anything at all. Women in those days wore long skirts, and surely the women whose rooms were on the upper floors had to be extremely careful in ascending and descending. I was not surprised when I learned that one of Jefferson’s adult daughters took a serious fall on the stairs. A house without a grand staircase can still have stairs that are convenient using only a little more space than these do, but not at Monticello. I wondered whether the stairs would have been different if Jefferson had had to use them regularly or if he was truly concerned about those who would use them.
The stairs, however, allow a bit more space on the floor that Jefferson inhabited. They suited Jefferson even if they inconvenienced, or were dangerous to, others. Somehow to me that was a metaphor for part of Jefferson’s personality.
On the other hand, I do have to have an abiding fondness for Thomas Jefferson if he said what is ascribed to him on a mug I bought at Monticello: “Coffee, the favorite drink of the civilized world.”